American in Paris (1951) Directed by Vincente Minelli. Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Nina Foch, Oscar Levant (113 min).
Gene Kelly’s ex-GI Francophile painter dances in MGM’s Paris to the irresistible tunes of George Gershwin. Seventeen year old gamine Leslie Caron makes her film debut, and Gershwin pal Oscar Levant supplies authenticity. The dazzling ballet in which French Impressionist paintings come to life is a triumph of the American musical.
For the brief years that encompass On the Town, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly was the undisputed king of the American musical film. He was around 40 when these films came out, and his knees were already starting to go. After these three magnificent films, his decline came rather precipitously. I was always a Fred Astaire person, but I learned to love of Kelly through the eyes of my daughter, who has watched On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain perhaps more than any other films. An American in Paris is different, for the character Kelly plays, Jerry Mulligan, is not the sunny optimist of the other two films. Jerry is a bit sullen and haunted, perhaps closer to Kelly’s own rather driven, perfectionist personality. But, it was this film that would win the Oscar for Best Picture, even though few would dispute to supremacy of Kelly’s un-nominated masterpiece, Singin’ in the Rain.
George Gershwin composed the music for a few films, like the Astaire and Rogers’ Shall We Dance and Damsel in Distress. He was primarily a stage composer, and there was at least one original Gershwin song in 49 Broadway shows between 1916-1936, before he died of a brain aneurysm in 1937, two months shy of his 39th birthday.
Arthur Freed, the head of MGM’s prestigious musical unit, attended a concert in the late 1940s which included George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris Suite.” George’s brother, Ira, was also in the audience that night, and they discussed whether MGM could purchase the title for Freed’s long dreamed of Paris musical project. Ira agreed only if all the music was his brother’s and the estate benefited to the tune of $300,000. The Gershwin song book was combed for appropriate numbers, and An American in Paris would be the only musical ever nominated for Best Picture without a new song. Because leading lady Leslie Caron could not sing, it was also the only important musical of its day with only male singers.
Vincent Minnelli was to be the director, and the script was by Alan Jay Lerner, himself a lyricist, who would go on to co-write the musical My Fair Lady with Arthur Lowe. The plot is merely a framework on which to hang a selection of elaborate musical productions.
Kelly’s idea to end the film with a long ballet sequence was viewed with alarm by the MGM hierarchy. They said such a thing had never been done, but in fact the Powell-Pressburger The Red Shoes had ended with a ballet a few years before, and MGM musicals often had extended, rather high-brow dance sequences and classical music performances. But, if Kelly was to get his ballet, the film would not be shot in Paris, promised at one time, but on the familiar MGM backlot. In later years, Kelly was a bit sheepish at having filmed a tribute to his favorite city in the studio, but at the time, the studio insisted the logistics of location filming were just too complicated.
The ballet backdrop was enormous, 300 feet long and 40 feet high. The sequence took six weeks of rehearsal and a month of shooting, would cost half a million dollars (plus the cost of 500 costumes) the most expensive musical number to date, and the cost of a modestly budgeted entire film. The film had already cost $2 million and could easily have been released without the concluding ballet. Arthur Freed backed up Kelly against the executives, insisting that without the ballet they didn’t have a picture. LB Mayer was no longer in charge of the studio, but his opinion still mattered. Mayer pressured his successor, Dore Schary, to tell the NY money men, “I feel so strongly about Gene, a brilliant talent, and Minnelli, so gifted…and Freed has impeccable taste. So, I’m telling New York this picture is going to be great because of the ballet—or it will be nothing. Without the ballet it’s just a cute and nice musical. So, that’s what we’re gambling on.” (Yudkoff).
Even as the picture was being filmed, the ballet had not been decided upon. At first, it was going to be in the middle of the film, and would retell the love triangle. But this, and the choice of the song “Somebody Loves Me” as the music was unsatisfying. Kelly and Minnelli hit on the idea of a more abstract dance expressing the painter’s emotions. They decided they wanted it to be postcard views of Paris, done in the style of different Impressionist painters. As it grew larger and larger, they decided they had to end the picture with it, because putting it in the middle would make the second half of the film a letdown. They came back to the American in Paris Suite because the music was complex enough for a lengthy interpretation. Minnelli and Kelly, aided by art director Preston Ames’ sketches and Irene Sharaff’s costume designs, persuaded the front office to back their wild idea. Sharaff’s original sketches that provided the blueprint for the design. Not being able to film in Paris was liberating. Rather than dancing through a succession of actual locations, the team was force to design a mad, extravagant Paris of the imagination.
The concluding ballet is striking for a number of reasons. Fifty years ago, one could film an uninterrupted 20 minute ballet in a major film and not lose your audience. Knowledge of the canon of Western civilization, which included European classical music and art history, was considered necessary to being well educated. In the subsequent, and justified search for a more diverse canon this core knowledge has been sacrificed. Rather than using the technique of quick jump cuts to stimulate the audience’s attention, there is an extraordinaryly dense amount of action on the screen. In studio days, everyone was under contract, so rehearsal time was virtually unlimited. There were not that many takes, because the dance had been worked out so well beforehand. Note how long the sequences are, and how much goes on within them.
An American in Paris is a tad morose for a musical. Gene Kelly’s suffering artist resents kept by the rapacious blonde Nina Foch. He searches for innocence in the face of youthful Leslie Caron, herself matched up with a much older man. Unlike many musical comedies, the discarded partners are rather pathetic, and there is no happy ending for them.
The film suppresses its spectacle until the black and white Artists’ Ball, in which there is so much frantic activity amongst the extras that the Production Code missed a couple of gay lovers. The sequence ends with the last words spoken in the film, almost 20 minutes from the end, a tribute to the power of music and image.
The concluding ballet includes a Raoul Dufy style Place de la Concorde, Auguste Renoir’s painting of the Pont Neuf, a street in Monmartre painted by Utrillo, changing to a carnival inspired by Rousseau. Van Gogh-ish Place de L’Opera (which he never painted) segues to Kelly’s impersonation of the famous dancer, Chocolat, at Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge.
Kelly discovered Leslie Caron, when she was 15. He had seen her dance in Roland Petit’s company in Paris, and went backstage to meet her, but her mother had already taken her home. He remembered her when he was sent to Paris to screen test a more well-known dancer for the part in this film, and insisted on screen testing Caron as well. This shy 17 year old girl was clearly the best choice. Fresh, charming and graceful, he felt her tentative English could be worked on by the MGM speech coaches later. “Gene was very intelligent and quick to assess the qualities and defects of his partners,” Caron later wrote. “There was hardly any time before or during a film to correct defects, so he would make the best of his partner’s qualities. He was a leader. Wherever he was, he automatically took command. He was fair and generous when mentioning, in measured tones, his approval. His disapproval was just as straightforward, and delivered in even tones which did not allow for any form of excuse. He was exacting, and his rebukes were feared. He felt responsible for me—my success or failure in the film.” (Morley& Long).
Oscar Levant had been a close friend of George Gershwin’s and was considered to be a formidable interpreter of his music. His sarcastic humor was the highlight of many a mid-century musical. Nina Foch was borrowed from Columbia to play Milo.
George Guetary was a cabaret singer famous in Europe, but unknown on these shores, even though he was starring on Broadway at the time in Arms and the Girl. He got the part when Maurice Chevalier refused it. The studio was surprised by this rebuff, because they offered him a lot of money, and because, after an absence of 15 years from Hollywood, he had been anxious to restart his career. But he refused, either because his ego would not permit him to cede the girl to the younger hero, or because of the whisperings of his collaboration with the occupying forces during WWII. For whatever reason, Guetary was the final choice, in spite of, or because, “he did not pose a threat to Kelly in the charisma department.” (Harvey). Rather a weak angle in the love triangle, this would be his only American film.
An American in Paris took eight months to rehearse and shoot, although most of it was shot in a month and a half. Under contract, the actors worked 6 days a week, 9-6 and another 1 ½ hours in costume and make up, a ferocious pace which taxed Caron’s stamina. The effort paid off in the spectacular dance numbers which will never be duplicated. She became one of the few actresses to dance with both Kelly and Fred Astaire (Daddy Long Legs).
Kelly was not only the leading man and the choreographer, but directed the camera during the dance numbers, too, which was the norm. He had two assistants, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne. They acted as coaches and also assistant directors when Kelly was dancing.
The scene showing Gene in his garret, with a variety of space saving contraptions, is reminiscent of a scene in Buster Keaton’s comedy short, “The Scarecrow.” Oscar Levant’s fantasy, in which he is all the member of the orchestra, recalled Keaton’s “The Playhouse.” This was unlikely accidental. In fact, Buster, a recovering alcoholic, was now employed as a gag writer on the MGM lot, and I suspect these sequences are his. He must have rehearsed with Kelly and Levant, while his young wife, Eleanor, was running through chorus numbers with the dance troupe, where she was under contract.
Kelly rehearsed the children in the charming “I Got Rhythm” sequence, he’d been a dance teacher for many years in his Pittsburgh youth, and was comfortable with younger performers.
Gene Grant painted Kelly’s pictures, although New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg had originally been engaged. He was a little too insistent in how his paintings would be used, both within and outside the framework of the film. MGM didn’t care for this, and Steinberg was released from his contract.
Vincent Minnelli was the director, but Kelly’s artistic oversight was strong. Minelli took a month off to direct another film, and he was also in the middle of his wrenching divorce from Judy Garland. As was often true during the studio era, there was no one auteur, but rather a collaboration between many creative minds.
“Our Love is Here to Stay” was the last melody that Gershwin wrote before his death, and the lyrics, written by his brother Ira, are not about romance, but are a love poem Ira dedicated to his brother.
Although An American in Paris has never been my favorite Gene Kelly movie, seeing a 35mm print on the big screen, with a large and enthusiastic audience was a revelation. The audience enjoyed the film hugely, laughing at many of the asides (and also some of the dated attitudes towards courtship) applauding a couple of the dance numbers, and enthusiastically at the end. The big Hollywood studio productions of the day were meant to be colorful, enjoyable spectacles, and An American in Paris fits the bill perfectly.
This film won Best Picture over A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. Since the musical was expected to lose, Gene Kelly was to receive a special award for his contribution to the dance, and Arthur Freed the Irving Thalberg Award. The Oscar night audience gasped in surprise at the outcome of Best Picture, only the third musical ever to do so. “The heart and soul of the film was Gene. An American in Paris still stays with us as an affirmation of the longest lasting love of the kid from Pittsburgh.” (Yudkoff).
Sources include: Gene Kelly: A Celebration by Sheridan Morley and Ruth Lyon, Gene Kelly by Clive Herschhorn, Gene Kelly by Alvin Yudkoff, Directed by Vincente Minnelli by Stephen Harvey, Hollywood Musicals nominated for Best Picture by Frederick G. Vogel.