My straight-to-the-point review of An American in Paris is that it felt like a drag to sit through. I know that sounds like such a whiney comment to make about an entire film. But if one can’t be honest on the pages of their own blog, then where can one deposit an unvarnished opinion every now and then? It’s not that I entirely disliked An American in Paris, not at all. There were nuggets of entertainment here and there to enjoy. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy or appreciate movie musicals. Au contraire haters, it’s a genre that I relish more than all of the cheap relish in all the ball parks in America. OK, I don’t relish them that much, but there’s relish, baby.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, yes that would be Liza’s dad, An American in Paris penciled eight Academy Award nominations on its dance card, waltzing off with six wins, including Best Picture for 1951. It is the second musical to win Oscar’s top offering, after The Broadway Melody, as well as the second color motion picture to win, after Gone with the Wind. Produced by MGM music man Arthur Freed, An American in Paris is considered part of a new chapter of Hollywood musicals. Several pages of this chapter were written by Freed and his colleagues at MGM, but throughout the 1950s and 1960s, other studios produced melodic motion pictures that sang the right tunes on Oscar night, making it the Golden Age for the movie musical, both literally and figuratively.
An American in Paris is a candy-coated jukebox musical comedy centering on the romantic adventures of Jerry Mulligan, a WWII veteran transplanted to Paris to follow his dreams of becoming the next Van Gogh. Although Jerry’s artistic endeavors fail to attract public attention, his charm and charisma do come to the attention of Milo Roberts, a bored and lonely socialite who decides to finance Jerry’s career in hopes of inspiring a romantic pursuit. Unfortunately for Milo, The Beatles had not yet made the scene, preventing her from becoming the beneficiary of their musical wisdom that individuals cannot purchase the affections of another. And despite her best efforts, Milo is left to harvest the fruits of frustration as Jerry’s heart palpitates for Lise Bouvier, a sweet perfume shop girl. Unbeknownst to the love struck Jerry, however, is the fact that Lise is already involved with a Henri, a successful stage performer, setting Lise on a path toward making the most difficult decision of her life.
Apart from the lackluster screenplay, several other reasons account for the bland trenches which An American in Paris finds itself wading through. Perhaps the deepest one is the lack of any stellar or standout performances from the principles players. Not that I’m familiar with Gene Kelly’s entire cinematic oeuvre, but of all of his films that I have seen, he rarely strays from the tried-and-true elements that made him an All-American star, much like Bing Crosby. There is no denying that what Kelly does, he does it well. But unfortunately, being an exceptional dancer does not translate into strong acting. This fact is on full display in An American in Paris, as he dances his way through a flat, forgettable performance that is borderline annoying for its over indulgence in optimism and aww-shucksness.
On equal footing with Kelly on this account is Leslie Caron. An American in Paris marked her film debut, so one can dole out a measure of forgiveness for any lack of acting experience that appears in her performance, particularly as she proved a more capable actress in subsequent films. However, in delivering her dialogue opposite Kelly, she does seem somewhat lost in her navigations. In some scenes it felt as though she was just awkwardly repeating lines, hoping they sound right, instead of saying them with ownership and understanding. She appears to take refuge in one or two notes of her character, leading her to play them over and over, putting her on a collision course to becoming just another garden-variety love interest. It’s only when Caron is dancing with Kelly that she appears confident and comfortable onscreen, making it obvious that these two excel much more at communicating through dance than through speech.
Despite her deficiencies as an actress, Caron still emerges to be a delight to watch onscreen. Her angelic features, pixie cut and chic French style add a touch of mink to every scene she appears in. Her features seem like a fashion designer’s heaven-sent inspiration or an advertising executive’s dream. And her beauty has a gravitational pull that injects the screen with a certain je ne sais quoi quality that does pique one’s curiosity.
The last detrimental point I’ll mention is the film’s music and dance numbers. As I mentioned, the film employs the musical compositions of the great Ira Gershwin, whose works always remain pleasing. Similarly, Kelly choreographed all of the dance numbers, which are inventive, colorful, and, in the case of the finale, downright epic. Taken in isolation, these artistic moments are enjoyably entertaining to watch, particularly the opulent finale. But in the context of the film, many of these numbers feel more wedged into the story, as opposed to pieces of a puzzle that glide nicely into place to aid in the construction of a larger picture. The effect is that the plot is never able to gather or sustain any level of momentum, due to the narrative disturbances caused by the high frequency of song-and-dance numbers. In a musical, the music should feel effortless and in sync with the plot, serving to move it along. But for me, the music felt more like a series of interruptions from the story at hand, causing the whole narrative to taste diluted.
If all Americans in Paris were as lame as the American in An American in Paris, then no wonder the French have a reputation of not caring for Americans. For my money, anyone interested to become acquainted with a Gene Kelly musical should skip this overrated entry into the canon of movie musicals and just pick up a copy of Singin’ in the Rain. In that classic, Kelly’s feet deliver an impressive performance, and his lack of acting skills ironically suits the character, allowing the Gene Kelly charm and charisma to stick, which is more than can be said of An American in Paris.
Favorite Line: In a conversation between Gene Kelly’s struggling artist Jerry Mulligan and his pal Adam Cook, an unnoticed concert pianist, the latter is razzing the former over his seductive socialite sponsor, Milo Roberts. Cook delivers a good zinger when he jokingly asks Jerry, “Tell me, when you get married will you keep your maiden name?”