Confession time: I have a teeny bit of dance training. For two years I studied tap, ballet, and jazz with the late, great Betty Gentry. I also got a crash course in hip-hop and swing dancing before my tour with the Continental Singers. Four to six hours of just choreography a day, in addition to all the other rehearsal we had to do. For nine days straight. That is no joke, kids. I was never very good, but the training does come in handy, even though it’s almost twenty years later. I can still land a jump without clomping or hurting my feet. And I usually remember to P.Y.T. (Point Your Toes).
As a result, I have nothing but respect for dancers’ abilities, and I am in awe of people like Gene Kelly. The man was, frankly, a genius, not only as a dancer, but as a producer and choreographer. He excelled at integrating dancing of all kinds in his films, and classic Hollywood fans would be hard-pressed to pick their favorite of them. Ask around, though, and it won’t take long for 1951’s An American In Paris to come up. While it can be overshadowed by Singin’ In the Rain, which some critics like Roger Ebert consider to be the superior film, Paris is quite an accomplishment, both technically and artistically. Winner of nine Academy Awards, it was produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli. It not only represents Gene Kelly at the top of his career, but it shows his additional talent of introducing new faces to movie audiences. And of course, it showcases the music of George Gershwin.
The original piece, An American In Paris was written in 1928 after Gershwin’s trip to France. Gershwin had a habit of working the rhythms of a city into his pieces. Rhapsody In Blue reflected New York City, going between languidness and pulsing energy to late-night pensiveness, and An American In Paris reflected, well, Paris. Gershwin was so meticulous about authenticity that he incorporated some real French taxi horns he had bought into the piece’s premiere, and in the program he summed up what he was going for:
“The opening gay section is followed by a rich blues with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American… perhaps after strolling into a café and having a couple of drinks, has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simpler than in the preceding pages. This blues rises to a climax, followed by a coda in which the spirit of the music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impression of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has disowned his spell of the blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life. At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”
The film doesn’t at all adhere to this structure, but it does reflect its tonal ebb and flow. Naturally, the title piece wasn’t enough to fill an entire feature, and when Paris was in pre-production, Ira Gershwin made the suggestion to the Freed Unit that the rest of the film include other Gershwin pieces as well. They played it safe–most of the music that ended up in the movie had been used in other films, such as “‘S’Wonderful” and “I’ve Got Rhythm,” but Gershwin music doesn’t really get old anyway. Add in Gene Kelly’s strongman dance moves, however, and things go to a whole new level.
Like many musicals, the plot isn’t much to speak of, but it is there. Jerry Mulligan is an American veteran of the Second World War who decided to use his G.I. Bill money to move to Paris, where he works as an artist. He’s thriving personally, getting to know the city and making friends, but his funds are running low and he has to figure out what to do. Like other starving artists, Jerry sells his work on the street. It doesn’t take long for an art collector, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) to find him, and she arranges for Jerry to bring his paintings by her hotel. When he does, she invites him to a party she’s giving that night. Very casual, no big deal.
Right before this little interlude, Jerry meets his two buddies, singer Henri (George Guetary) and aspiring concert pianist Adam (Oscar Levant) in the little cafe below Adam’s and Jerry’s apartments. Before Jerry gets there, though, Henri regales Adam about Lise, the woman in his life, and the varied aspects of her personality. This is where we see Leslie Caron for the first time. When she was discovered by Gene Kelly, Caron was seventeen, a member of the Roland Petit Ballet of the Champs Elysee, and had no interest in working in the film industry. “I did it to please my mother,” she said later. Caron was enormously talented, but she still had to polish up her skills, and she had a tendency to dance with her knees open like a duck. Rehearsals were initially full of constant reminders to keep her knees pointing straight. She obviously got the picture, because her dancing in An American In Paris is smashing.
Anyway, Jerry arrives at the hotel that night to find the party is just he and Milo, and he immediately balks, because he doesn’t want to be a kept man. Milo has to talk fast just to keep him from leaving, or, for that matter, leaving the money she paid him for his paintings on the coffee table. Milo finally manages to convince Jerry that she only wanted to get to know him better, so he invites her to a little cafe. There he spies a young lady having dinner with friends, and he can’t resist asking her to dance. Or finding out her name is Lise (hmmm?) or where she works (in a parfumerie). He’s enamored; she thinks he’s a cad. Milo is just jealous.
Jerry calls Lise, who rebuffs him, then he accidentally-on-purpose visits her shop, where he talks her into meeting after dinner. Lise shows up, and as illustrated in a graceful dance by the Seine to “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” she and Jerry get along famously. She has to leave pretty quickly, though–unbeknownst to Jerry, Henri is waiting to meet Lise after the show he’s singing in at a nightclub.
This is where things get funny. Both Jerry and Henri exchange starry-eyes over the girl they love, and neither of them have any idea they’re talking about the same one. Lise does come clean with Jerry, though: During the war, her parents were resistance fighters and had to put her in hiding, with Henri as Lise’s protector. Not surprisingly, the two fell in love as well. Jerry is devastated. To top it all off, Henri gets a contract for a singing tour of America, and he asks Lise to join him. Lise feels as if she owes Henri, so in spite of her loving Jerry, she agrees to go with Henri.
The ending of An American In Paris seems like it would be a cut-and-dry downer, and maybe it is. Or maybe it isn’t. Who knows, there may be hope for Jerry. 😉
Interspersed in all of this, of course, is plenty of music and plenty of dancing. Among other numbers, Jerry entertains a bunch of Parisian kids with an athletic rendition of “I’ve Got Rhythm.” He and Adam entertain each other with Kelly dancing on top of Adam’s piano to “This Time It’s Really Love.” Adam, being of a quirky disposition, entertains himself by playing the “Concerto in F” with himself as the soloist, orchestra, and audience.
While the dance sequences in An American In Paris are first-rate, it feels as though Kelly made it just so he could include the seventeen-minute ballet at the end of it. I can’t blame him, though, if that was the case, because it’s really something to be proud of. The idea of it is that Jerry stumbles into a gallery of impressionist paintings, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Van Gogh. Lise wafts in and out of each painting, and just when Jerry thinks she’s there to stay, she disappears. The sequence is a mix of traditional ballet and tap dancing, often happening side by side. Here are a couple of snippets:
There have been many, many representations of Gershwin’s music on film over the years, and while An American In Paris retreads standards heard in other films, very few of those films do the music justice in the same way. Not even Girl Crazy nailed it quite like Paris, and Girl Crazy was well-done in its own right. It may not be long on plot, but An American In Paris is a masterwork in Gershwin, dance, and what made Gene Kelly such a phenomenon.
That concludes my Day One of the En Pointe Blogathon. There’s lots more over at Christina Wehner’s blog, as well as at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow for Day Two!