French Exchange – An American in Paris

By Viv Wilby

A charmless lunk

Before I get going, a disclaimer: I’m a Gene Kelly sceptic. I’ve always been baffled by Singin’ In The Rain’s unassailable position as the greatest musical (and one of the greatest films) ever made. I’m not going to rehearse all those arguments again here, but one of the biggest stumbling blocks I have is Kelly himself. I just find him utterly charmless. I can see that he could dance, that he introduced a muscular modernism to screen dance that had hitherto been dominated by the top hat and white tie of Astaire. But his grinning, his trying-too-hard hoofing and husky voice, I just can’t get on with at all.

But there’s a season of MGM musicals on at the NFT, and it’s showcasing his magnum opus – An American In Paris – so I thought I’d give it a go.

A few facts. This won Best Picture in 1951, beating off heavyweight competition from A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place In The Sun. It has an impeccable pedigree for a musical. As well as Kelly’s choreography, there’s direction from Vincente Minnelli, a script by Alan ‘My Fair Lady’ Jay Lerner, and songs by George and Ira Gershwin. It’s not an original book musical (George Gershwin had died in 1937), rather a showcase for some of their best-known songs (‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘S’Wonderful’, ‘It’s Very Clear (Our Love Is Here To Stay)’) and of course the title piece itself, a 17-minute orchestral work which closes the film, and which is heard in snatches throughout.

Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a penniless ex-GI trying to make it as a painter in Paris. He catches the eye of Milo, an American heiress, who promises to use her money and influence to further his career in return, it is strongly hinted, for sex. Meanwhile, Jerry has fallen for the gamine Lise (Leslie Caron) without realising she is the girl of his song-and-dance-man bud Henri. Providing sardonic support is Oscar Levant as Jerry’s best friend and fellow exile, a struggling pianist and composer with a classical bent (a nod to Gershwin there, I think).

It’s a flimsy plot at best, hampered by weak characterisation and the fact that it pivots on the desirability of Kelly. Henri surrenders Lise to Jerry at the climax of the movie for no other reason than that the plot demands it, and well, it’s Gene Kelly, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you give up your girlfriend to him?

The sexual politics have dated badly. Jerry pursues the reluctant Lise with a stalkerish zeal which I found genuinely discomfiting (I think we are supposed to be charmed), while the mature and independent Milo is derided as a predatory freak who emasculates the men she shows an interest in. ‘Have you changed your name?’ mocks Adam after Jerry returns from a date with her.

But in criticising the plot and script like this I feel I might be missing the point. Surely it need be nothing more than a framework on which to hang the set pieces? And indeed, the set pieces can make the leaden script worthwhile. The much-anthologised ‘I Got Rhythm’ sequence with the chorus of (not really French) kids is sweet and fun. And the delicate pas-de-deux between Kelly and Caron by the banks of the Seine is lovely. You can almost see the moment her reticence gives way to the first flowering of love. For me it recalled the probably more famous Central Park dance performed by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in Minnelli’s later film, The Band Wagon.

But there are others that add nothing, such as Henri’s nightclub act, an old-fashioned Ziegfeldian rendition of ‘I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise’ complete with illuminated stairway and statuesque showgirls.

On the face of it, the film’s most bizarre musical interlude is probably Oscar Levant’s fantasy sequence, in which he imagines himself in full evening dress giving a classical piano recital. We cut to the conductor and it’s also Oscar Levant, then to the first violins and they are all Oscar Levant and so on. He’s a character who has literally no role in the story, apart from the delivery of a couple of wisecracks, and yet here’s a five minute sequence about his interior life. But it was here that the film kind of clicked for me. This is a film that, in its best moments, is about creative fulfilment, and about Paris as a place where, for Americans, creativity can reach its richest expression. (As a footnote to that, Gershwin composed ‘An American In Paris’ in 1928, towards the end of a period which had seen a huge migration to Paris of American artists, bohemians and hangers-on.)

This idea is most fully developed in the ballet that closes the film and in which Kelly and Caron move through a series of tableaux recreating the different styles of (among others) Seurat, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s a fascinating collision of the European and the American. As Gershwin blended jazz with classical music, so Kelly mixes modern dance forms, tap and ballet, while the movie literally brings paintings to life. Most obviously, Kelly embodies the figure of the dancer Chocolat, in Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawing, Caron his iconic can-can dancer, while Aristide Bruant can be seen watching from one of the tables. In other instances, it’s the mood and tone of well-known paintings that are recalled, rather than specifics.

Has it altered my opinion of Gene Kelly? I’m not sure. I like my musicals character-driven, which this is certainly not. It’s at its best when at its most abstract, when working as a fantasia on the theme of self-imposed exile and creativity; at its worst when clunking dialogue and contrived situations drag it down to earth.

A final footnote: Minnelli, Lerner and Caron would unite a few years later for Gigi, another musical fantasy of Paris, and another Best Picture winner. I much prefer Gigi. The story (thanks to Colette) is altogether more sophisticated, there’s a better marriage of song, situation and character and Caron seems to me much more beautiful, but, in terms of showcasing what can be done with the musical on screen, An American In Paris is the braver film.

11 thoughts on “French Exchange – An American in Paris

  1. It’s a semi-comic dance, I can see that, but I can’t quite tell how funny Gene Kelly’s arse is supposed to be in the Chocolat dance. What a fab piece, VW, I loved it.

  2. Oh, I didn’t know this actual lithograph and looked it up. Chocolat is a black dancer (didn’t know that either). I think the comic aspect may well be racist.

  3. Great piece today, what a pleasant lunch time read. Personally I’ve always preferred the sophistication and ease of Astaire to the physicality of Kelly, but his choreography is just so fabulous to watch. Sometimes a little too dancery perhaps, a little too clever and loses his audience in a way that Astaire never does.. but that could just be me.

  4. I still maintain my Kelly love. It’s just that he finds it hard to balance his dancerliness with his meat-armed manliness because really he wants to be ALL man and ALL dancer at once. All his leading ladies are tiny dolls, while Astaire’s (who was a tiny doll) are big thighy ladies. So I think everyone would like Kelly more if he chose Ethel Merman, say.

    You don’t mention (and I think this is correct) that the ballet in this and the rest of them was due directly to the popularity of The Red Shoes. Sadly not everyone can mise en scene like Powell and it shows. Oklahoma has a bizarro dance scene as well I think.

    Oh and also!! Kelly as a gigolo is a lot like Richard Gere, isn’t it? I wonder why, talking of sexual politics, they have to have that bit in it. I suppose to make him and Lise more equal, but my it is odd.

  5. Yes, I’d read the thing about The Red Shoes somewhere, but wasn’t sure how much it was a direct influence (also, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never actually seen The Red Shoes all the way through).

    You’re right about the dance sequence in Oklahoma (it’s Laurie’s fevered sex dream), but another Kelly choreographed one in On The Time, which more like An American In Paris, is a kind of dumbshow of the whole plot of the movie.

    I actually really like Kelly in On The Town. Maybe he needs the balance of Sinatra. I was chatting to someone the other day about how Kelly always gets the pretty girl and Sinatra gets the plain one, and how this is completely the wrong way around!!

    Another On The Town — American In Paris parallel I wanted to mention but couldn’t get in is the introduction of the Leslie Caron character. Very like the Miss Turnstiles ballet in On The Town. Vera-Ellen oil painting en pointe.

    VW

  6. Sinatra doesn’t just get the plain girl, he always gets the old one. Perhaps because he was originally marketed as a very callow youth and was seen to appeal to women’s maternal urges. He gets the hot girl in Can Can but ironically that still feels wrong to me, because there’s the scene where Sinatra sets Shirley up to make a fool of herself and Louis Jourdan is incredibly lovely about it (1 point to him) and then in the next scene he does a Danny Zuko/Mr Darcy and changes himself into the type she likes by comedy-imitating Sinatra (scoring another point) but this just makes her realise she likes Sinatra. I tend to shake my fist at that point, but it’s another film with an embarrassment of riches that doesn’t get it right.

    1. A little tangential here, but I have say, Veal, I couldn’t agree more about Can-Can!! Usually I’m irked when Sinatra loses out on the girl (especially when he’s losing her to Gene Kelly), but I thought that ending was WAY off. Louis Jourdan proved himself a sweet, funny, understanding, perfect gentleman, and yet she goes back to Sinatra, who was a lousy schmuck throughout the whole film. It drives me NUTS!

  7. *Was* a bit tangential, sorry. I would also like to add that I just googled for pictures to refresh my memory and think Leslie Caron’s wardrobe in American in Paris must be about the ugliest of any movie from the 50s, especially the most recognisable outfit, the one with the waistcoaty thing.

  8. Great piece! I really enjoyed this despite also still loving Gene Kelly. Thinking about it though I like him most when he’s with Judy Garland (Me and my gal, Summer stock). She’s a bit more substantial (I don’t mean physically, I mean character-wise) as an opposite number than some of the airy fairy ingenues he’s often paired with, superclaude is quite right about that.

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