By Viv Wilby
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.