Best Picture: An American in Paris (1951)
By Witney Seibold on July 31, 2014
The 24th installment of Nerdist’s Best Picture series proves to be a 180° about-face from the deeper character dramas of the 1940s. We have entered the sometimes-grating era of frothy musical spectacle pictures with An American in Paris.
I suppose after the dank cynicism and seriousness of the 1940s, America was in the mood for something light. That’s the only way I can explain how we went from a bitter, bitchy, and often cynical dark comedy like All About Eve (which, in itself, followed up a string of wartime dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives and heady theatricality like Hamlet), and find ourselves immediately face-to-face with something as trifling as Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris. This is a film that is clearly a throwback to the lighthearted musicals of the 1930s, complete with a simplified story, a charming lead, and the old-fashioned dramatic notion that people can fall in love merely by dancing with one another for a few minutes.
If that’s the case, let me compare it to those musicals of the 1930s. The musicals of the ’30s were, as it is often said, the result of the Great Depression. People, now without jobs or money, longed for lighthearted stories of rich people living posh lives. The 1950s saw the post-war milieu kicking in. America had, in many ways, lost its sense of united purpose, and began oddly longing for the escapism of the previous generation. As such, several of the Best Picture winners of the 1950s were frothy Technicolor musicals and outright spectacle pictures. An American in Paris is, by the way, the first color film to win Best Picture, Gone With the Wind notwithstanding.
At the center of An American in Paris is the immortal and eternally smiling Gene Kelly. Kelly, one of cinema’s greatest dancers, is often credited for altering the way people see dancing. In the 1930s, the king of on-screen dancing was Fred Astaire. Astaire was small-framed, skinny, and virtuosic. There are few greater pleasures one can have at the movies than watching Fred Astaire dance. He was clipped and meticulous, mechanical to the point of perfection. Gene Kelly, by contrast, was taller, thick-bodied, and defiantly masculine. His style was more seemingly improvisational, his general thrust more abstract and modern. He was earthy. Astaire was an Aristotelian dancer. Kelly was Dionysian. I would argue Astaire was the better dancer, but Gene Kelly is still amazing.
The story of An American in Paris is pretty much disposable. A trio of young men living in 1951 Paris all aspire to be great artists. Jerry (Kelly) longs to be a famous painter, but is at the point in his career where he sells painting to strangers on the street and sleeps in a tiny apartment (the first scene of Kelly manipulating the Wallace & Gromit-like contraptions in his flophouse is a wonder to behold). Adam (Oscar Levant) longs to be a concert pianist, but also can’t land a real gig. And Henri (real-life French crooner Georges Guetary) seems to be on the way up in the world, headlining spectacular night club acts.
Jerry is taken under the wing of an attractive sugar mama named Milo (Nina Foch) who is clearly attracted to him, and wants to take care of him. Jerry, being a male of the 1950s, is insulted that a woman would have that sort of power over him, and he ends up pursuing the pretty 19-year-old Lise (Leslie Caron) right under Milo’s nose. Lise rejects his advances at first, but ends up falling in love with him. Oh yes, Lise is betrothed to Henri. As you can see, Jerry is a bit of a cad, exploiting poor Milo, and rejecting her legitimate advances for dumb reasons of male pride. Lise is a also a cad, as she hides her engagement from Jerry. She also doesn’t have much of a personality, being one of those shrinking ingenues that the hero must be attracted to for plot reason rather than because of genuine natural chemistry.
An American in Paris ends with an extensive dream ballet which, I have to admit, I was bored by. Not that it wasn’t spectacular, but it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie. Something similar happened in Gene Kelly’s forthcoming Singin’ in the Rain. The film stops, and 23 full minutes of a totally unconnected dream dance takes place. These sequences may play better as standalone shorts. As climaxed to the film’s emotional action, they are tiresome.
I admire a lot about An American in Paris. I liked the Gershwin songs sprinkled throughout (“I Got Rhythm,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” etc.), and it’s hard not to be charmed by Gene Kelly’s featherweight smiles and amazing dancing. But the film as a whole is – and let no one contradict me on this – a complete trifle. It’s a spectacle picture with little dramatic or emotional power. It’s bright, bold, 1950s color through and through. I guess that’s what the world was in the mood for in 1951. This will hold true the following year too, as The Greatest Show on Earth was also a pageant more than a movie. It’s also often credited as one of the worst Best Picture winners.
Join me next week for The Greatest Show on Earth.