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An American in Paris (1951)
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Background

An American in Paris (1951) is one of the greatest, most elegant, and most celebrated of MGM's 50's musicals, with Gershwin lyrics and musical score (lyrics by Ira and music by composer George from some of their compositions of the 20s and 30s), lavish sets and costumes, tremendous Technicolor cinematography, and a romantic love story set to music and dance. Gene Kelly served as the film's principal star, singer, athletically-exuberant dancer and energetic choreographer - he even directed the sequence surrounding "Embraceable You." The entire film glorifies the joie de vivre of Paris, but it was shot on MGM's sound stages in California, except for a few opening, establishing shots of the scenic city. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most optimistic American films of the post-war period - with Paris at its center.

The film brought eight Academy Award nominations and won six of them - none of which were for acting: Best Picture (Arthur Freed, producer), Best Story and Screenplay (Alan Jay Lerner), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Musical Score, and Best Color Costume Design. Its nominations for director (Vincente Minnelli) and Film Editing were unrewarded. Gene Kelly received an Honorary Award from the Academy the same year, presumably for his contributions to this film - it was presented "in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film." Nineteen year-old Leslie Caron made her film debut as the young Parisian mademoiselle. It was one of only a few Best Picture winners with no acting nominations.

An American in Paris was only the third musical to win Best Picture. The two previous winners were: The Broadway Melody (1929) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). The film was also the first to win a Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture (comedy or musical) - a newly-created category - in the 1952 awards ceremony.

An American in Paris - and Gigi (1958), were among Minnelli's most successful films, and two rare nuggets of gold among MGM's Golden Age of Musicals. [The Arthur Freed unit at MGM Studios was well known for its production of other wonderful films: Singin' in the Rain (1952) that re-invented the musical in the 1950s, and Minnelli's own Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948) and The Bandwagon (1953), among others.]

It is an integrated musical, meaning that the songs and dances blend perfectly with the story. As in many musicals, the plot of this film is not its most important element. One of the film's highlights is its impressive finale - an ambitious, colorful, imaginative, 13 minute avante-garde "dream ballet" costing a half million dollars to produce. The pretentious sequence, featuring an Impressionistic period daydream in the style of various painters, is one of the longest uninterrupted dance sequences of any Hollywood film, and features the music of George Gershwin. [The success of the balletic themes in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's British film The Red Shoes (1948) inspired Minnelli to follow suit - he had experimented with shorter ballet sequences in his earlier films Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946).]

The Story

After the credits and a brief travelogue of Paris, a voice-over describes the setting:

This is Paris. And I'm an American who lives here. My name, Jerry Mulligan, and I'm an ex-GI. In 1945, when the Army told me to find my own job, I stayed on. And I'll tell you why. I'm a painter. All my life that's all I've ever wanted to do.

Carefree, but struggling and penniless young artist, ex-GI Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) has remained in Paris following World War II to paint and study art. He explains the lure of Paris:

And for a painter, the Mecca of the world for study, for inspiration, and for living is here on this star called Paris. Just look at it. No wonder so many artists have come here and called it home. Brother, if you can't paint in Paris, you'd better give up and marry the boss' daughter. We're on the Left Bank now. That's where I'm billeted. Here's my street. In the past couple of years, I've gotten to practically know everyone on the block. And a nicer bunch you'll never meet.

He provides another view of why he came to Paris to study painting:

Back home, everyone said I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French. I live upstairs. No, no, no, not there. One flight up. Voila.

Jerry who lives on the West Bank, appears lighthearted and optimistic. He is happy to be living and working in an efficiently-organized but cramped apartment two flights above a cafe in a Montmartre garret. He is first seen through the window of his cramped and confining space. He uses many "Rube Goldberg"-like mechanical contrivances in a choreographed set of actions to save space - a rope tugs his bed up out of the way, and a shelf folds up to make a table. He is popular with the neighbor kids because he gives them American bubble-gum.

One of his "very good friends in Paris" introduces himself in voice over:

Adam Cook is my name. I'm a concert pianist. That's a pretentious way of saying I'm unemployed at the moment.

With sardonic wit and a droll, morose sense of humor, aspiring American concert pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) explains that he has won his eighth scholarship/fellowship to study abroad, is homesick and feels like "the world's oldest child prodigy." Jerry's Montmartre friend describes his mordant character:

It's not a pretty face, I grant you, but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character. I like Paris. It's a place where you don't run into old friends, although that's never been one of my problems.

Adam used to work as an accompanist fifteen years earlier for successful music-hall star entertainer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary in his only American film appearance). Henri pauses before a mirror to assure himself that he is still the dapper-looking music hall idol of years earlier, even though he is aging. Henri excuses his graying hair and older age:

Let's just say I'm old enough to know what to do with my young feelings.

Adam plays piano in the nearby downstairs bistro. There, Henri shows Adam a picture of his 19 year old girlfriend/fiancee Lise Bouvier (young teen Leslie Caron in her screen debut), a beautiful dancer who works in a French perfume shop. He had rescued her from the Nazis years earlier when her father was a Resistance leader and she was orphaned. Henri raised her in his own home. Adam makes the obvious point: "Shocking degenerate." Henri explains how he grew to love her after she blossomed into womanhood: "She was a little girl then. We only became in love after she left." Adam is skeptical of the age discrepancy: "She's a little young for you, isn't she kid?" Lise is described as a fun loving dancer, with great vitality and enchanting beauty: "She has great vitality, joi de vivre, she loves to go out and have fun and dance. She would dance all night...She's an enchanting girl, Adam. Not really beautiful. And yet, she has great beauty."

As Henri tries to explain to Adam what Lise is really like, we see five different aspects of her personality, conveyed in a montage of dance styles, costumes and color schemes or settings projected on a cafe mirror. Each balletic vignette is danced and scored to "Embraceable You," each with a different Gershwin tune. Lise conveys five guises, moods, styles, or aspects of her character: exciting or sexy, sweet and shy, vivacious and modern, studious while reading, and gay or athletic. At the end of the descriptions, the screen splits into five diamond-shaped parts to show images of all five vignettes, all from Henri's subconscious imagination.

In the cafe, Jerry is introduced to Henri, Adam's friend. Jerry struggles to sell his paintings in Montmartre. His first potential customer is appalled by the lack of perspective in his paintings, and he tells her to move on. She is labeled as "one of those third year girls who gripe my liver...You know, American college kids. They come over here to take their third year and lap up a little culture...They're officious and dull. They're always making profound observations they've overheard."

Jerry's fortunes appear bright when he is discovered by Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy, attractive American patroness who purchases two of his paintings - to his complete surprise. When he questions her name, she breezily explains it to him: "As in Venus de." Jerry is driven in her chauffeured green car to her hotel to be paid. He accepts a drink of sherry, and learns she acquired her wealth as an heiress to a sun-tan oil empire, clarifying: "There's a lot of red skin in America." She smoothly invites him to a small party in her hotel room later that evening. She hopes to win Jerry's heart by buying his paintings, promoting his career, and helping to sponsor him in the Paris art world.

After teaching a streetful of adorable Parisian children some American words, Jerry exuberantly tap dances and teaches them to sing an American song, "I Got Rhythm," partly in French and partly in English, while he dances and leaps down the block.

At Milo's party, Jerry appears to be the only guest. He admires the would-be patron's one-shouldered white gown in one of the film's most famous lines:

That's, uh, quite a dress you almost have on. What holds it up?

She cleverly replies "modesty," and they share a drink.

Jerry: I see it's a formal brawl after all.
Milo: What makes you think that?
Jerry: Well, the more formal the party is, the less you have to wear.
Milo: Oh, no. You're quite wrong. It's most informal.
Jerry: Where is everybody?
Milo: Here.
Jerry: Downstairs?
Milo: No. Here in this room.
Jerry: What about that extra girl?
Milo: Ha, ha. That's me.
Jerry: Ohhh! You mean the party's just you and me.
Milo: That's right.
Jerry: Oh I see. Why that's kind of a little joke, isn't it?
Milo: In a way.

Jerry refuses to be bought and made a kept man, returns her "dough" for the paintings, and decides to "run along." Milo asks him to stay, but Jerry declines. He self-righteously rejects Milo's patronistic support - she fails to ignite any amorous spark in his heart: "You must be out of your mink-lined head. I know I need dough but I don't need it this badly. If you're hard up for companionship, there are guys in town that do this kind of thing for a living. Call one of them." Following his "righteous" display of his honor and "male initiative," Milo explains why she invited him. She attempts to explain she is more interested in his painting talent than in him personally or romantically: "I'm simply interested in your work and I want to get to know you better. Now is that such a crime?...I want to help you. I think you have a great deal of talent. Now it doesn't hurt to have somebody rooting for you, does it?" Jerry is persuaded to remain in her company, but at a place he can afford for dinner. They go to the Cafe Flaubert on Montparnasse.

In the Montmartre nightclub, Milo explains her access to important art world connections: "I want to bring you to the attention of the important dealers," she tells him. She offers to be his sponsor: "They know me. I'm a big customer. We have a large collection at home. I could sponsor you, talk about you, encourage you, and then when you've done enough canvasses, I could arrange for your first show. That is, if you'll let me." Jerry wants clarity on her motivations: "Sounds great, but, uh, what's in it for you?" he asks. "Well, just the excitement of helping somebody I believe in and finding out if I'm right." She also introduces him to Tommy Baldwin (Hayden Rorke), one of her art acquaintances, and she encourages Baldwin to support Jerry on the art pages of the Paris Telegram.

In a chance encounter in the club - as in most musical comedies - he spots the beautiful, young but elusive Lise Bouvier and is immediately captivated and attracted to her. So completely taken by her, he rudely asks Tommy if he knows the "very special doll" sitting at the other table. Leaning back in his chair to hear the conversation at Lise's table, he learns her name. Outright callous to Milo, he flirts with Lise on his first night out with his patroness. Jerry pulls Lise onto the dance floor, pretending to know her - she rebuffs him. "Well, you're certainly not without your nerve, Monsieur," she first tells him. To calm her, he briefly sings "Our Love is Here to Stay" to her as they dance pas de deux: "It's very clear. Our love is here to stay." The frame is tightly held around them as the camera follows their movements. Soon the music stops, and she insists on returning to her own table, but not before he persists and learns her work phone number. In the meantime, he has shown no regard for Milo, his date of the evening.

Returning home in her limo from the club, Milo decides she has had enough of him but she also feels wounded pride. She reprimands his behavior in an angry torrent of words: "I can tell you, I didn't like your exhibition tonight. I thought you were very rude...If you insist on picking up stray women, that's your own affair but from now on, don't do it when you're with me. Is that clear?"

The next morning, there are alternating scenes of persistent pursuit - of Jerry for Lise, and Milo for Jerry. He is undeterred in getting a date with Lise. He calls her at the perfume shop but is again rebuffed: "Last night you were a small annoyance but today you are growing into a large nuisance. Now leave me alone and don't call me again ever." Dejected, Jerry is joined at his cafe table by Milo, who explains she has already been hard at work early that morning to support his art work with dealers and galleries. She apologizes for the previous night's tiff, and he agrees to meet her for lunch to discuss his sponsorship.

Jerry visits the perfume shop and asks Lise to go out with him. Lise observes his obnoxious persistence and fends him off: "It's a pity you don't have as much charm as you have persistence." Breaking down her defenses, she finally agrees to keep a date with him at 9 pm at the Cafe Belle Ami by the bridge next to the Seine. "Mademoiselle, there is no happier man in Paris than Monsieur Mulligan at this moment," he beams.

A romantic Jerry is so exuberant and happy over his newfound love for Lise that he bounds up to Adam's garret, where he finds his friend playing on the piano. Jerry joyfully sings and dances to "Tra-La-La-La": "This time it's really love, tra-la-la-la, I'm in that blue above, tra-la-la-la." A dour cynic, Adam plays the piano to accompany him and later joins him in the singing. Jerry ends up tap-dancing all over his friend's place, even on top of the piano.


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