Retro Review: An American in Paris

By: Mark Di Stefano

Rating: 10 out of 10

The movie musical used to be the main attraction in cinemas.  The genre was at its prime more than half a century ago. With timeless classics like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, audiences were swept off their feet.  Some musicals however get swept under the successes of films of that caliber.  An American in Paris has become one of those films.  However, this gem is at the same level of those timeless classics, if not better. 

Gene Kelly is, and always will be, the epitome of what being a “star” meant.  He was the actor’s actor, and the ultimate dancer’s dancer.  Gene Kelly, in this 1951 picture directed by the renowned Vincent Minnelli, plays Jerry Mulligan, an American painter who resides in Paris.  His only friends are pianist Adam Cooke (Oscar Levant), and singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary).  When he meets Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) he instantly falls in love with her.  The problem though is that she’s with Henri, and someone else, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), has her sights set on Jerry. 

The music of George and Ira Gershwin makes this MGM musical a delight.  With songs like “I Got Rhythm”, “Tra-la-la”, and “Our Love Is Here to Stay”, the film’s appeal is that much higher.  Every single in this musical not only has catchy melodies, but meaning.  The melody for “Our Love Is Here to Stay” reprises itself throughout as Jerry and Lise’s song.           

An American in Paris can be a film regarded as a classic love story (which is true).  However, the film also embodies a connection between dance and love.  The scene where Jerry and Lise walk along the river, they dance to “Our Love Is Here to Stay”.  In the dance, the two performers are swinging around each other, and at certain points they would resist touching each other with their hands behind their back, to symbolize that they are hesitant to express how they feel.  Dance is not only an element, but a character in the film. 

The choreography and design in musical numbers are great.  In Henri’s “Stairway to Paradise”, each step of the staircase lights up when he steps on one, a cool sight to see.  Oscar Levant even has an instrumental number where he shows his skills on the piano.  “Concerto in F (3rd Movement)”, showcases his classical talent, and even his humor, where he plays every member of the band, the conductor, and the audience.

The greatest scene in the film is the end, where Jerry drops his torn drawing and dreams of Lise.  The “An American in Paris Ballet” is a 16 minute choreography number where Jerry chases Lise around different backdrops of Paris.  The backgrounds are filled with vibrant pastel colors that are reminiscent of Jerry’s paintings.  Gene Kelly choreographed the dances in this film, and his work on this sequence proved how versatile he was in how he danced (He won an Honorary Oscar in 1951 for his choreography, his only Oscar). The connection between Kelly and Caron is so magnetic and sensual. Add the low-lighting, warm coloring, and the slow pace of the music, the audience can’t help but to fall in love with these characters, and more importantly, the film as a whole.  The ending of the sequence where the camera tracks-in on a rose, the only color in that shot, sends a powerful message of love and near lost.  The entire number is one of the best scenes ever captured on camera.

 An American in Paris is a film that will stand the test of time.  This six-time Oscar winner including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography (Color), is a film that was considered an upset at the time, beating A Streetcar Named Desire for Best Picture.  However, when looked at closely, this is more then just a hidden gem.  This is a film that represents the best of the golden era for movie musicals.  Any musical released today won’t create the feelings felt when watching this film, because no other movie musical can be this special.

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