Gershwin musicals don’t come better than Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) starring Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant, and Leslie Caron. The sumptuous colours, outstanding choreography and toe-tapping tunes are nothing but first-rate. It is easy to see why An American in Paris picked up 6 out of 8 Oscar nominations back in 1952.
Set in the glory of turn of the century Paris, the story revolves around Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) a struggling artist who is discovered by a socialite heiress who admires Jerry for more than his art. The tension arises when Jerry falls for Lise, a young Parisian beauty who is engaged to cabaret singer Georges Mattieu (the exceptional Eugene Borden).
The story in some respects is by the by, it is the choreography and music that make this film. Its inception was in 1949 when Arthur Freed approached the Gershwins with a title and a loose concept. It was Freed’s central desire was to create a film that was a love song to Paris. It ties into the concept recently captured by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) of American ex-pat artists inspired by the beauty of the French capital (ironically none of the An American in Paris was filmed in the city, instead expensive and lush sets were created in Hollywood).
Rather than focusing on plot the songs and dances express aspects of the joie de vivre of Paris, including an impressive 17 minute dance number with no dialogue showing influence in its painterly quality artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh and Renoir. As well as the nods to the past the dance numbers are highly experimental for the time and posses a psychedelic quality that is highly captivating showing what an innovative film An American in Paris was.
Leslie Caron – who plays Lise – was of French heritage rather unsurprisingly launched her career at just 17 from this film due to her incredible talent as a ballet dancer. The film appears to be a chance for Kelly to truly demonstrate his multiple talents as director (he directed parts of the film due to Minnelli going through a difficult divorce), choreography, singer and actor. Oscar Levant further adds to the quality of this film with a magnificent daydream recital where he is shown conducting and playing both the violin and piano and his famous acerbic wit.
An American in Paris maybe a film that few dare to criticise (expect one magazine which called it one of the most overrated films of all time) but there is good reason for that, it is a masterpiece of 1950’s cinema and will never loose its appeal.