Monday, August 12, 2019

Gene is in Paris

Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is An American in Paris (1951). An ex-GI with ambitions to become a painter, Jerry remained in Paris after the war, and now lives hand-to-mouth, but relatively happily, in his adopted homeland. Well-liked by his neighbors, his closest friend is composer Adam Cook (Oscar Levant); otherwise he's a fairly solitary man, focused on creating a body of work. But in a 24 hour period, his world is upended - he meets Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy woman who aspires to be his patron (and perhaps more) and Lise Bourvier (Leslie Caron) who Jerry loves on first sight. Of course, there is an additional wrinkle - Lise is engaged to Adam's friend Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary).

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra provided the music in this screening of the film, and the ballet sequence that is the highlight of the movie was even more spectacular with Gershwin's tone poem for orchestra danced to a live orchestra. While the spoken dialogue was a trifle muddy at times, all of the music (and the songs) were exquisite in this screening (You can hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra play this magnificent piece here).

Directed by Vincente Minnelli and choreographed by Gene Kelly (with an assist from Carol Haney), An American in Paris (1951) is a daring film. The closing ballet is over 17 minutes long; from the time it starts until the picture ends, there is NO dialogue - spoken or sung. The number was also quite expensive to film - nearly a half a million dollars (TCM article), but Louis B. Mayer was willing to do it (the success of The Red Shoes (1948) helped convince him)
One number that doesn't get talked about often is the "By Strauss" number, featuring Mr. Guetary, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Levant and Mary Young, the flower seller who dances with Mr. Kelly. Ms. Young was 72 when she appeared in the film, and she is lovely as she waltzes with Mr. Kelly. A stage performer (she first appeared on Broadway - in a musical -  in 1899), she started her film career in 1937, primarily playing small roles - often uncredited - as older women. She worked in film and on television until 1968. She died in 1971 at the age of 1971.

This was Leslie Caron's first film. Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Sally Forrest, Jeanine Charrat, and Odile Versois were all considered for the role, but both Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli wanted a "fresh" face for the part. Mr. Kelly had seen Ms. Caron perform with the Roland Petit ballet company (AFI catalog); Mr. Kelly's widow later said that only Ms. Caron and Ms. Versois were tested (Los Angeles Times), but it has often been reported that Ms. Charisse had dropped out of consideration for the part because of her pregnancy (The Spectator). Though I'm not always a fan of Ms. Caron, she is excellent as Lise, giving the part a gravity that it requires.
One thinks of this picture as Gene Kelly's, but Fred Astaire was also considered - regardless, this is Mr. Kelly's part without question. His athleticism gives the character a strength that is essential for this man who has fought a war, remained in a foreign country, and thrown all his resources on a career that may or may not pan out.  Fred Astaire would later dance with Leslie Caron in Daddy Long-Legs (1955), but the chemistry just wasn't there. The pairing of Kelly and Caron is magical.

Maurice Chevalier was at one point in the running for Henri (however, his possible collaboration with the Nazis during World War II finalized that casting). Though Georges Guetary was too young and too good-looking for the character as originally conceived, the film doesn't emphasize the age difference between Lise and Henri as being the obstacle to their happiness - that she has found her perfect match in Jerry is the issue.
A number of familiar faces pop up in unbilled appearances - John Eldredge and Anna Q Nilssen are unbilled as Jack and Kay Jansen, as is Hayden Rorke as Tommy Baldwin (Mr. Rorke would become a television favorite as Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie). Take a good look at the Third Year Girl who criticizes Jerry's work - that's Noel Neill who would appear as the second Lois Lane in The Adventures of Superman TV series.

An American in Paris was nominated for 8 Oscars - it won six : Picture, Writing, Art/Set Direction, Costume Design, and Scoring (Director Minnelli and Film editor Adrienne Fazan were nominated). It was added to the National Film Registry in 1993, is #9 on the AFI's Greatest Musicals of All Time and #65 in the original 100 Years, 100 Films lists. It is truly a remarkable film. Here's the trailer to introduce you to these splendid dance number:

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