by David Cornelius
“An American In Paris” is almost an ordinary MGM Technicolor musical. I say “almost” because for a while, it does nothing out of the ordinary - it does it extremely well, to be sure, but it’s nothing particularly outstanding - and then comes the finale. Oh boy, then comes the finale. A thirteen minute “dream ballet,” set to the music of George Gershwin, transports the film from fun-but-ordinary to work-of-art. It is a dance sequence like none other in the history of the movie musical, a gargantuan production that fails description. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the teaming of Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli.By 1951, Minnelli had already helmed everything from musicals (“Cabin In the Sky,” “Ziegfeld Follies”) to comedies (“Father of the Bride”) to melodramas (“The Clock,” “Undercurrent”), and yet he was just getting started. The 50s would prove lucrative indeed for the director - following a string of smash hits, he would finally receive an Oscar for his work on 1958’s “Gigi.” Kelly, meanwhile, was watching his star shine brighter as well; he spent the 1940s showing off his gifts in such hits as “For Me and My Gal,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Three Musketeers,” and “On the Town.” By the time “Paris” was in preparation, Kelly had the clout to make a musical the way he wanted, inspired in part by the success of the ballet film “The Red Shoes.”
The third cog in the film’s success machine was producer Arthur Freed, a former songwriter who became one of the premier musical producers around. (He and Kelly would reteam one year later for “Singin’ In the Rain;” it would become their masterpiece, even if audiences at the time didn’t realize it.) Freed had faith in his star and director, allowing the freedom to make “Paris” their way.
“Their way” doesn’t become clear until that ballet segment kicks in - and then we understand just what Kelly and Minnelli can do with dance and film. The sequence, completely absent in words, spoken or sung, is a breathless exercise in combining art forms. Like the “Broadway Melody” sequence in “Singin’ In the Rain,” the “dream ballet” goes beyond conventional musical filmmaking, taking us one step further into the realm of fantasy. Here we have the exaggerations and simplifications (not a paradox, despite how it sounds) of a stage set brought to life. Minnelli does not merely film a staged dance number; he embraces it with his camera, placing us inside the world of dance itself. “Singin’ In the Rain” has the fortune of being a better film before and after its showstopping number, but “Paris” is the one that has the better showstopper. This is a masterwork of experimental cinema.
Surrounding it, however, is a movie that doesn’t quite match the power of its finale. The plot is paper thin: Kelly is a carefree painter who’s stuck between two women, one (Nina Foch) is a millionaire trying to buy his love, the other (the supernaturally cute Leslie Caron, in her film debut) is the real object of his affections, although she’s engaged, and to Kelly’s friend, of all people. It’s all a series of one romantic chasing a potential lover, which makes for some enjoyable - but mostly fluffy - moments.
This is not to say the film is unmemorable, however. There are several wonderful scenes, musical and otherwise; most charming are a bit that has Kelly teaching a swarm of French children how to sing “I Got Rhythm” (I dare you not to grin during this sequence - it‘s impossible) and a lovely piece of late night flirting that finds Kelly and Caron dancing to “Our Love Is Here To Stay” on the Siene banks.
In fact, the entire film is one big delight, thanks mainly to a carefree spirit and the screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner (who won an Oscar for his efforts) that, while not exceptional story-wise, is loaded with a fine wit and crackling dialogue, all helping to make the plot feel lighter than air. (The most quotable line: Kelly checks out Foch’s barely-there evening gown, remarking, “That’s quite a dress you almost have on… what holds it up?” To which she replies, “Modesty.”)“An American In Paris” was the surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar, besting expected favorites “A Place In the Sun” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And those are fine films, to be sure, but for an award that honors film production as a whole, perhaps the Academy got it right. “Paris” is a triumph of filmmaking. It is both comfortable entertainment, with the movie playing like a cool breeze, and eye-popping cinema, with its dream ballet acting as a showcase for what the movie musical can really do. This is a true work of art, from three of the best artists to ever work their craft.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=3285&reviewer=392
originally posted: 02/23/05 17:18:14