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An American in Paris



I broke my sequence of films that won the Oscar for Best Picture to leap forward to 1951 and an old favourite. An American in Paris beat four other films - Decision Before Dawn, A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis and A Streetcar Named Desire; I must admit that Quo Vadis is the only other one that I was really aware of. IMDB rates the Disney Alice in Wonderland as the top film of 1951, with A Streetcar Named Desire second and An American in Paris eighth. I think the only films from that year that I have seen are An American in Paris, Alice in Wonderland and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Apart from Best Picture, An American in Paris won five other Oscars: Best Art – Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Color Best Costume Design, Color, Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Here’s the trailer:



The film is basically a rather skimpy romance plot, knitting together Gene Kelly as dancing and singing Jerry, Oscar Levant as pianist Adam, Leslie Caron as young dancer Lise, and support from Georges Guétary as French singer Henri, to showcase some of George and Ira Gershwin’s best music, including the title piece (which famously includes taxi horns in the orchestra).



I love this film very much, but I am still going to start by listing some of the bits of it I don’t love so much. My usual complaint: almost complete whitewashing, apart from a male dancer in West African costume during the ballet scene. Apart from that, the ballet itself maybe goes on a little too long. Jerry’s behaviour to Lise when they first meet is pretty stalkerish (though I would argue this is somewhat redeemed in that she rapidly becomes an equal in the relationship, and he gets the same treatment in reverse from Nina Foch’s Milo). The implication is that Henri is too old for Lise, and Jerry is not, but in fact Gene Kelly was three years older than Georges Guétary. The supposedly French kids in the “I Got Rhythm” scene are rather obviously American.



But I must say I can forgive almost all of this for the gorgeous cinematography, the energy and the music. Gene Kelly is at the height of his powers here, a year before Singin’ in the Rain (which incidentally got only two Oscar nominations and no wins; but has aged much better.) Here’s his hilarious opening sequence:


Leslie Caron was only 19 when this was made, and is a superb performer - she is in her mid-80s now and still at it, having umpired a cricket match on Corfu in The Durrells earlier this year.


Back in 1951, her choreography is at least as demanding as Kelly’s. As mentioned above, I very much like the way she becomes his equal in “Our Love is Here to Stay”:


I don’t know any of Oscar Levant’s other work, but it’s noteworthy that he actually knew and had worked with George Gershwin; it must have been eerie to be performing his long-dead friend’s music for what is essentially a comedy film. There is an interesting darkness in his perfomance as the soloist, conductor, orchestra and entire audience for Gershwin’s Concerto in F:


Well, it was great to revisit this. I would have eventually got to it again, between All About Eve and The Greatest Show on Earth, neither of which I know anything about. Meanwhile I’ve set my post on Grand Hotel to go live on Saturday.

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