AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is one of a number lavishly praised musicals that leave this less than dazzled viewer more likely to be caught snoring than tapping a toe or happily humming. Unlike a lot of naysayers (usually man-men uncomfortable with effervescent joy), we have no issue with the artifice of the generally giddy genre, enjoy catchy show tunes as much as the next lifer in jailhouse rock and have no fear of cutting a rug to pieces when the spirit moves, or when said moves will do the trick. We commend this 1951 hit for its innovative approach, complex choreography, Technicolor palette, its ebullient good nature, Gene Kelly’s acrobatics and for introducing the world to the 19-year-old charmer Leslie Caron. Merci beaucoup, and for the last merci du fond du coeur. BUT!—there’s no way this elegantly conceived trifle deserved six Oscars, especially ‘Best Picture’. Give forth with multiple breaks, already. *
Former G.I. ‘Jerry Mulligan’ (Kelly, 38) fell for Paris in WW2 and returned to try and make it as an artist. Good luck gets him sponsored by rich heiress ‘Milo Roberts’ (Nina Foch, 27 and by then typecast) but fate shows up with Cupid when Jerry lays peepers on ‘Lise Bouvier’ (Caron), who, as script would have it, is promised to another. What’s a cheeky Mulligan to do but chuck courtesy into the Seine and unlimber svelte sufficient to show ool-la-Lise who holds veto power over NATO?
The storyline is flimsy, it’s overlong at 115 minutes and you have to put up with supposedly charming Oscar Levant (fine when he’s on the piano, otherwise his brand of toneless sarcasm is a matter of taste). Kelly reprises his familiar film persona—cheery, determined, selfish—but his dance combo of power and grace is faultless, his elaborate and intricate choreography of the 17-minute showstopper finish is stellar. The music of George & Ira Gershwin will command a listen even if the bright visuals don’t do the trick (everything except a few establishing shots done on soundstages). And gamine Leslie Caron alone will suffice, a pixie with elegance, humor, heart and sex appeal. Like if Tinkerbell was older and taller.
For whatever reasons—split votes, arm-twisting from the Metro brass—when the Academy Awards rolled around, this was not only a surprise winner for Best Picture, but scooped Story & Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Costume Design. Nominations went to Vincente Minnelli for Director, and to the Film Editing. Plus Kelly was given a Special Award saluting his all-round versatility, extra mention going to his choreography skills. We’ll go along with the awards for Scoring of a Musical Picture, Costume Design and the thank-you tribute for Kelly. As for the others, merci mais pas de cigare. So slap me with a slipper.
After Quo Vadis, it was the year’s costliest and riskiest (will the crowds go for all that ballet?) production, the tab running up $2,700,000, fully 17% of that for the extravagant finale alone. Though rival Show Boat bested it by a few notches, the finely crafted foofery caught fan fancy and was the year’s 7th most-seen motion picture, eventually grossing $12,000,000.
With Georges Guetary, Madge Blake, Hayden Rorke, Noel Neill.
* Not only were the rest of the nominees for Best Picture better (Decision Before Dawn, A Place In The Sun, Quo Vadis, A Streetcar Named Desire), so were The African Queen, The Thing, Strangers On A Train, Bullfighter And The Lady and a half-dozen more. Prior to the big night, Kelly had offered “There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas. It’s a form of snobbism, the same sort that perpetuates the idea that drama is more deserving of Awards than comedy.” Then the following year, Singin’ In The Rain, a 4-course meal next to this bon bon, got a mere two nominations. Phooey!
With all respect to the endlessly energetic Gene, disproving his frown about genre recognition, down the road huffed and puffed other song & dance ‘classics’ that would tweak yours truly’s sense of, well, sense, over their avalanche of Academy accolades, in the forms of Gigi, My Fair Lady and Chicago. Criticizing them is akin to shooting at Santa.(Don’t get me started on Doctor Doolittle, Hello Dolly!, Star! or Yentl.) To counter that heretical stance, let’s can the hisses and hear it for a few examples of the unjustly overlooked, gems like Damn Yankees, Bye Bye Birdie, A Hard Day’s Night, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and Walk Hard. Take that from a Dewey fan!