Scattered thoughts on An American in Paris (1951)

What better film to begin my trip with? As some of you may know, I'll be studying in Europe this summer, starting with four weeks in Paris. Two days ago, I landed at the Charles de Gaulle Airport and it's been...overwhelming. I'll write a post on Paris at the end of my stay here, so for now I'll just say that there are a lot of mixed feelings. It's only day two, after all!

Even though I'm stepping away from writing blog posts during this time to focus on other exciting things, I've written things in advance so I wouldn't deprive my blog for two whole months. Plus, the blogathon addiction is very real. So, for my first film from my hiatus, I'm going to be babbling about An American in Paris. S'wonderful, is it not?


Well, for some people, it's not. I always had the viewpoint that everyone adored An American in Paris, an optimistic ideal that went crashing down once I got into blogging. While there are still those who unabashedly love this film, there's also a big camp of people who really don't like it, often saying they don't understand why the movie gets so much love. It was quite a shock to the system. But I'm not here to mock others' opinions. If anything, I'm hoping my piece will help the naysayers get the appeal of the film, or let them look at it in a different light. I'm not saying I'll get you to fall in love with the movie, but I'll try.

For a week or two, I struggled with how to write this post. I never like to write full-length reviews on well-known films because I figure that most of my readers have seen them and it could be tedious for both them and me. So, for An American in Paris, I went with a simpler approach: I watched the film and made notes of anything new I hadn't noticed before. Despite seeing this film numerous times, I was surprised that a few new things jumped out at me. Isn't it great when the movies do that to you?

Lisa's solo dance is an interesting statement on the complexity of people.
Yep, I'm gettin' intellectual right off the bat. Our introduction to Lisa is through Henri's description of her, which seems amusingly contradictory the first dozen times you see it, as if Henri is terrible at explaining Lisa. But then it hit me: that's the point. You can't easily explain a person within a few sentences -- everyone has multiple facets to their personality, and to say that Lisa is simply "an exciting girl" or "sweet and shy" would be selling her short, but put all of Henri's descriptions together and you get a more realistic and complete picture of the woman. Fortunately, the screenplay backs up its claims. Lisa can be quiet and contemplative such as when she is with Jerry by the Seine, but she also likes to go to fun parties like the Artists Ball. You can watch the sequence here.

What's the deal with Milo?
I'm exactly the kind of moviegoer the studio heads loved: I let the film take me on its ride, hardly ever questioning where the hell I'm going. Oh, our protagonist hates that person? Okay, I hate them too! That's why for the longest time, I haven't liked Milo. I enjoy her first few scenes with Jerry because Milo is a marvelous wit, but then she starts acting possessive and I'm done with it. During this viewing, though, I found myself wondering if I was giving Milo short-shrift. When it comes down to it, she is a harmless woman who keeps looking for love with the wrong guys. Her friend Tom mentions that Jerry isn't the first artist she has taken under her wing, but with the way Nina Foch plays it, it doesn't sound like she is some man-hungry heiress. Instead, she continually puts her faith in these artists, and when she eventually falls for them, she doesn't handle it well, resorting to jealous outbursts that drive those guys away.

I also get the feeling that the film wants to antagonize Milo for doing characteristically-male things, things that she has to do in a different way because she's a woman and it wouldn't be accepted as well if she just went ahead and did it. Confusing? I'll give examples. She is able to support herself, but she has to ask Jerry if he minds her picking up the check at dinner (spoiler alert: he does). She asks Jerry on a date, but she does it in a roundabout way by pretending she is inviting him to a party. (He admits he wouldn't have come otherwise.) At one point, Adam cracks at Jerry "Tell me, when you get married [to Milo], will you keep your maiden name?" On top of all this, Jerry kind of messes with her head -- one minute he is telling her off, the next he gives her a steamy kiss. He never tells her about Lisa so her sponsorship will continue. In the end, he leaves her just like she feared he would. I think now I can sympathize with Milo and leave the condemning to the movie.

All Gershwin, all the time.
An American in Paris really is a celebration of the Gershwins. Every piece of music you hear is more than likely a tune written by the brothers, which is just delightful. And these songs are picked carefully. In the cafe, when Milo and Jerry are talking right before he meets Lisa, the band is playing "But Not for Me," a song that is perfect for Milo. After Jerry meets Lisa, the song playing is "Someone to Watch Over Me," which again describes Milo but it could also be a nod to Lisa since we later learn that her engagement to Henri isn't based on romantic love. Fragments from the "An American in Paris" suite pop up periodically as well, hinting at what's to come in the end. If you pay attention, you can catch other popular Gershwin songs, like "I've Got a Crush on You" and "How Long Has This Been Going On?"


Gene Kelly is super dreamy.
Those chocolate brown eyes, that big, gorgeous smile, the tiny scar on his cheek that makes him seem so roguish... It would be easy for me to sigh over Kelly for days. He was meant to be a leading man, plain and simple. Jerry Mulligan was one of his most romantic parts, rivaled only by Brigadoon and Summer Stock. While Kelly could be brash and outgoing, he also had a beautiful, quiet side that I admire more. His gazing at Lisa while he sings "Our Love is Here to Stay" is enough to make my knees quake, so goodness knows how Leslie Caron was able to stand it in person. You'll also notice that throughout the film, he can't keeps his hands off of her. The best, most heart-melting part, though, is when he has to say goodbye to Lisa. Kelly's acting is wonderful, ending his speech with "Now what do I have left? Paris. Maybe that's enough for some, but it isn't for me anymore. Because the more beautiful everything is, the more it'll hurt without you." All of this led me to my next realization...

This may be Gene Kelly's best performance.
Bold statement, I know, but watching Kelly here sometimes feels like Jerry Mulligan is a real person who just looks and sounds a lot like Gene Kelly. His banter with Lisa by the Seine is incredibly natural, as is his English lesson with the French children. He does many little things that flesh out the character, such as playing with an unlit match while telling Adam how he feels about Lisa. It's a beautifully simplistic performance that is often upstaged by Singin' in the Rain when it shouldn't be. On top of that, you have some of his best dancing and choreography, adding up to a very complete vision of who Kelly was as an artist.


The relationship between Lisa and Henri still makes me a little uneasy.
I don't quibble over age differences in the movies, so that isn't the problem here. What makes me uncomfortable is that Henri seems more like a father to Lisa than a boyfriend. I mean, he kind of raised her during the war and their interactions together feel stilted. Like, you can tell Lisa isn't totally fine with this relationship, but she feels like she has to go through with it because of her gratitude towards him. It just doesn't feel entirely consensual to me, if that makes sense. I like Henri and he clearly wouldn't take advantage of Lisa's thankfulness if he knew how she felt (hence him letting her go in the last scene), yet there is still some element there that makes it feel less than okay.

The dance numbers are exceedingly simple.
I think people forget how restrained this film is. It never struck me before how pared down the routines are until this recent viewing. The clothes and the locations aren't fancy, with the majority of numbers happening on the streets. Even Henri's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" is relatively uncomplicated -- some lit-up stairs and a few non-dancing showgirls are as sophisticated as it gets. This approach accomplishes two things. Firstly, you pay more attention to the dancing and/or singing, giving the numbers more resonance. Secondly, it helps the finale pack a bigger punch, as if all along the movie had been waiting to unleash itself and it finally gets to in the end. This brings me to my next point, which is that...

The ballet finale really is genius.
Thank you to anyone who contributed to this sequence, because they helped create something so gorgeous and entertaining. The camerawork often stuns me, particularly the close-ups, and the cinematography is superb. The costumes are gorgeous, with a clear influence from director Vincente Minnelli, who loved to fill his films with color. I also like that Minnelli emulated different painters for each segment, encapsulating the look and the feel of several works. (For more on that, read here.) The choreography is tops, and the fact that Gene Kelly choreographed all of it is amazing. It's easy to see why that was the year the Academy gave him his honorary Oscar for his "versatility" and "his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography on film."

My favorite part of this ballet, however, will always be what I call the "trumpet section," or the part where Kelly and Caron dance on the fountain amidst fog and changing colored lights. It's sensual, romantic, and so delectable. George Gershwin's music here gives me goosebumps every time, from the wailing trumpet to its triumphant climax. Even the beginning and end transitions are impeccable. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places, but I could only find the finale in seven parts on YouTube: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, and part 7. The fountain dance is part 5.

The fake Paris doesn't bother me one bit.
Some of the grumbling I've heard about this movie is that the artificiality of its Paris is too distracting. Listen, shooting a whole Hollywood film in Paris in 1951 wasn't totally feasible, particularly when the masters at MGM could construct their own City of Light on soundstages in their backlot. I say this a lot, but I never expect realism from Hollywood -- if I get it, fine, but if I don't, it won't cause a meltdown. An American in Paris is fiction, therefore it is perfectly reasonable to me for its Paris to be fiction too. It is still utterly charming, and it's not glamorous by any means, although it easily could have been since this was coming from Metro. The setting fits the characters, and that's perfectly real to me.

Is it Lisa or Lise?
This varies with every source I look at. Part of me wants to call her Lise because it's French and that would make more sense for the character. But Jerry calls her Lisa, so is Lisa just his pronunciation of Lise or is it the American translation of Lise or is Jerry just trying to mess with my brain? For now, I'll just go with Lisa.

There is a ton of doubles.
Okay, so this isn't new to me, but it still intrigues me to no end. I wrote about this when I first began my blog and the answer has yet to come to me. You see, the film has a lot of pairs. Par exemple: Jerry has two women in his life; Lisa has two men in hers; the main men each get two introductions, one a fake-out and the other real...

The ending will always be one of my favorites in film history.
Jerry and Lisa running towards each other while the score swells could be seen as worthy of an eyeroll or two, but it hits me right in my soft little heart. They just want to be together so bad, and now they can be, and Jerry's got that huge, adorable smile, and everything is so wonderful. You can watch it here. No, that's not a tear in my eye, it's dust!

There is a man with a giant teapot on his head at the Artists Ball.
Personal hero right there.

With love,
Michaela

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This is part of Classic Reel Girl's Gotta Dance! Blogathon, a wonderful event about dance in film. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Comments

  1. Have fun studying in Paris!

    I haven't watched this in years, but I love it too. And it's such a beautiful post, I have to revisit it now.

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    Replies
    1. Merci beaucoup, Simoa! I bet you'll discover something new!

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  2. Michaela, How exciting to be studying in Paris--congrats! I'm honored that my blogathon was the first posted from Paris--makes me feel like a piece of me is there. =) Speaking of which, very nice post. I love how you organized your observations. I agree that Milo gets the short end of the deal in the movie. Over the years, I have come to like her and wish she had a better fate. I never noticed all the Gershwin tunes in the background. I will be looking for them in the future. And that ballet. It's perfect, isn't it? I think Kelly got away with quite a bit in that sequence, especially in the Chocolat piece. The censors must have had very clean minds. ;-)
    Thank you for participating in the blogathon!
    Bonnie

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment, Bonnie! It's nice to hear that my post is giving you something different to look out for. You're right re: Kelly and the censors. I always wonder how Leslie Caron got in trouble for her dance with the chair during "Embraceable You," but Kelly could wear a super tight outfit and do all that shimmying. Seems a bit like double standards, no?

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  3. Bless you for writing this, Michaela! I've seen a lot of AAiP hate online too, and I just can't understand it -- it's a wonderful movie. You captured its wonderfulness (its 'swonderfulness? :-) ) very well!

    Enjoy Paris!

    (I've always seen the name written as "Lise," if that helps!

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Gina! A part of me thinks AAiP gets an unfair reputation -- some people seem to think that it's striving to be great art with a capital A, but it really doesn't do that until the very end and I think it's totally okay that the filmmakers went crazy there. It fits with the film's theme and everything.

      Ah, the Lise/Lisa debate continues! One day I'll figure out the answer. I have a feeling it just comes down to personal preference.

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  4. Wonderful, wonderful analysis of this film! I totally know what you mean about "the shock to the system" when one discovers others hate something you love (like when I first found out there were people who didn't even like musicals or Sound of Music or something similar).

    Although I do not hate An American in Paris, it was never my favorite, a fact that as puzzled me deeply, which is why I periodically watch it to try to figure out why. Since I keep watching it, I must at least be fascinated by it. :) Your review, however, is so sensitive that it makes me want to give it another shot and look out for the things you mentioned...especially about the acting of Gene Kelly.

    Have a great time in Paris!

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    1. I feel so sad when people tell me they don't like musicals. I have to keep telling myself that it's their loss (after arguing with them in my head for 20 minutes).

      That's interesting that you keep watching it. I do that with Sleepless in Seattle -- maybe one day I'll understand the love for it. I sincerely hope my post helps you. I'd be interested to hear if it changes anything for you, particularly when it comes to Gene Kelly's performance. When that thought popped into my head, I called myself delusional, but the more I let it sink in, the more sure I felt about it.

      Thanks for reading!

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  5. First, enjoy Paris and your time in Europe!
    This film is so adorable! THe Gershwin brothers songs were what attracted me the most. About Gene, my mother was watching with me and during the ballett sequence she whispered: "look at that ass!" LOL
    Kisses!
    Le

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    Replies
    1. Haha! I have to agree with your mother -- I kinda think the same thing every time he does that "Chocolat" dance. The thing is, he wore those skin-tight outfits on purpose! His widow Patricia Ward Kelly has said in interviews that he wanted his clothes to be that way to show off his athleticism... and probably for the ladies, as well.

      Thanks for reading!

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