An American in Paris (Blu-Ray)

Colorama: Color Lives, Breathes, and Dances in An American in Paris

If movie musicals had actual human personalities, then I would like to imagine Gene Kelly's An American in Paris locked in a sisterly rivalry with Singin' in the Rain. An American in Paris is like that overachieving older sister who won all the prizes in the beginning and got all the praise, while Singin' in the Rain is the raucous younger sibling that got overlooked a lot of the time. Fast-forward a few decades and now it's Singin' in the Rain that's come out the bigger success and An American in Paris that's failed to live up to all the promise. It carries the usual curse of the Best Picture winner; first, it was overrated and then it was underrated.

However, when you take another look at An American in Paris, you realize just why the Academy fell all over this thing in 1951. It's got Vincente Minnelli's direction, some incomparable Gene Kelly numbers, the irresistible sounds of George Gershwin (including ''S'Wonderful,' 'I Got Rhythm,' and 'Our Love is Here to Stay'), and an overwhelming fantasy of bohemian Parisian life that pretty much tosses reality over one shoulder. It's a dive into the swimming pool of pure MGM musical excess. I have to confess that while I prefer Singin' in the Rain overall (like Casablanca, it's one of those 'You Can't Not Like This Classics'), An American in Paris is ravishing in its own inimitable way.

The plot of An American in Paris is so gossamer-thin it makes the shenanigans of Astaire and Rogers's movies look like Charles Dickens by comparison. Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is the archetypal 'American in Paris.' He's a poor aspiring painter with a chip on his shoulder but an overpowering love for the Parisian streets he calls home. His best friend Adam (Oscar Levant) is a bitingly cynical concert pianist who never gives actual concerts. Through Adam, Jerry meets the successful singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary), who's currently overflowing with love for some mysterious girl and eager to help Adam and Jerry any way he can. But Jerry's luck quickly changes without Henri's help; a wealthy American woman named Milo (Nina Foch) discovers him on the boulevard and expresses a liking for his work. She takes it upon herself to become Jerry's promoter. Even though Milo makes it clear right from the start that she's interested in more than just Jerry's brushstrokes, Jerry's heart is soon captured by a sweet young French girl named Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). He manages to win her over, but Lise has a secret he doesn't know. A secret that ends up bringing Jerry closer to real fame and real heartbreak than he could ever have imagined.

An American in Paris has built up a reputation over the years as the most self-consciously artsy and high-falutin' of the MGM musicals; ambitious, yes, and admirable, but not nearly as breezy and endearing as Singin' in the Rain, or as warm and nostalgic as Meet Me in St. Louis. Critics of the film do have a legitimate point. The characters and relationships are very thinly drawn, even more so than in other musicals of the time. I find Kelly's protagonist to be genuinely unpleasant, a heel who's got no problem stringing along the wealthy Milo while stalking Leslie Caron's character. Oscar Levant, as his deadpan best friend, gets in some genuinely funny lines ('Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?'), but for the most part, An American in Paris is a musical for people who are happy waiting around for the next show-stopping dance number, regardless of character or story.

Despite having a plot revolving around a rather run-of-the-mill love triangle (or rhombus, really), the true passion that vivifies An American in Paris isn't the romantic desires of its characters, but the passion for art. The film's centerpiece is the sixteen-minute ballet in the finale, in which Jerry, believing he's lost Lise forever, imagines himself dancing with her through fantastical, constantly-changing sets echoing the paintings of previous masters. First, he pursues her through a crisp grey and white cityscape mirroring the work of Raoul Dufy, while female Furies, dressed first in white, then in red, urge him on, the dance growing more frenetic as his desperation builds. The ballet shuffles through a dazzling array of different artists and settings, including a Renoir-esque flower shop, an Utrillo-inspired alleyway, a rowdy Rousseau-like celebration, a seductive nighttime scene at the Fontaines de la Concorde in the style of Van Gogh, and a direct homage to the characters of Toulouse-Lautrec.

The entire sequence, set to George Gershwin's An American in Paris tone poem with no dialogue or explanation, is so feverishly beautiful in its imagery, so gorgeous and confident in the way it pays tribute to some of the greatest artworks in history, that it rocks me back in my chair every time. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a moviegoer back in 1951, watching this in a real theater. Every frame of the restored Blu-ray is stunning, but the closing ballet is justification alone for buying it. Watching Gene Kelly bend over Leslie Caron in the flashing blue and red lights of a Parisian fountain almost makes you believe you could really step inside a Van Gogh and breathe the colors he saw.

While the ballet is sometimes criticized for being too disconnected to the plot (which, to me, is like harping that your mouthwatering chocolate dessert was too disconnected to your steak dinner), it actually forms the perfect counterpart to an imaginary series of vignettes early in the movie. We see Jerry's friend Henri, in comic lovesick fashion, alternately describing Lise as enchanting, exciting, shy, modern, bookish, and lively. Each time his description changes, Leslie Caron's dancing style, costume, and mood shift to match it. We see that Henri, despite his love, has no real grasp of her true personality because he doesn't know her. When Jerry imagines her in the film's finale, he too sees her in different guises. The distinction between them is that Henri sees in her only a beautiful girl. Jerry is the lover and artist combined, the man who sees Lise in all the beautiful things he's ever known.

Although An American in Paris won no accolades for its acting, it's the film that brought Leslie Caron to the world's attention, and that's certainly something for Gene Kelly to be proud of. Kelly discovered Caron dancing at the Ballet des Champs-Elysees and remembered her when it came time to cast the female lead (Cyd Charisse, who'd been in the running, dropped out due to pregnancy). He saw in Caron the perfect combination of technical dancing skill and a fresh, authentically French charm that would make her the right foil for Jerry's brash American expatriate. Kelly's intuition proved to be correct, even though Caron, still very green and not yet fluent in English, only really shines in the dancing sequences. Both her introductory number and the epic ballet that closes the film, require Caron to be a master shape-shifter, turning sensual, dreamy, playful, or manic according to the changing fancies of the men who love her. Caron pulls this off so well that it's a disappointment whenever the movie reverts to straight dialogue and we have to watch her giggle unconvincingly at Gene Kelly's jokes. Still, the wheels must have been turning like mad in Caron's head the whole time because she was able to come forward a mere two years later and deliver an accomplished, achingly sincere performance in Lili which earned her an Oscar nomination. Clearly, Kelly's instincts about her were right on the money.

Of the actors in An American in Paris, it's Nina Foch that breaks my heart. Cast as Milo, the predatory rich woman trying to turn Kelly into a 'kept man,' Foch is chic, dignified, and capable of tossing off the perfect one-liner. In one scene, Kelly dryly tells her, 'That's quite a dress you almost have on -- what holds it up?' Foch, completely unperturbed, answers, 'Modesty.' Despite the fact that Milo seems to have an endless surplus of rich friends at her beck and call, she's hopelessly drawn to Jerry, ignoring his every sarcastic dig and the fact that he has no problem chasing after the younger Lise even when he's out with Milo. Nina Foch, stuck with the 'older woman' part at the ripe age of 27 (I like to think Angela Lansbury stopped by the MGM commissary to commiserate with her), still manages to bring out the human dimensions of Milo, making her misery and vulnerability at Jerry's shameless use of her into something very sympathetic. And after all, Milo is the only main character with no music or dance to express her feelings. Pity the woman who can only use words.

As in so many musicals, the characters of An American in Paris express their deepest emotions solely through song and dance. The exception is a speech Gene Kelly gives at the end to Leslie Caron before they part: 'I came to Paris to paint, like Utrillo did, and Rouault did, and Lautrec did. I loved what they've created and I thought that, maybe, something could happen to me too. Well, it happened all right, but Paris is not enough for me anymore, because the more beautiful it is, the more it will hurt without you.' How right it is that in An American in Paris, it's art that reveals love. Because you can't watch a movie like this and not feel warmed by how much its creators truly, sincerely love the human need for art.

Aubyn Eli blogs about color movies-and a whole of black-and-white ones-at The Girl with the White Parasol.