Great films V
Great films V
An American in Paris (1951) is one of the greatest, most elegant, and most celebrated of MGM’s 50’s musicals, with Gershwin lyrics and musical score (lyrics by Ira and music by composer George from some of their compositions of the 20s and 30s), lavish sets and costumes, tremendous Technicolor cinematography, and a romantic love story set to music and dance. Gene Kelly served as the film’s principal star, singer, athletically-exuberant dancer and energetic choreographer – he even directed the sequence surrounding “Embraceable You.” The entire film glorifies the joie de vivre of Paris, but it was shot on MGM’s sound stages in California, except for a few opening, establishing shots of the scenic city. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most optimistic American films of the post-war period – with Paris at its center.
The film brought eight Academy Award nominations and won six of them – none of which were for acting: Best Picture (Arthur Freed, producer), Best Story and Screenplay (Alan Jay Lerner), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Musical Score, and Best Color Costume Design. Its nominations for director (Vincente Minnelli) and Film Editing were unrewarded. Gene Kelly received an Honorary Award from the Academy the same year, presumably for his contributions to this film – it was presented “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” Nineteen year-old Leslie Caron made her film debut as the young Parisian mademoiselle. The film was also the first to win a Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture (comedy or musical) – a newly-created category – in the 1952 awards ceremony.
An American in Paris – and Gigi (1958), were among Minnelli’s most successful films, and two rare nuggets of gold among MGM’s Golden Age of Musicals. [The Arthur Freed unit at MGM Studios was well known for its production of other wonderful films: Singin’ in the Rain (1952) that re-invented the musical in the 1950s, and Minnelli’s own Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948) and The Bandwagon (1953), among others.] It was one of the few musicals ever voted Best Picture in Oscar history, and one of only a few Best Picture winners with no acting nominations.
It is an integrated musical, meaning that the songs and dances blend perfectly with the story. As in many musicals, the plot of this film is not its most important element. One of the film’s highlights is its impressive finale – an ambitious, colorful, imaginative, 13 minute avante-garde “dream ballet” costing a half million dollars to produce. The pretentious sequence, featuring an Impressionistic period daydream in the style of various painters, is one of the longest uninterrupted dance sequences of any Hollywood film, and features the music of George Gershwin. [The success of the balletic themes in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s British film The Red Shoes (1948) inspired Minnelli to follow suit – he had experimented with shorter ballet sequences in his earlier films Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946).]
After the credits and a brief travelogue of Paris, a voice describes the setting:
This is Paris. And I’m an American who lives here. My name Jerry Mulligan. And I’m an ex-GI. In 1945, when the Army told me to find my own job, I stayed on and I’ll tell you why. I’m a painter. All my life, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
Carefree, but struggling and penniless young artist, ex-GI Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) has remained in Paris following World War II to paint and study art. He explains the lure of Paris:
And for a painter, the Mecca of the world for study, for inspiration, and for living is here on this star called Paris. Just look at it. No wonder so many artists have come here and called it home. Brother, if you can’t paint in Paris, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter.
He provides another view of why he came to Paris to study painting:
Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French.
Jerry who lives on the West Bank, appears lighthearted and optimistic. He is happy to be living and working in an efficiently-organized but cramped apartment two flights above a cafe in a Montmartre garret. He is first seen through the window of his cramped and confining space. He uses many “Rube Goldberg”-like mechanical contrivances in a choreographed set of actions to save space – a rope tugs his bed up out of the way, and a shelf folds up to make a table. He is popular with the neighbor kids because he gives them American bubble-gum.
One of his “very good friends in Paris” introduces himself in voice over:
Adam Cook is my name. I’m a concert pianist. That’s a pretentious way of saying I’m unemployed at the moment.
With sardonic wit and a droll, morose sense of humor, aspiring American concert pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) explains that he has won his eighth scholarship/fellowship to study abroad, is homesick and feels like “the world’s oldest child prodigy.” Jerry’s Montmartre friend describes his mordant character:
It’s not a pretty face, I grant you, but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character. I like Paris. It’s a place where you don’t run into old friends, although that’s never been one of my problems.
Adam used to work as an accompanist fifteen years earlier for successful music-hall star entertainer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary in his only American film appearance). Henri pauses before a mirror to assure himself that he is still the dapper-looking music hall idol of years earlier, even though he is aging. Henri excuses his graying hair and older age:
Let’s just say I’m old enough to know what to do with my young feelings.
Adam plays piano in the nearby downstairs bistro. There, Henri shows Adam a picture of his 19 year old girlfriend/fiancee Lise Bouvier (young teen Leslie Caron in her screen debut), a beautiful dancer who works in a French perfume shop. He had rescued her from the Nazis years earlier when her father was a Resistance leader and she was orphaned. Henri raised her in his own home. Adam makes the obvious point: “Shocking degenerate.” Henri explains how he grew to love her after she blossomed into womanhood: “She was a little girl then. We only became in love after she left.” Adam is skeptical of the age discrepancy: “She’s a little young for you, isn’t she kid?” Lise is described as a fun loving dancer, with great vitality and enchanting beauty: “She has great vitality, joi de vivre, she loves to go out and have fun and dance. She would dance all night…She’s an enchanting girl, Adam. Not really beautiful. And yet, she has great beauty.”
As Henri tries to explain to Adam what Lise is really like, we see five different aspects of her personality, conveyed in a montage of dance styles, costumes and color schemes or settings projected on a cafe mirror. Each balletic vignette is danced and scored to “Embraceable You,” each with a different Gershwin tune. Lise conveys five guises, moods, styles, or aspects of her character: exciting or sexy, sweet and shy, vivacious and modern, studious while reading, and gay or athletic. At the end of the descriptions, the screen splits into five diamond-shaped parts to show images of all five vignettes, all from Henri’s subconscious imagination.
In the cafe, Jerry is introduced to Henri, Adam’s friend. Jerry struggles to sell his paintings in Montmartre. His first potential customer is appalled by the lack of perspective in his paintings, and he tells her to move on. She is labeled as “one of those third year girls who gripe my liver…You know, American college kids. They come over here to take their third year and lap up a little culture…They’re officious and dull. They’re always making profound observations they’ve overheard.”
Jerry’s fortunes appear bright when he is discovered by Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy, attractive American patroness who purchases two of his paintings – to his complete surprise. When he questions her name, she breezily explains it to him: “As in Venus de.” Jerry is driven in her chauffeured green car to her hotel to be paid. He accepts a drink of sherry, and learns she acquired her wealth as an heiress to a sun-tan oil empire, clarifying: “There’s a lot of red skin in America.” She smoothly invites him to a small party in her hotel room later that evening. She hopes to win Jerry’s heart by buying his paintings, promoting his career, and helping to sponsor him in the Paris art world.
After teaching a streetful of adorable Parisian children some American words, Jerry exuberantly tap dances and teaches them to sing an American song, “I Got Rhythm,” partly in French and partly in English, while he dances and leaps down the block.
At Milo’s party, Jerry appears to be the only guest. He admires the would-be patron’s one-shouldered white gown in one of the film’s most famous lines:
That’s, uh, quite a dress you almost have on. What holds it up?
She cleverly replies “modesty,” and they share a drink.
Jerry: I see it’s a formal brawl after all.
Milo: What makes you think that?
Jerry: Well, the more formal the party is, the less you have to wear.
Milo: Oh, no. You’re quite wrong. It’s most informal.
Jerry: Where is everybody?
Milo: No. Here in this room.
Jerry: What about that extra girl?
Milo: Ha, ha. That’s me.
Jerry: Ohhh! You mean the party’s just you and me.
Milo: That’s right.
Jerry: Oh I see. Why that’s kind of a little joke, isn’t it?
Milo: In a way.
Jerry refuses to be bought and made a kept man, returns her “dough” for the paintings, and decides to “run along.” Milo asks him to stay, but Jerry declines. He self-righteously rejects Milo’s patronistic support – she fails to ignite any amorous spark in his heart: “You must be out of your mink-lined head. I know I need dough but I don’t need it this badly. If you’re hard up for companionship, there are guys in town that do this kind of thing for a living. Call one of them.” Following his “righteous” display of his honor and “male initiative,” Milo explains why she invited him. She attempts to explain she is more interested in his painting talent than in him personally or romantically: “I’m simply interested in your work and I want to get to know you better. Now is that such a crime?…I want to help you. I think you have a great deal of talent. Now it doesn’t hurt to have somebody rooting for you, does it?” Jerry is persuaded to remain in her company, but at a place he can afford for dinner. They go to the Cafe Flaubert on Montparnasse.
In the Montmartre nightclub, Milo explains her access to important art world connections: “I want to bring you to the attention of the important dealers,” she tells him. She offers to be his sponsor: “They know me. I’m a big customer. We have a large collection at home. I could sponsor you, talk about you, encourage you, and then when you’ve done enough canvasses, I could arrange for your first show. That is, if you’ll let me.” Jerry wants clarity on her motivations: “Sounds great, but, uh, what’s in it for you?” he asks. “Well, just the excitement of helping somebody I believe in and finding out if I’m right.” She also introduces him to Tommy Baldwin (Hayden Rorke), one of her art acquaintances, and she encourages Baldwin to support Jerry on the art pages of the Paris Telegram.
In a chance encounter in the club – as in most musical comedies – he spots the beautiful, young but elusive Lise Bouvier and is immediately captivated and attracted to her. So completely taken by her, he rudely asks Tommy if he knows the “very special doll” sitting at the other table. Leaning back in his chair to hear the conversation at Lise’s table, he learns her name. Outright callous to Milo, he flirts with Lise on his first night out with his patroness. Jerry pulls Lise onto the dance floor, pretending to know her – she rebuffs him. “Well, you’re certainly not without your nerve, Monsieur,” she first tells him. To calm her, he briefly sings “Our Love is Here to Stay” to her as they dance pas de deux: “It’s very clear. Our love is here to stay.” The frame is tightly held around them as the camera follows their movements. Soon the music stops, and she insists on returning to her own table, but not before he persists and learns her work phone number. In the meantime, he has shown no regard for Milo, his date of the evening.
Returning home in her limo from the club, Milo decides she has had enough of him but she also feels wounded pride. She reprimands his behavior in an angry torrent of words: “I can tell you, I didn’t like your exhibition tonight. I thought you were very rude…If you insist on picking up stray women, that’s your own affair but from now on, don’t do it when you’re with me. Is that clear?”
The next morning, there are alternating scenes of persistent pursuit – of Jerry for Lise, and Milo for Jerry. He is undeterred in getting a date with Lise. He calls her at the perfume shop but is again rebuffed: “Last night you were a small annoyance but today you are growing into a large nuisance. Now leave me alone and don’t call me again ever.” Dejected, Jerry is joined at his cafe table by Milo, who explains she has already been hard at work early that morning to support his art work with dealers and galleries. She apologizes for the previous night’s tiff, and he agrees to meet her for lunch to discuss his sponsorship.
Jerry visits the perfume shop and asks Lise to go out with him. Lise observes his obnoxious persistence and fends him off: “It’s a pity you don’t have as much charm as you have persistence.” Breaking down her defenses, she finally agrees to keep a date with him at 9 pm at the Cafe Belle Ami by the bridge next to the Seine. “Mademoiselle, there is no happier man in Paris than Monsieur Mulligan at this moment,” he beams.
A romantic Jerry is so exuberant and happy over his newfound love for Lise that he bounds up to Adam’s garret, where he finds his friend playing on the piano. Jerry joyfully sings and dances to “Tra-La-La-La”: “This time it’s really love, tra-la-la-la, I’m in that blue above, tra-la-la-la.” A dour cynic, Adam plays the piano to accompany him and later joins him in the singing. Jerry ends up tap-dancing all over his friend’s place, even on top of the piano.
Then on the banks of the Seine River at night, a white-skirted Lise and Jerry walk and talk together. He encourages her to “live dangerously. The night is young.” He wishes she would share more about herself, in their slightly embarrassed conversation:
Jerry: What about you? Aren’t you sick of The Life and Times of Mulligan?
Lise: I’d rather listen to you. I don’t like to talk about myself.
Jerry: Oh, you’re going to have to get over that.
Jerry: Well, uh, with a binding like you’ve got, people are going to want to know what’s in the book.
Lise: What does that mean?
Jerry: Well, uh, primarily it means you’re a very pretty girl.
Lise: I am?
Jerry: Yes, you are.
Lise: How do you know?
Jerry: I, uh, heard it on the radio.
Lise: Making fun of me.
Jerry: Doesn’t everybody tell you that?
Lise: I haven’t been out with many people. And always friends.
Jerry: Honey, believe me. I’m no enemy…Lise, I don’t know whether you’re a girl of mystery or just a still water that doesn’t run deep, but there’s one thing I can tell you. I’d been around sooner, you’d know by now that you’re very pretty and I’m not making fun with you.
In one of the loveliest, most romantic of the film’s song and dance numbers, they elegantly dance and sing “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a blue hazy mist with yellow fog lights. At first, she is tentative and must be persuaded to dance, and then they share their love more openly. Tenderly and lyrically, they both express their repressed romantic emotions for each other, building to the dramatic, swirling climax of their dance. The two circle each other in a crescendo of movement and music, leading to the longed-for embrace. After their number, the loving couple walk into the blue smoky mist, strolling hand-in-hand away from the camera as the music drops to silence. When the music stops, Lise suddenly runs away to see Henri perform a new musical number in the theater, without explaining why to Jerry. But she does agree that they have to see each other again – that Saturday.
At the same time, revue singer Henri delivers an entertaining stage show, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” a Folies Bergere or Ziegfeld Follies type musical number featuring his lovely tenor voice. In a tux with tails, top hat and cane, he performs solo on a vast, lighted staircase reaching skyward. As he descends, the steps light up as his feet touch them. The stairway is lined with beautifully plumed, statuesque showgirls, and surrounded by others holding elaborate candelabra aloft. Lise arrives at his theater just as the show has ended. He is ecstatic about plans to tour in America with her after they are married.
Adam teases Jerry about having a rich sponsor and patroness. He asks what she wants in return and speculates about their marriage: “Tell me, when you get married, will you keep your maiden name?” Lying on his bed after Jerry leaves with Milo, Adam experiences a dream sequence in which he self-indulgently imagines himself at a concert triumphantly playing Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F.” He is the solo concert pianist and conductor of the orchestra, as well as a few of the other members of the orchestra playing violin, xylophone, tympany and gong. He even applauds himself as a member of the audience. [The comedy bit was adapted from Buster Keaton’s own short silent film The Playhouse (1921) in which the comedian played every acting role – and even the audience.]
Milo shows Jerry a studio which she has arranged and equipped for him. Embarrassed by his own lack of money and to avoid feeling obligated to her, he declines: “I can’t afford a joint like this.” She excitedly tells him he could pay her back in three months. She has an art exhibition planned for him by then. Not wanting to be rushed into such an agreement, Jerry explains: “It’s got to be when I’m ready, when my stuff is good enough to show to the public and the critics…I’m not manufacturing paper cups.” Milo feels their talents fit together perfectly: “Look, you’re a painter and a good one. I happen to have a little drive. That’s a good combination. Besides, you have to face the critics sometime.” He agrees on the condition that she is paid back.
In a lively montage, he abandons himself to his work, prolifically painting many canvasses of scenes around Paris, including the cityscape of the Place de l’Opera, a little girl with a toy, and a portrait of Lise coquettishly holding a red flower (foreshadowing the spark that begins the balletic finale). The montage ends with an overhead shot of Jerry, standing in the middle of a circle of his finished paintings.
Although they are both in love, Jerry and Lise realize that they are keeping their other relationships a secret from each other – Jerry’s association with his patroness Milo, and Lise’s engagement to Henri. Adam gives Jerry further counseling about his relationships: “I told you this sponsoring business was complicated. You see what happens today? Women act like men and want to be treated like women.” Jerry is frustrated by his on-again, off-again relationship with Lise:
What gets me is, I don’t know anything about her. We manage to be together for a few moments and then off she goes. Sometimes we have a wonderful time together and other times it’s no fun at all. But I got to be with her.
Adam spills his coffee down his front when Jerry tells him his girlfriend is Lise Bouvier. Henri arrives to announce his forthcoming marriage and honeymoon plans to the same woman. Jerry describes his feelings about the girl he is “stuck on.” Unaware of the identity of Jerry’s girl, Henri encourages him to tell her of his love and propose marriage. Henri advises: “So be happy! You only find the right woman once.” Adam isn’t so sure and jests: “That many times?” In another song and dance number, “‘S Wonderful,” Henri and Jerry harmonize together about the joys of being in love. Ironically, neither realize that they are singing about the same girl that they both love.
Jerry and Lise share confidences in another scene by the banks of the Seine. Lise realizes that she must tell Jerry the truth – she is engaged and feels obligated to marry Henri Baurel, because of the protection he offered her for five years during the Resistance, and the subsequent growth of their love. Although Jerry and Lise are in love, they nobly decide not to see each other again. As Jerry departs up the stairs, she sentimentally calls out: “If it means anything to you, I love you.”
Depressed by the news, thinking that Lise has left his life for good, Jerry proposes to take Milo to a gala Beaux Arts Ball sponsored by the art students. For once, Jerry flatters Milo with attention and kisses, and she responds warmly: “I feel like a woman for a change.” The costumes and set for the ball are in a basic black and white color scheme or motif [a stark contrast to the richly colored finale], and the revelers are festive. Lise, Adam and Henri are also at the lavish masked ball. Obviously, the four disillusioned romantics at the ball each contemplate their fates – Jerry, Henri, Lise, and Milo. Ultimately, Jerry cannot forget Lise and the atmosphere of the ball doesn’t lift his spirits – he tells Milo of his real love for Lise. He turns away from her support and rejects being one of her supported artists.
During the evening, broken-hearted Jerry retreats to the balcony at the Beaux Arts Ball, overlooking the vast scene of Paris at night where he manages to see Lise alone for a final goodbye before she departs. In the bittersweet, romantic setting, Lise confesses she feels love for him too:
Lise: Oh Jerry. It’s so dreadful standing next to you like this, and not having your arms around me.
Jerry: You’ll always be standing next to me Lise.
Lise: Maybe not always. Paris has ways of making people forget.
Jerry: Paris? No, not this city. It’s too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. I know. I came to Paris to study and to paint because Utrillo did, and Lautrec did, and Roualt did. I loved what they created, and I thought something would happen to me, too. Well, it happened all right. Now what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that’s enough for some but it isn’t for me anymore because the more beautiful everything is, the more it will hurt without you.
Lise: Jerry. Don’t let me leave you this way.
This dialogue comprises the final spoken words of the film, with nearly twenty minutes remaining. Lise and Jerry embrace before she leaves him, possibly forever. Jerry is emotionally heartsick, left alone and ignoring the party inside. He has torn in half a black and white charcoal sketch of the Place de l’Etoile that he has drawn. The two pieces have drifted to the floor where they mingle with confetti.
The film makes a transition from the real world into an elaborate fantasy to tell the story of his predicament and the ups and downs of their romance. Through free association in his mind, he brings together the city of Paris and its influential painters. The story of the over 13 minute extravagant and imaginative dream ballet finale, “An American in Paris,” also recapitulates Mulligan’s plight in losing the girl he now loves. It is a parallel tale of an ex-GI who remains in Paris following the war and falls in love with a French girl – and loses her. Simultaneously, he views Paris through the colors and designs of some of its most famous painters.
The varied artistic styles of the scenery, decor, and costumes for each of the six sequences are done in the styles of famous French painters – Manet, Renoir, Utrillo, Van Gogh (Dutch, actually), Rousseau, Dufy, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The dance and choreographic styles also range from modern dance and tap dance to jazz, classical, and ballet. Dazzling colors, music, rich backgrounds, camera movements, lightings, dance movements, costumes, decorations, sets, long takes, and special effects (colored steam, for example) provide an overwhelming impression, surreal at times.
Throughout the ballet, Jerry the painter continually sees, pursues, courts, and then loses Lise, moving through familiar Parisian locations, all in the style of the painters. The single connecting symbol that provides a transition between the six sequences is a red rose (representing the girl). Here is an “American in Paris” chasing after his French dream girl through the Paris of his favorite artists – their famous painting styles come to life. Her identity constantly shifts and changes as the mood, music and settings also vary in the Gershwin suite.
Sequence One: In a tracking shot, the two pieces of the torn charcoal sketch are swept along the gutter in a whirlwind of confetti until they suddenly unite and become the full-size Place de l’Etoile background of the same design for the opening sequence. In front of the black and white backdrop is a dramatic accent of color from a red rose dropped by Lise. A black-garbed Jerry materializes in the foreground, picks up the rose, and the backdrop suddenly explodes in color. The Place de la Concorde fountain (in Dufy style) swirls around as he dances through the sequence.
Sequence Two – a Madeleine flower market with a quiet lyrical mood (Manet or Renoir style); Jerry is joined in a street scene (inspired by Utrillo) by four GIs on French leave (the only part of the sequence in which Lise doesn’t appear). This is followed by a march of spirited, strutting gendarmes set in a gaudy fairground. There are holiday throngs at the Jardins des Plantes, with Punch and Judy show, menagerie animals, blue-tighted acrobats, and schoolgirls (in a Rousseau setting).
Sequence Three – a continuation of the previous sequence, with the GIs (accompanying Jerry) as straw-hatted hoofers pursuing the dancing schoolgirls.
Sequence Four – a passionate emotional, mating dance (during a smoky night) between Jerry and Lise around a fountain in the Place de la Concorde (Dufy style). Then, the Place de l’Opera is seen in autumnal shades of color (Van Gogh style).
Sequence Five – a jazz-inspired sequence with Jerry as a muscular, white-tighted “Chocolat” (a famous Toulouse-Lautrec character) in a Montmartre cafe setting, with blonde cancan girls a la Moulin Rouge led by Lise.
Sequence Six (Finale) – a return to the Place de la Concorde fountain. In the final sequence at the Dufyesque Place de la Concorde fountain, after a final burst of color and movement, everything suddenly vanishes – the crowd disappears.
Jerry comes back to reality from his long dream/fantasy and finds himself alone with his red rose in front of the black and white sketch backdrop in a deserted Paris. The music builds to a crescendo with a zoom closeup of the red rose in his hand. The rose dissolves into his lovelorn, romantically desolate face.
But there must be an inevitable, happy reconciliation – Jerry looks down to the street where he sees Lise giving Henri a grateful farewell kiss. Henri, who has sensed and discovered that Lise loves Jerry, releases Lise from her engagement and steps aside. Lise returns to Jerry, running up a long flight of stairs into his arms, ecstatically reunited in a loving embrace in the happy ending. The camera pans upwards to a twinkling Paris skyline.