An American in Paris (1951)

Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant

It’s impossible to talk about An American in Paris without referencing La La Land now, and I promise that I will contain all of my vexation to this paragraph. In La La Land, the most memorable piece of the movie is Gosling and Stone’s dance at sunrise, which takes place against the purply-orange computerized backdrop. It’s not much of a dance, and it is the most dancing either one of the leads do in this movie, but it’s pretty and it happens and it’s their first night together. There is no computerized backdrop when Kelly and Caron walk up to their own bench in the deep blue tones of Parisian midnight. And there is no question that both Kelly and Caron have more than enough dancing technique to acquit themselves. This meet-cute is buried relatively deep in the movie, after we’ve already been Gershwon over by Kelly’s performance of “I Got Rhythm” and after we’ve seen Caron perform different dances in distinctly different techniques. Not everything in An American in Paris works, and I prefer the last scene of La La Land to its companion in An American in Paris. But La La Land, which apes this movie as much as it “references” Jacques Demy’s work, has always misunderstood what worked. Romance between two attractive people in a movie that you’ll find under “musical” on Netflix? No way! When Kelly and Caron dance—and she is far from my favorite partner of his—we know that we are watching dancing not because it is ordained but because it is engaging. It’s the difference between a PowerPoint lecture and an independent study, the space between a chore and a pleasure.

Not everything about An American in Paris is attractive sixty-plus years later. One is more than a little put off by watching Jerry (Kelly) attach himself to Lise (Caron) and refuse to let go until he gets a date; this is not what nice guys do or did, for that matter, and it’s particularly sad when we’ve already watched Kelly ooze more charm than any single human being should be allowed to ooze. (“I Got Rhythm,” which I smiled through unabashedly, isn’t much of a song, but let’s be fair: neither is “Singin’ in the Rain.” A song good enough for Georges Guétary to sing, say, is a song that would distract too much from Kelly’s dancing.) The rest of the film does a pretty mediocre job of expressing whatever interest Lise has in Jerry; it’s his desire for her that mattered from the beginning, and her accompaniment is expected once he makes her laugh at her job. For a woman to express too much desire for a man is problematic in An American in Paris. Milo (Nina Foch) does not make much of a secret of her interest in Jerry, only barely disguising it with her offer to be the patron for his (bad!) paintings. Jerry almost always rebuffs her sexually, in part because it’s not proper for a man to be put into a corner by the woman. Perhaps Jerry has seen Sunset Blvd and knows this kind of thing doesn’t end well. Or Jerry is just an American man in the middle of the 20th Century and expects to run the show.

There are, however, some elements of the movie which are tremendously adventurous, enough to make us forget about the deeply inauspicious beginnings of the Lise-Jerry romance. One begins with the title ballet at the end of the movie, which at its best carries the immense visual style and length of The Red Shoes with the romance of that in Singin’ in the Rain. Energetic, fast-paced, and sometimes even a little sad, the ballet feels like an opportunity to finally let go of a conventional plot structure and go out with guns blazing. After the starkness of a black and white party, even one as raucous and alcoholic as the one that precedes the ballet, and even if Caron is still in white and Kelly still in black, the literally sketched quality of so much of that sequence is refreshing and light and fun. Who knows what those soldiers have to do besides look like nutcrackers and run around every time the horns play. In one part, Caron wears a totally indescribable dress paired with the best use of orange I’ve ever seen in shoes. Even after watching Lise cry in the car as she drives away from Jerry, even after watching Jerry’s sad face as the world becomes the little sketch of the Arc de Triomphe that he’s pushed out in sadness, we watch those two dance with enormous smiles, balletic and acrobatic, and one puts aside the sadness of the preceding scenes.

Even if one has to begin with the “An American in Paris” ballet, one ought to end with the pleasant daydream that the perpetually sardonic Adam (Levant) has as he considers what it would be like to be employed or, better yet, the star of each bit of the show. In this vision he is the pianist, bien sûr, but it turns out that he also conducts, plays multiple percussion instruments, and by the looks of things is all of the violins. (It’s a remarkable accomplishment to do all that at once, which is why it turns out he’s also the applauding audience.) The role of imagination cannot be understated in An American in Paris, for just about everyone finds some reason to imagine marvelous possibilities. For Adam, who seems to be playing a supporting role in his own life, given his friendships with suave Henri (Guétary) and smilin’ Jerry, it only makes sense that he should become a one-man band. (There’s some marvelous physical comedy when Adam realizes that Henri and Jerry are in love with the same woman, peaking when he tries to drain a cup of coffee with a cigarette still in his mouth.) Jerry takes refuge in the color of his imagination about recognizing the black-and-white fact that he’s lost Lise to Henri. Our first interactions with Lise are a colorful, fanciful series of explanations which explain at the very least how Henri imagines her. Even “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” a number which really happens in a real performance, is almost too slick in black and pink to be genuine.

This is a movie which is surprisingly frank about what sex is for, and likewise candid about how people go about procuring it. Dreaming becomes intensely practical for Henri and Milo, both of whom land on partners they have some power over and can presumably dominate (but gently). The star, Henri, took care of Lise while her parents fought in the Resistance. The suntan oil heiress, Milo, intends to take care of Jerry and get something good in return for a few months. The movie is fairly fuzzy about the ages of its main characters, but the birth years of this complicated romantic quadrilateral are: 1912 (Kelly), 1915 (Guétary), 1924 (Foch), 1931 (Caron). The movie doesn’t necessarily depict Milo as older than Jerry, but that was what I had assumed given the ways that she patronizes him with and without money. One knows for certain that Lise is really much too young for either Jerry or Henri even without the giant age differences. At the end of the movie, after Jerry has learned that Lise has been seriously involved with Henri for the whole of her tryst with him, Jerry bitterly accepts the role he’s been given to play. Lise stays with Henri as long as she does out of a sense of bizarre pseudo-filial obligation; Jerry decides to make the best of his occasionally pugnacious deal with Milo because he realizes that the benefits are too great for a man who has no more reason to put faith in love.

The greatest triumph of An American in Paris is in the tone that it sets throughout the movie, one that it is able to return to without too much fretting or wringing of hands. So what if Jerry is turning into a boytoy, or Adam seems doomed to starve to death in his garret, or Lise is going to marry a famous man she doesn’t love and move to America with him because she owes him? Regardless of whether or not you like Gershwin’s numbers adapted for this movie (and I admit to only really enjoying “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”), the movie feels an immense joy in its place. In Paris, you can dance on the piano while your buddy pounds on the keys and makes faces at you. In Paris, you can use a small battalion of children who love bubblegum as an audience and participants for your dance routine. In Paris, you go to the cafe, pour cream and coffee into your cup simultaneously, and sing about how s’wonderful it is, collecting a crowd which agrees that life is just s’marvelous. There’s an intense dreamlike quality to all of this as well, a desperate effort to restore to postwar Paris the enormous energy which it symbolized in the intrawar years. How strange and delightful it is that it takes a dancing diplomat to bring that magic to the fore.

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