Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review – An American in Paris

June 16, 2011

An American in Paris – U.S., 1951

Every week someone tallies the amount of actual in-ring action on the WWE’s weekly shows, RAW and Smackdown. The amount of time usually clocks in at about twenty-five minutes, the rest of time having been spent on backstage banter designed to advance the multiple storylines of the wrestling universe. And every week there are the complaints that there simply isn’t enough wrestling in professional wrestling. I mention this in a review of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 Best Picture winner, An American in Paris, because if I ever watch the film again, I’m going to time just how much of the film’s running time is actually devoted to moving the story forward. I’m not completely convinced it would beat Smackdown’s time.

This is not always a terrible thing. The musical numbers in Stanley Dohen’s Singin’ in the Rain, in particular “Make ‘em Laugh,” could hardly be said to advance the plot much. In fact, a few of the numbers simply tell us in song what the characters just said in words. However, Singin’ in the Rain has something that An American in Paris lacks – history. It is not simply a love story; it’s a love story set during one of the most challenging and important periods for both America and the motion picture industry. What goes on in An American in Paris is rather trivial compared to that.

An American in Paris begins with a clunky narrative device that is wisely abandoned quickly. Through it, three of the central characters in the film talk to the audience in a way that would suggest that they are somewhere in the theater watching the film. Each one introduces himself, tells us why he is in Paris, and when the camera focuses on someone that is not them, lets us know. One informs us that the person on screen couldn’t possibly be him because he’s “too happy.” The first man is Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), a struggling artist who hopes to one day make it big as a painter. Another man is Henry Baurel (Georges Guetary), a local singer who is something of a celebrity in Paris. Their mutual friend is Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a moody piano player who like most in his profession dreams of composing a piece of music so great that it would bring the audience to its feet.

One day Mulligan meets a wealthy woman named Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who takes an interest in two of his paintings, as well as in the man who paints them. Later, we hear that she’s done this sort of thing before and that the results have not been very favorable. The two eventually enter into a business relationship of sorts – she’ll help him become famous and he’ll… well, he’ll pay her back. The dialogue between them is smart and surprisingly bold for 1951. During one exchange, Mulligan asks what is holding up the dress she is barely wearing. Her response: “Modesty.” In another decade, the film might have expanded on their relationship and allowed them to grow closer, but alas the film is a product of its time, and a sexually free, financially-independent woman apparently was not someone a free-spirited, strongly independent-minded man would be drawn to except out of necessity. And so the film has Mulligan, who looks to be in his thirties, fall for a much younger and much more innocent girl, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), who is just nineteen. The problem is that Bouvier is already engaged – to Baurel.

If all of this sounds pretty standard, that’s because it is. We know exactly where the film is going and how it will end precisely because it is such a conventional story. In fact, the film’s storyline of a man being financially supported by a woman wasn’t original even when the film was released. Sunset Boulevard beat it by one year.

This is not to say that there isn’t a sweetness to An American in Paris, for there is. Mulligan and Bouvier certainly have chemistry, and their dance numbers are choreographed in such a way that viewers may feel that they truly are meant to be together. I also liked the way Mulligan’s competition for Bouvier is not a bad guy, as the other men are sometimes made out to be. In fact, a very powerful movie could have been made about Bouvier and Baurel’s back story. At the very least, it deserved a flashback or two. Instead, we get a scene in which Baurel tries his best to describe Bouvier to Cook. With each description, viewers see her dancing a different kind of dance, none of which enable viewers to understand her as a person. I suppose this is meant to be Cook’s imagination, which only goes to show that in movies at least, artists dream in extravagant dance numbers.

Just before the film ends, there is a rather long musical number that occurs entirely in Mulligan’s head, which ultimately means that it doesn’t advance the plot. Here too a comparison with Singin’ in the Rain can be made, for that film included “Gotta Dance,” which may be the longest set-up for an inside joke ever put on celluloid. The difference is that the dance number that closes An American in Paris seems to not have much of a purpose – story-wise, that is - for the film ends within minutes of Mulligan returning from his inner stage to the real world.

Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this in theory. However, when a musical doesn’t have much of a story to tell, which this one doesn’t, its musical numbers can sometimes seem as if they are intended solely to disguise the fact that the story is razor thin and to ensure that the film has the proper running time. I’m not entirely complaining about this, for it’s difficult to be bored when Gene Kelly is on screen impressing viewers with his bionic feet. The problem is that what we see when the music stops just isn’t as interesting or fresh as it should be – especially for a Best Picture award-winner. To me, An American in Paris is fun, yet forgettable. It’s also an example of the Academy simply getting it wrong. It happens. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

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