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An American in Paris

An American in Paris(1951)

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The idea for An American in Paris came to producer Arthur Freed when he attended a concert of George Gershwin's An American in Paris, which is best described as a tone poem as opposed to a collection of songs. Freed liked the title and from that he built a musical with Gershwin tunes after months of negotiations with brother Ira Gershwin, estate trustees, and two different music publishers.

The concept of an extended, extravagant dance sequence was nothing new in the film musical genre and had been utilized in various forms in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946). But nothing on the scale of Freed's grand finale in An American in Paris - presented in the styles of several great French painters - had ever been attempted before at MGM.

The unexpected box office success of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell's Technicolor dance fantasy, The Red Shoes (1948), indicated that audiences might respond quite enthusiastically to a 17-minute climactic ballet sequence.

The MGM brass were hesitant at first to throw nearly a half a million dollars into filming one musical number, the 17-minute ballet. Fortunately, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (soon to be replaced by a new regime of studio management under Dore Schary) played a key role in green-lighting the production, regardless of its costs.

by Scott McGee

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Both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were under consideration for the part of Jerry Mulligan, but Kelly's more balletic style of dancing gave him the edge.

The studio originally wanted Maurice Chevalier to play the part of Henri Baurel, but he was not available. However, some insiders believe that MGM decided against him because of rumors that he entertained the Third Reich during the French occupation. Yves Montand was also considered but he was quickly dismissed because of his leftist politics, a scarlet letter in Hollywood during the Communist witch-hunt days. Popular French performer Georges Guetary was cast in what would be his only American film.

After Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse were considered, Gene Kelly chose a real Parisian for his romantic counterpart. Kelly had seen Leslie Caron dancing two years earlier in Paris's Ballets des Champs Elysees. He flew back to Paris, summoned Caron to a screen test, and two weeks later, she received a notice to report to Hollywood for the production of An American in Paris.

The $450,000,17-minute, eye-popping ballet was filmed after the rest of the picture was completed. In fact, director Vincente Minnelli filmed Father's Little Dividend (1951) before the sets and choreography were completed for the final ballet. Ironically, it took two days longer to film the ballet than the feature-length comedy.

A final scene between Oscar Levant and Nina Foch that resolved some important plot details was excised in order to make room for the climactic ballet.

Because of a natural anemia, aggravated by long stretches of malnutrition during World War II, Leslie Caron was often physically exhausted after long rehearsals and shooting. Gene Kelly was so concerned about her health that he arranged for her to have numerous breaks and rest periods during filming, often giving her an entire day off.

According to some sources, Leslie Caron's "Embraceable You" sequence - the one where she is depicted via different period settings - created a stir with the censors. The problem derived from Caron's skirt in the American jazz segment that left little to the imagination. Fortunately, a female censor showed up on set and subsequently fell under Gene Kelly's powerful charm. The sequence was approved, with only the slightest trimming of the jazz segment.

by Scott McGee

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teaser An American in Paris (1951)

Variety hailed An American in Paris as "one of the most imaginative musical confections turned out by Hollywood in years."

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times thought it "the most commendable enchantments of the big, lavish musical" ever put to screen.

Film critic Jeanine Basinger wrote "An American in Paris is frequently criticized as being too sentimental, too romantic and, because of the ballet, too pretentious. Nevertheless, the film undoubtedly contributed to the maturing process of the musical genre. By challenging the idea that audiences would not understand or accept a long ballet deeply linked to the narrative of the film it helped to free the dance visually and to expand the horizons of viewers as well as the creative possibilities for the artists making musical films."

Gene Kelly looked forward to altering some preconceptions about Hollywood movie musicals when it came Oscar time. "There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas," he stated. "It's a form of snobbism, the same sort that perpetuates the idea that drama is more deserving of Awards than comedy."

No musical from Arthur Freed's unit at MGM had ever been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar prior to An American in Paris.

Gene Kelly and company smashed the perceived prejudice against musicals by winning big at the Academy Awards. An American in Paris won Oscars for Best Picture, Writing (Story & Screenplay), Cinematography, Art Direction (Color), Best Score of a Musical Picture, and Costume Design (Color). Also nominated was Vincente Minnelli's direction. Gene Kelly was given an Honorary Award for his "versatility" and "his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography on film."

Because most critics and Hollywood insiders expected A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or A Place in the Sun (1951) to sweep the Oscars, many were shocked when An American in Paris won in six categories. Sycophantic critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who had put the musical on his top ten list, was aghast that the Academy had "so many people so insensitive to the excellencies of motion-picture art that they would vote for a frivolous musical picture over a powerful and pregnant tragedy." It's unclear whether Crowther was referring to A Streetcar Named Desire or A Place in the Sun.

by Scott McGee

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teaser An American in Paris (1951)

The prelude and aftermath of the mammoth An American in Paris (1951) shoot made for many a sweaty palm: controversy, fear, uncertainty - curious emotions for one of cinema's most charming and delightful all-time classics. The core of the movie's exuberance in taste and style is the winning combination of director Vincente Minnelli, star/choreographer Gene Kelly, the music of George and Ira Gershwin, the lilting Alan Jay Lerner script, the brilliant black and white in color camera of John Alton (called in specifically to lens the final ballet sequence) and, perhaps most importantly, the man who pulled it all together: producer Arthur Freed.

Freed had long ago purchased the title from Ira Gershwin, as he correctly deemed that An American in Paris was a great moniker for a musical. Vincente Minnelli, who hadn't worked in the genre since The Pirate (1948), felt the studio was punishing him for the movie's less than outstanding grosses. Nothing could be further than the truth; Freed was simply waiting for the proper project to utilize the master director's extraordinary talent.

With the selection of Gene Kelly over Fred Astaire, the On the Town (1949) star, as full of energy off screen as on, immediately set about designing the lavish numbers working in close and harmonious collaboration with Minnelli. One of Kelly's first requests was the casting of teenager Leslie Caron as the female lead, whom he had seen dance two years earlier. Freed agreed. The casting of Georges Guetary, in what would be the French entertainer's only American motion picture appearance, proved a bit more difficult.

Originally the part of Caron's benefactor had been slotted for Maurice Chevalier, who was unavailable. This sparked the interesting possibility of Yves Montand - a decision squelched when Louis B. Mayer made a pro-HUAC speech on the embryonic An American in Paris sets during pre-production. Montand's politics threw him out before he was in. More astonishing was the East coast office's demand to axe the final ballet - the culmination of the picture's entire sequence of events. Freed, who knew that the word "ballet" was poison to a Hollywood production, and, that at a cost of a half a million dollars, would be one of the most expensive numbers ever filmed, wisely kept his cool and went directly to the source - Mayer himself. L.B., on his way out (PARIS would be his last production), and in constant in-house battles with newly appointed liberal-minded executive Dore Schary (fresh from his profitable track record at RKO), had faith in Freed's abilities and okayed the budget. Concurrently, the New York boys worked on Schary to intercede, but Mayer's successor threw them for a loop and also pronounced the excising of the ballet as preposterous, vowing to assure its inclusion even at the exorbitant cost. In the movie, Kelly plays a struggling painter living in France. The ballet represents his fantasies as depicted by the great French artists (Renoir, Rousseau, Lautrec, Dufy) he admires. Cognizant of France's love affair with American films, both Kelly and Freed were likewise aware of their contempt of any foreign depiction of their country. Arranging a screening for the then ailing Raoul Dufy, the actor and producer ducked out until the end credits. There, relieved, they found the artist, moved to tears, requesting a second helping of the sumptuous finale.

Oscar multiplied the nervous jitters when An American in Paris aced Best Picture against such heavyweights as A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. Confident of its win in the color, art direction and music departments (a total of seven nominations in all), MGM was pleasantly shocked at this coup - a rarity for a musical (only twice before had this happened: 1929's The Broadway Melody and in 1936 for The Great Ziegfeld, both for Metro!) The shock turned to outrage in critical circles when the less than insightful Bosley Crowther, reviewer for The New York Times, vented his wrath upon voters "so insensitive to the excellencies of motion picture art that they would vote for a frivolous musical over a powerful and pregnant tragedy." Contemporary Sidney Skolky simply skulked demanding a recount. MGM, by now 100% Schary-run, responded with good humor - placing an ad in the trades featuring a cartoon Leo, holding an Oscar with the caption: "Honestly, I was just standing IN THE SUN waiting for A STREETCAR."

Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner
Cinematography: Alfred Gilks, John Alton (ballet photography)
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, Irene Sharaff
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Original Music: George Gershwin (songs)
Principal Cast: Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Oscar Levant (Adam Cook), Georges Guetary (Henri Baurel), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts)
C-114m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

by Mel Neuhaus

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teaser An American in Paris (1951)

Variety hailed An American in Paris as "one of the most imaginative musical confections turned out by Hollywood in years."

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times thought it "the most commendable enchantments of the big, lavish musical" ever put to screen.

Film critic Jeanine Basinger wrote "An American in Paris is frequently criticized as being too sentimental, too romantic and, because of the ballet, too pretentious. Nevertheless, the film undoubtedly contributed to the maturing process of the musical genre. By challenging the idea that audiences would not understand or accept a long ballet deeply linked to the narrative of the film it helped to free the dance visually and to expand the horizons of viewers as well as the creative possibilities for the artists making musical films."

Gene Kelly looked forward to altering some preconceptions about Hollywood movie musicals when it came Oscar time. "There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas," he stated. "It's a form of snobbism, the same sort that perpetuates the idea that drama is more deserving of Awards than comedy."

No musical from Arthur Freed's unit at MGM had ever been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar prior to An American in Paris.

Gene Kelly and company smashed the perceived prejudice against musicals by winning big at the Academy Awards. An American in Paris won Oscars for Best Picture, Writing (Story & Screenplay), Cinematography, Art Direction (Color), Best Score of a Musical Picture, and Costume Design (Color). Also nominated was Vincente Minnelli's direction. Gene Kelly was given an Honorary Award for his "versatility" and "his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography on film."

Because most critics and Hollywood insiders expected A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or A Place in the Sun (1951) to sweep the Oscars, many were shocked when An American in Paris won in six categories. Sycophantic critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who had put the musical on his top ten list, was aghast that the Academy had "so many people so insensitive to the excellencies of motion-picture art that they would vote for a frivolous musical picture over a powerful and pregnant tragedy." It's unclear whether Crowther was referring to A Streetcar Named Desire or A Place in the Sun.

by Scott McGee

back to top