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Following the cast list in the opening credits, a title card reads: "And presenting The American in Paris Ballet." After the opening credits, the three principal male characters are introduced through successive voice-over narrations that are heard while the camera pans through the Parisian neighborhood in which "Jerry Mulligan" lives: First, Gene Kelly explains who Jerry is and why he is in Paris; then Oscar Levant, as "Adam Cook," introduces himself, followed by Georges Guetary, as "Henri Baurel," who talks about himself.
Contemporary news items, reviews and studio records in files on the film in the M-G-M Collection and the Arthur Freed Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library reveal the following information about An American in Paris: M-G-M announced that it had acquired the film rights to late composer George Gershwin's musical suite "An American in Paris" on June 1, 1949. The suite had its premiere on December 13, 1928 at Carnegie Hall in New York. At that time, the studio also contracted with Gershwin's brother and lyricist Ira for rights to use their songs. Additionally the studio hired Ira Gershwin to write new lyrics for "certain unpublished George Gershwin music." The first script for the film was submitted by Alan Jay Lerner on June 12, 1950. While several revisions were made over the next few months, the completed film was very much the same as the first script.
According to a July 5, 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item, artist Saul Steinberg met with producer Arthur Freed, possibly to discuss the film, possibly to create the paintings for Jerry, but he was not hired for the production and Jerry's paintings were created by artist Gene Grant. Memos in the M-G-M files reveal that Kelly had requested copies of two films to use as background for An American in Paris, the French film L'Orange ete and a 1934 French cartoon entitled La joie de vivre, which featured extensive dancing.
In a October 4, 1949 letter in the Arthur Freed Collection, Maurice Chevalier's representative, agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar, wrote to Freed, mentioning that Chevalier was being considered for a role in the film. At that time, Chevalier had not made a film in the U.S. since 1934 (see entry for Folies Bergere in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). Although there were no additional mentions of Chevalier in the Freed or M-G-M files, modern sources have speculated variously that M-G-M May have been concerned over lingering ill sentiment toward Chevalier after charges of collaboration had been made against him following World War II or that Chevalier May have declined to be involved in the picture because he did not want to portray an older man.
Tests were made for actresses Sarah Churchill for the role of "Milo Roberts" and actor Carl Brisson for Henri. Although some modern sources have speculated that Fred Astaire was initially under consideration for the lead, no information in the Freed or M-G-M collections mentions anyone other than Kelly as the lead. M-G-M contract player Sally Forrest was tested for the role of "Lise Bourvier," as were French actresses Jeanine Charrat and Odile Versois. Modern sources note that Minnelli and Kelly wanted someone "fresh" for the role of Lise and Kelly had been impressed by Leslie Caron, a then seventeen-year-old ballerina in the company of French ballet impresario Roland Petit. Caron was signed for the picture on May 29, 1950, according to the M-G-M files.
The files indicate that musician Benny Carter and his group were to perform on the "Our Love Is Here to Stay" number, but their participation in the completed soundtrack has not been confirmed. Hollywood Reporter news items include Jeane Romaine, Mary Gleason, Judie Landon, Mary Jane French, Marilyn Rodgers, Ann Brennan, Beverly Thompson, Marietta Elliott, Pat Hall, Joan Barton, Beverly Baldy, Lorraine Crawford, Madge Joureay, Ann Robin, Angela Wilson, Lola Kendrick and Marlene Todd in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
A December 26, 1950 news item in Hollywood Reporter indicated that Grahame Johnson, a leading male dancer in the Los Angeles Negro Ballet was signed for a role in the production, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Pre-production memos in the M-G-M collection indicate that James Basevi was initially to be the film's art director with M-G-M art department head Cedric Gibbons and that conductor Andre Kostelanetz was at one time being considered to work on the production.
Memos in the M-G-M Collection indicate that the title An American in Paris had been registered with the PCA on December 17, 1948 by Roberts Productions, but that the issue of rights to the title were settled in early 1951. A memo to M-G-M studio head Louis B. Mayer from the PCA informed Mayer that the PCA had only one objection to Lerner's recently submitted script. The memo advised that it should be made clear that "no illicit sex affair" existed between Jerry and Milo. No additional censorship problems were encountered with the script, although, according to a 1955 memo from M-G-M international distribution executive Robert Vogel to studio production head Dore Schary and Freed, "French Indo-China censors have banned An American in Paris in part because 'It depicts friendly amoral Franco-American relations and glorifies France.'"
Although most of the film was shot on M-G-M's Culver City, CA lot, some location filming was done in Paris, France. According to memos an initial estimate of the film's location shooting schedule was for several days of atmospheric backgrounds and establishing shots, with two days of shooting in Paris featuring Kelly and Leslie Caron. Actual second unit work began on September 2, 1950, but memos in the files indicate that rainy weather caused considerable delays and reshoots. Filming in Paris ended on 22 Sep; montage sequence director Peter Ballbusch, who was in London, gave final approval for the Parisian footage on 26 September 1950.
An opening montage, some longshots of Parisian landmarks, a tracking shot of Milo's car driving up to her hotel and atmospheric backgrounds were the only Parisian footage retained in the released film. Although modern sources have indicated that Kelly and Minnelli originally wanted to shoot the entire ballet sequence in Paris, there is no indication in the M-G-M files that this was a serious consideration once pre-production began on the film. Other memos in the files indicate that the studio had been in negotiations with the owners of La Moulin de la Galette in Paris to use exteriors and possibly interiors for the film, but negotiations fell through.
According to an American Cinematographer article by director of photography Alfred Gilks, the "Our Love Is Here to Stay" number set on the Quai along the Seine near Notre Dame, was accomplished through use of a one-hundred-foot cyclorama set up on an M-G-M sound stage. The final scene of the film, which captures Kelly and Caron running toward each other on the multiple flights of stairs below Sacre Couer in the Montmarte section of Paris, was actually made by Gilks shooting one staircase built on the studio backlot that was enhanced by Warren Newcombe and his special effects unit.
Although M-G-M records indicate that the film was in production without interruption from August 1, 1950 through January 8, 1951, filming stopped at various intervals to allow for preparation of the "American in Paris Ballet" sequence. According to Hollywood Reporter news items and production charts, because of the length of time required for the ballet, Minnelli left the production on September 15, 1950 and directed M-G-M's Father's Little Dividend; after that film was completed at the end of Oct, Minnelli returned to An American in Paris.
In the American in Paris Ballet, a story is told through various settings in which the characters Jerry and Lise intermittently dance. Although in his autobiography, Minnelli, who was an artist himself, described coming up with the idea for the dance, outlines and other memos in the M-G-M files were submitted jointly by Minnelli and Kelly from the earliest stages. The final outline and description of the dance, co-signed by Kelly and Minnelli, was submitted to Freed on September 6, 1950. Introductory remarks to the outline, describe the vision of the ballet as follows: "The decor of the ballet will be its most distinguishing feature as to uniqueness and originality, for each individual scene will be done in the styles of different painters which we will denote in the synopsis of the libretto...the ballet visually should reflect an artist's viewpoint and both the scenery and the costumes should be done as they painted....In essence, the entire ballet is a representation of a painter thinking about Paris."
Many aspects of the dance have been discussed at length by critics, including the iconographic use of the red flower in the opening and closing scenes of the ballet and the reappearance in different guises of Jerry and Lise. Each sequence in the ballet was shot in a different color scheme, with costumes, sets and choreography of the large company of dancers reflective of the mood of the various sections of Gershwin's musical suite, which runs almost twenty minutes. In the first sequence, Jerry's sketch of a gate floats away and turns into a backdrop that is reminiscent of the painting style of Raoul Dufy (1877-1953); the next scene is set like a Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) painting; this is followed by a Montmarte setting inspired by several paintings of Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). The next sequence was inspired by the paintings of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910); after the Rousseau setting, there is a switch to a sound stage recreation of the Alexandre III bridge in Paris, followed by a brief recreation of a painting reminiscent of the work of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890).
The last artist represented is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Kelly appears in costume as the black dancer in Toulouse-Lautrec's "Chocolat dansant dans un bar." Caron appears dressed as Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril, who was featured in various Toulouse-Lautrec paintings. The final sequence, a dance featuring many of the characters who had appeared earlier in the ballet, is set around a fountain reminiscent of the fountain in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
In addition to the American in Paris Ballet, several other musical numbers were highly praised by critics and have been included in documentaries on American motion pictures: "Dance in the Mirror," a montage of Lise appearing in different costumes and dancing in different styles to represent aspects of her personality as described by Henri, appears in early in the picture. In the "I Got Rhythm" number, Kelly, dressed in casual clothes and a baseball cap, uses the song to give some Parisian children an English lesson. At various points throughout the song, children call out the words "I got" when Kelly points to them, after which he completes the lyrics. According to modern sources, this number was reshot by Hal Rosson following the film's initial preview. In "Stairway to Paradise," as Guetary sings the number, stairs appear behind a curtain. As he ascends the stairway, individual stairs light up, then go dark and light up again later.
Another well-received number was a dream sequence in which Levant's character imagines himself playing Gershwin's 1925 "Concerto in F" before an audience in a large concert hall. As the music continues, Levant is variously seen as the orchestra's conductor, the kettle drummer, xylophonist, several violinists, concert master and finally as a member of the all-Levant audience who yells "Bravo, encore!" Levant, who was a close personal friend of Gershwin, has often been hailed by critics as one of the best interpreters of his music. Gershwin's original piece runs thirty minutes. In An American in Paris, only the concert's third movement is performed, which is about 4-1/2 minutes in length.
In addition to the main songs used in the film, a number of other Gershwin tunes were used as background, among them "How Long Has This Been Going On?," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Liza" and "Lady Be Good." Numbers initially planned for the film but not included were "Love Walked In," which was performed by Guetary but cut from the picture and "I've Got a Crush on You," which was planned for Kelly but not filmed.
Frank Whitbeck produced and narrated the trailer for the picture. At a September 25, 1951 special screening of the picture at the Academy Award Theatre on Melrose Avenue, Ronald Reagan, who was then head of the Screen Actors Guild, was the moderator for a forum discussion on the picture. A gala premiere was held for the film in Los Angeles on November 9, 1951 and broadcast overseas by the Armed Forces Radio Services.
The film opened to excellent reviews. In addition to winning the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year, An American in Paris garnered awards for Best Story and Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Costume Design (Color). Kelly also won an honorary Oscar at the 1952 ceremonies for his versatility as an actor, singer, dancer, director and choreographer. Minnelli was nominated in the Best Director category but lost to George Stevens for A Place in the Sun (see below) and Adrienne Fazan was nominated for Best Film Editing but lost to William Hornbeck, also for A Place in the Sun. The film also won a Golden Globe as "Best Hollywood Picture Produced" in 1951 and was variously listed in Hollywood trade publications as either the first or third highest box office film of the year.
An American in Paris was voted number sixty-eight on AFI's list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time. A news item in New York Times on January 13, 1989 announced that a Broadway adaptation of the film was being planned; however, a stage version was not produced. On September 4, 1992, M-G-M and Turner Entertainment released a restored version of the film that opened at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles and subsequently played in about thirty theaters nationwide. The new print was a restoration following a 1978 fire at the George Eastman House film archive in Rochester, NY, which destroyed two reels of the original 35mm print of the film. According to articles in Los Angeles Times the studio Oscar for An American in Paris was sold at auction in April 1988 for a price of $15,000. Some sources indicated that the statuette auctioned was Freed's personal Oscar, but that was not the case.