An American in Paris
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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