Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Five

25 paris

#25 — An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)
As far as MGM was concerned, there was an element of risk to letting director Vincente Minnelli team up with Gene Kelly for the musical An American Paris. Though proven commodities, they’d paired a few years later on a musical called The Pirate, which was a costly enough bomb that the studio mandated a brief hiatus for Minnelli. He rebounded with the comedy hit Father of the Bride and its quickie sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, regaining the cachet required to take another stab at an ambitious musical extravaganza. Both Minnelli and Kelly were convinced they had something special on their hands with this film, that they were working their way towards a masterpiece. They weren’t wrong.

Built around music by George and Ira Gershwin, the film stars Kelly as an expatriate painter in La Ville-Lumière. He struggles in his chosen professional until he unexpectedly picks up a patron (Nina Foch), leading to conflicts between his integrity and his need for income. Simultaneously, he meets a lovely young Frenchwoman (Leslie Caron) who he pursues romantically despite her initial protests. It is the sort of slender material upon which many a Hollywood musical is built, but An American in Paris is distinctive because of its surprising complexities, attributable to the aspirations of star and director and the screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner. The movie relies of plenty of standard tropes and techniques, including notably straightforward narration and scenes that are clearly playing out on sound stages instead of the actual streets of Paris. There’s a underlying grimness, even cynicism, to many of the exchanges and little hints around the fringes that life is harder than the spontaneous bursts of song might suggest. It’s not a bleak film by any means, but nor does it posit a world constantly dappled with cleansing sunshine. There’s a sense that the characters must work for what they want, especially if what they want is a bit of happiness and satisfaction.

Minnelli had a sure hand for this sort of material, and the film is a master class in vivid staging and the use of all the tools of cinema to create a memorable visual tableau. That’s clear throughout, but never more so than in the extended ballet sequence that is the film’s lush centerpiece. Working with a shifting color scheme and exuberant, athletic choreography by Kelly, Minnelli takes a sequence that is clearly a set piece and makes it feel like an organic extension of the creative souls of the characters. It can be snapped off and enjoyed as its own entity, but it does what a good musical number should do: it serves as a continuation of themes and emotions of the whole work in which it takes its place. That takes it from grand feat of staging, dance, music, and moviemaking into something even yet a little bit more, something ravishing and downright moving. The same effusive sentiments can be applied to entire film.

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