Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: An American in Paris (1951)

Time for another entry in the ol' Oscar Film Journal!

We're going back to the 1950s today to talk about the delightful musical romp featuring Gene Kelly, An American in Paris.  The Best Picture winner for 1951 (one of several awards the film took home) tells the story of three friends - a struggling painter (Kelly) who catches the eye of a wealthy socialite, both for his art and his good looks; a struggling pianist (Oscar Levant) who's given up on love, throwing himself into writing the great piano concerto; and a famous singer (Georges Guetary), who's just begun a relationship with a sweet French girl he intends to marry.  Things get complicated though when the Gene Kelly character spots this very French girl in a nightclub and falls instantly in love with her.  He pursues her relentlessly, and while she strongly rebuffs him at first, he manages to charm her and they begin a secret affair.  But she hides her relationship with the singer from him, and he begins to suspect something is amiss.  At the same time the painter is torn between the young girl and the older wealthy art collector, who promises to advance his art career.  This love quadrangle forms the basis of the shoestring plot, more an exercise in style than storytelling.   
The film plays out in the classic "Boy meets girl" structure, amid a series of musical set pieces that show off Gene Kelly's dancing and choreography, culminating in a famous, climactic, 17-minute surrealistic number.  I found the story pretty by-the-numbers and the eventual resolution rather sudden and passive; it sort of happens TO the Gene Kelly character thanks to a bit of serendipity, after he's just reminisced his romance with the girl in the form of the aforementioned dance routine.  But Gene Kelly is so charming and easy to watch, he carries the movie further than it probably should've gone.  An American in Paris may have been the big winner that year, but Singin' in the Rain one year later proved a far superior Gene Kelly vehicle and is now the one everyone remembers.  AAIP was also totally outclassed in my opinion by A Streetcar Named Desire, which really should've been the banner film for '51. 

But this film is a comfortable watch, full of energetic dancing, classic George and Ira Gershwin tunes, a relatable and often funny performance from Oscar Levant as the poor schlub of a best friend, and some lovely Paris cityscapes (some real, some artificial).  The vibrant Technicolor visuals and lighthearted narrative will transport you back to a simpler era in Hollywood, a creamy-smooth two-hour escape from reality.  It's one of those films that was clearly very groundbreaking upon its release - I'm sure audiences in 1951 were absolutely dazzled by that epic finale - but now feels kind of tame.  An American in Paris is certainly worth a look, but don't expect to be blown away.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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