Wednesday 31 December 2014

An American in Paris (1951)

An American in Paris
In the past I have made no secret of my mixed feelings about the musical genre. When I started this project I was sure that the musicals would be hard to get through, but a streak of excellent musicals in the thirties made me change my mind. They were so good at putting me in a good mood and I still find myself humming the tunes. Later however that magic seems to have faded. Again and again I am reminded of why I initially do not care much for musicals. It is not that I hate them or despise the sentiment. They just bore me.

I find it difficult to give an honest review of a musical because I know that some (many) of the elements that are appreciated by the lovers of the genre just leaves me cold. Nevertheless “An American in Paris” is exactly such a movie.

“An American in Paris” is the second in a streak of Gene Kelly musicals (“On the Town” was the first) and in many ways they are comparable. To a large extent they are showpieces of Kelly’s dancing skills and made as colorful stage shows for the cinema. The stories are secondary to the show and are just vehicles to bring you from one act to the next. That means that we really should not care too much about drama and conflict. Even the hint of it is defused by the jovial attitude of everybody and the audience’s certain knowledge that this is a happy movie and nothing really bad will happen.

Therefore let us jump directly to the essential parts for a musical: the music, the show and the set.

My complaint about “On the Town” was that the music did not really click with me and that is a problem here as well. The only song that made an impact on me was “I got Rhythm”, the rest are quite forgettable. Instead the emphasis is made on the show. And there is a lot of show. Kelly dances and dances and dances. It is almost as if with the lack of Frank Sinatra and his glorious voice the producers thought they might as well compensate with more dancing. If I was a dancing buff I would probably be very excited about that. Unfortunately I am not. In fact my interest only stretches as far as to note that it looks as if the dancers are pretty good at what they are doing. Otherwise I am really not interested. Modern dancing, classic dancing, tap dancing… It is actually fun to dance, it makes you happy, but look at it…? I could not care less. And here comes the bombshell: This movie ends with an 18 minutes modern dancing sequence featuring Kelly and a ton of dancers. If I had been in the cinema I would have been tired before they started this feature and groaning long before they finished. Luckily I watched it here at home so I could check some emails…

The observant reader might now call me an inconsistent hypocrite. Was this not exactly what I liked about the Berkeley musical “Footlight Parade”? Long sequences of show in the end? Well, yes, but the music was better, they were actually singing excellent songs and the dancing was more of a mesmerizing spectacle than and actual dancing stunt.

A large part of the show is the set and here nothing was spared. While “On the Town” displayed an unusually friendly and clean, but undeniably real New York, “An American in Paris” shows us a Paris I think only exists in the mind of dreamy Americans who have never actually been there. It is an odd mix of modern (1950) Paris, 1920’ies bohemian ambience and Belle Époque style. Buildings, rooms, cityscapes all look like pictures and I would be surprised if there was even a single location shot in the movie.

The upside of this very escapist look is that everything can be controlled to give that friendly and happy feel the musical needs and it also makes it look more like a stage and therefore a reasonable excuse for the singing and, particularly, dancing.

Curiously, this “Paris” is stuffed with Americans. Expats and tourists alike living the imagined French dream of carefree bohemian life. I think it is because this is not really a movie which is that interested in France or the French, but merely want to catch the imagined romantic vibe as evidenced by a large number of Hollywood productions featuring Americans in Paris.

I am sorry if I am mocking it a bit. I know that it is all very innocent and probably even necessary for the atmosphere of the movie, but it is just so overdone here that it is a laugh. I read not long ago about psychological therapy offered to Japanese tourists who found Paris not at all what they had imagined. Maybe they had been watching this movie…

There is however no doubt about the production value here. Everything about the movie shouts of all the money spent on making it (the dancing sequence in the end alone allegedly cost half a million dollars!) and it showcases all of what an American musical could do in 1951. It won no less than six Academy Awards including Best Picture and it made a ton of movies at the box office. Clearly this movie struck a chord, and this is also why I find myself excusing for this lackluster review. Somebody liked it a lot more than I did.

I have a feeling it has something to do with Gene Kelly. There is something about him that is putting me off. Fred Astaire never had that effect on me, but Kelly just seem way too… confident I suppose.

In any case, not my favorite musical, but likely one that a dancing aficionado will find great.


  1. I prefer Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire. While Astaire was all precision and flow, Kelly is all about athleticism. I can't think of someone who more fully embodies masculinity while dancing.

    This film is, well, it's a lark. It's a candy bar of a film--sweet, easy to digest, but quickly forgettable. There's no way it deserved Best Picture status despite the quality of the dancing, the sets, and the rest of it. It's not a bad film by any stretch, but it's just not that great of one, either.

    You're not alone in wondering why it got all the acclaim it did. It simply hasn't aged well (but soon you get Singin' in the Rain, which is pretty much perfect, so there's that).

    1. Whether or not it deserves its awards and acclaim I am not fit to say. I am so far from its taget group that I cannot even tell it is a good exponent of the genre.
      Nevertheless it makes me wonder it this was really such a weeks year that this could win and from I have seen so far I do not think so,

  2. You might be surprised that I don't entirely disagree with you about the movie. This has always seemed sort of bloated to me and I find the famous ballet kind of boring. On the other hand, I will defend Gene Kelly and George Gershwin's songs to the death! My favorite from the movie is "Our Love Is Here to Stay", which Kelly sings to Leslie Caron on the banks of the Seine.

    1. I did expect a lot from the songs and with "I got Rythm" early on I thought I was in for a treat. The rest of the songs however just did not do much for me, sadly. I am looking forward to "Singing in the Rain". There I hope my expectations are justified.

  3. Not every movie on this list is going to click with everyone. I liked this one more than you, but you seemed to like The African Queen more than I did. I do think you will like Singin' in the Rain.

    1. I pin my hopes on that. Strangely I have never seen anything but extracts from it, so I am looking forward to see it with anticipation and not a little trepidation.