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An American in Paris (1951)

Musical Rated NR

Garishly aggressive. (And this is coming from someone who appreciates Baz Luhrmann.)

From Gene Kelly’s forced grins to its boldly monochrome sets to the horn-heavy George Gershwin music that is the genesis for the picture, An American in Paris is an all-out assault on the senses. If Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, which would come a year later, revels in movie-musical joy, this effort’s defining trait is insistence.

An adaptation of Gershwin’s 1928 symphony about life in Paris, the movie stars Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, a World War II veteran looking to make a name for himself as a painter in the City of Light. He finds a patron in the form of society woman Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who wouldn’t mind patronizing Jerry’s heart as well. He only has eyes for French ingénue Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), however, even though she’s in a relationship with famous singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary).

I know that in a production such as this the story is secondary at best, but surely any other narrative framework would have been an improvement. Manipulative of Milo and a stalker of Lise, Jerry comes across as a creepy opportunist. The audience’s sympathies are all out of whack – I still wonder what happened to Milo after Jerry abruptly abandons her at a climactic party – and Kelly, the actor, doesn’t have the charm to win us back.

Mugging for kids is one thing, but that’s the tone of the entire picture.

So let’s concentrate on the dancing then. It’s wonderful as always, especially the tap scenes, but never quite effortless. The closest Kelly comes to capturing that crucial quality is when performing “I Got Rhythm” for a crowd of Parisian children, yet even there his smile is so intense you’re afraid he’s going to bite them.

Mugging for kids is one thing, but that’s the tone of the entire picture. Oscar Levant, as Jerry’s pianist friend, is the worst offender. Yes, he can play, but he has a bleating voice that’s piercing even when paired with Kelly or Guetary in one of their bludgeoning group songs. I cringed whenever Levant appeared, so imagine my horror when his fantasy sequence began and the screen filled with dozens of him.

Caron, for her part, is a non-factor. A skillful solo dancer in a variety of styles, she has zero chemistry with Kelly (there’s more fire in his one duet with Guetary). There’s no dramatic weight to the relationship between Jerry and Lise – certainly far less than Jerry’s other relationships in the movie – and as a result there’s little weight to their musical numbers as well.

Is that why the rest of the film tries so hard? Yes, I’m including the camerawork of Vincent Minnelli, which is admirable in its sophistication, mobility and ambition, but under these circumstances comes off as more piling on. An American in Paris comes to a climax with an extended fantasy sequence in which Jerry cavorts through a nightmare version of the city, symbolically mourning his loss of Lise. As much as I admired the many, many moving parts – and that fountain, with its spouting water frozen in space, is something – they all add up to a movie that’s pushing the “wow!” button way too hard. An American in Paris is going to entertain you – or have a stroke trying.