Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "An American in Paris" (1951)

Scene from An American in Paris
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

An American in Paris
Release Date: November 11, 1951
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Written By: Alan Jay Lerner
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant
Genre: Musical, Romance
Running Time: 113 minutes

Oscar Wins: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Art Decoration-Set Decoration (Color)
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Costume Design (Color)
-Best Musical Score
-Best Original Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Director
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Decision Before Dawn
-A Place in the Sun
-Quo Vadis
-A Streetcar Named Desire

And the winner is...

In the grand scheme of things, there haven't been that many movie musicals to have won Best Picture when compared to dramas or even comedies. However, director Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris may be among the first to usher in the golden age of the genre. It wasn't by adapting an existing story, but one inspired by a song. With a cast that included Gene Kelly and the debut of Leslie Caron, it presented the MGM musical mold that was just as much about song and dance as it was about story. It may not be among the best of the winners, but it's one of the most indicative of a bygone era; beautiful and enchanting escapism meant for populous entertainment. If nothing else, it presented to us the potential and artistic ambition that can go into making these films come to life.

Unlike most musicals of the time, this wasn't based on a preexisting property. Well, technically it was, being based off of writer Alan Jay Lerner's interest in the George Gershwin song "American in Paris." He would write a screenplay around the film in 1949 and would have it completed by March of 1950, which was done of the eve of his wedding. The one catch that Gershwin made was that every song in the production would be based off of his other music. When Gene Kelly approached the studio to convince them that a dance movie was a good idea, he showed them The Red Shoes. The studio initially wanted Fred Astaire (of whom starred in several musicals featuring Gershwin tunes) until it was revealed that the production would lean more towards ballet. Kelly was a shoe-in after that. Among the cast, Oscar Levant only signed on because he was personal friends with Gershwin.

Kelly also had another  request. Because the story would take place in "Paris," he wanted the female lead to be French. No exceptions. While in Paris, Kelly would attend a performance that featured Leslie Caron. She didn't have a strong grasp on the English language: a factor that wasn't as disastrous as it sounded, thanks to her limited dialogue. Her wardrobe was largely borrowed from the Elizabeth Taylor film Father of the Bride. Caron was so unused to Hollywood culture that she didn't even know who Kelly was, even if he had been lighting up musicals for most of the previous decade. Because of her malnutrition during the war, she was only able to film every other day. While this film would help to make her a star, her introductory dance was considered too salacious for some audiences. 

The film was not technically shot in Paris. While there are some shots featured within the film, none feature the central cast. The entire film was shot in Hollywood on 44 sound stages. For some of the extras, the lights were too hot, thus creating exhaustion. Irene Sharaff designed the sets so that they would imitate various French Impressionist painters, including Raol Duffy and Vincent van Gogh. She would also use 25 shades of yellow during the famous 17-minute dance sequence that ended the film. While a lot of credit goes to Vincente Minnelli as being the sole director, Kelly actually did more of the work. Minnelli was wrapped up in his divorce from actress Judy Garland during this time. Among the scenes that Kelly shot, he filmed the "Embraceable You" sequence. 

Then there was the finale: a 17-minute dance sequence. When actress Nina Fochs fell ill from chicken pox, Lerner decided to write the ballet over the course of three days to compensate. It also ended up costing a significant portion of the budget. It was almost not done due to them behind behind schedule. However, it received a go ahead by studio head Louis B. Mayer, who thought that the film wouldn't work without it. The scene was shot after a break, by which point Minnelli had shot Father's Little Dividend. Considering that the last 20 minutes of the film are dialogue-free, this was considered very ambitious for its time. The dance number wouldn't be the longest, as "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee was three minutes longer. Kelly would break his own personal record however with his next film that he co-directed (with Stanley Donen) called Singin' in the Rain

Unlike most other years, there's not a lot to say about An American in Paris at The Academy Awards that year. The film became the second Best Picture winner to be shot in color (the first being Gone With the Wind from 12 years earlier) and the first movie musical to win since Going My Way seven years prior. It was also this year that Kelly received an Honorary Oscar for his work in dance and film. This was also the first of two times during the 50's that Minnelli would have his film win Best Picture. The other came in 1958 with Gigi, which also starred Caron in a major role. Lerner would return to help pen Gigi as well as later winner My Fair Lady.

While the film likely gets overshadowed by the later musicals of the 60's, it remains a high energy and creative production that showed Kelly at his best, or at least until Singin' in the Rain from the following year. In 2008, Ken Ludwig would create the first stage version of the film. While he remained rather faithful to the story, he also went about adding a variety of jukebox hits to pad out the story. This included the Gershwin-penned tunes "They All Laughed," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and "Love Walked In." However, there's another production from 2015, which was directed by Christopher Wheeldon, that is currently in the midst of a Broadway transference. This version has since gone on to win four Tony Awards.

Even if the argument can be made that there are better MGM musicals out there, there's no denying the sense of wonder and authenticity that came from making a Gershwin jukebox tale starring Grace Kelly. It may seem a little dated and its sets more archaic than as innovative as the later naturalism, but it's a great transition to a bygone era of musicals. It's one where things weren't always so prim and proper. They were lively and showed the artistic side to the medium. Maybe there have been better, but few are as unique and as captivating as An American in Paris. Its whimsy alone captures something more optimistic and engaging, showing musicals not as something everyday, but of a mystical landscape that audiences can imagine going to. It isn't the real Paris, but it's close enough for this film.

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