I've been watching all the movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was An American in Paris, the 1951 winner, directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza's father), and starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch and Georges Guétary.
The movie is a Technicolor explosion of sound and movement, full of joy and playfulness.
Before I share more thoughts on An American in Paris, though, a few words about the 1950 winner, All About Eve, which was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starred Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders and Celeste Holm. It beat out Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon's Mines and Sunset Blvd.
I watched All About Eve years ago because it starred Bette Davis. This was in the phase where I was trying to watch movies featuring the greats of Hollywood's golden age.
Bette Davis plays Margo, a stage actress whose star is fading, while her protege, Eve (Anne Baxter) is beginning to rise. The young actress, at first seemingly sweet, uses her position to gain connections and benefit her career at the expense of her mentor. It's an old story in Hollywood, and it sounds a lot like what happened behind the scenes in Grand Hotel between silent film star Greta Garbo and a young Joan Crawford.
The movie is an enduring classic, well-crafted and superbly acted. It's worth seeing, for the way both actresses transform over the course of the film. Sadly, its commentary about youth worship in entertainment remains all too true.
Rating (out of 5): *****
An American in Paris won the Best Picture Oscar over Decision Before Dawn, A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis and A Streetcar Named Desire. The film features 11 songs by George Gershwin and has the distinction of being the first color movie to win Best Picture.
The movie tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, played by the charming Gene Kelly. Jerry is an Army veteran who, following the war, stays in Paris to make a name for himself in the art world. His best friend is an unemployed concert pianist, Adam Cook, played by the caustic yet talented Oscar Levant. Adam is the accompanist for singer Henri Baurel, played by French singing sensation Georges Guétary.
Unbeknownst to them, both Jerry and Henri fall for the same girl, Lise Bouvier, played by French ballet dancer Leslie Caron. Gene Kelly discovered her while vacationing in Paris, where he saw her perform in a ballet. At the time, Kelly was searching for a co-star to replace Cyd Charisse, who had discovered she was pregnant. He pressed for Caron, believing that the movie should have a real French girl playing Lise, rather than an American actress pretending to be French. The movie was Caron's motion picture debut.
The movie, of course, is filled with song and dance. No surprise: Kelly is a delight to watch. His dancing with Caron is equally fantastic, melding Lise's shyness with Jerry's exuberance.
While she's dancing, Leslie Caron seems more mature, more womanly, as opposed to her otherwise childlike demeanor. At the time the film was made, she was 20 and even younger, 19, in the script. Gene Kelly was 39. The disparity in ages is initially a little jarring, but after they dance together, it seems clear that, at least in the world of the musical, they are meant for each other.
Also competing for Jerry's affections is wealthy heiress Milo Roberts, played by Nina Foch, who at the time was 27, although she looks older than Gene Kelly, perhaps due to a skilled makeup artist. She sponsors Jerry's work, ostensibly to further his career but also in hopes he will fall for her. This is not something that interests him, and he distrusts the relationship from the start, only falling back on Milo when it seems as if his true love is unattainable.
Foch has a thankless role, to be sure. Milo is transparently needy and desperate, which clouds her otherwise stunning beauty. In any other movie, Foch might have been the romantic lead.
Oscar Levant is engaging as Jerry's piano-playing friend. While Jerry is optimistic and perpetually sunny, Alan is the perfect counterpoint: acerbic and self-deprecating, launching asides in a deep baritone growl. Musically, the two blend their styles well, seemingly feeding off each other and making their duets feel like a creative improvisation, with Kelly launching into inventive dance sequences.
For me, the dream ballet sequence that closes the film was particularly interesting. This intricate 17-minute extravaganza inspired my high school marching band's greatest hour. Our field show that year incorporated music from An American in Paris, and our choreography evoked the movement and color of the dream ballet.
The ballet takes place in front of backgrounds meant to evoke Impressionist painters, namely: 'Raoul Dufy' (the Place de la Concorde), Edouard Manet (the flower market), Maurice Utrillo (a Paris street), Henri Rousseau (the fair), 'Vincent Van Gogh' (the Place de l'Opera), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (the Moulin Rouge). It is a stunning sequence, retelling Jerry's experiences in Paris through the dream lens.
This movie proved just how multitalented Kelly was. In addition to choreographing several sequences, including the fantasy dance sequences introducing Lise, Kelly also took over in the director's chair when needed for Minnelli, who was tied up with his divorce from Judy Garland and other directing projects. Kelly directed the whole "Embraceable You" sequence.
Overall, the movie is a delight, a feast for the eyes and the ears. Without a doubt, up until that point, An American in Paris was the best musical to win Best Picture.
Rating (out of 5): *****
In a musical, dancing (or singing) together is the true test of love.