The Best Picture Project – An American in Paris (1951)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Story and Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner

Starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron

Movies, by their very nature, are artificial and could not possibly capture real life.  The closet we come is documentaries, but with the constant excising of the boring bits from the filming, creative editing and the like, even the truth is manipulated and artificial.

In the world of artifice, though, there is no greater bit of artificiality than the movie musical.  You can argue the most artificial is sci-fi, what with it’s impossible concepts, such as aliens and time-travel, but once you accept a few ground rules, such as aliens or time-travel, sci-fi movies seem plausible.  Unfortunately, accepting a scientific impossibility is not quite as difficult as accepting that people will burst out in song in the middle of the street for a big musical number seemingly choreographed by god – how else would strangers know their moves – meaning that musicals are by definition, the fakest of the fake.

Musicals generally deal with the inherent artificiality in one of two ways.  Some films reject this artifice outright, and try to make their musical numbers as motivated in reality as possible.  In Cabaret, the musical numbers all take place – save one – in the Kit Kat Club, and are not sung in the streets and do not have grand choreography.  Rather, they are simply the musical numbers performed in the club, usually in ironic juxtaposition with the greater story.  All That Jazz, the musical numbers – save one – are built out of the fact that the movie is about putting on a musical.  I know, it seems like cheating to praise a film that is about making something that I’m tearing down, but it’s true.

However, many films reject the artifice and just run with it.  Chicago doesn’t even try to make it’s musical numbers look as if they take place in a reality – they are literally filmed on a stage that is made up to resemble a cellblock built on a stage.  And while Fiddler on the Roof has all that reality of seeming to be filmed down in the dirt, it’s also about a poor peddler who breaks into song every once in a while.

Generally, I’m a fan of musicals, of both the real, and unreal, variety.  Of the four named above, they might well be the four greatest musicals ever – okay, Singing in the Rain has got to figure in their somewhere.

Unfortunately, while those five films might be the five greatest musicals ever made, you will notice that none of the five were named An American in Paris for the simple fact that I find the movie generally putrid.

Aside from being hampered by the inherent artificiality of movie musicals, An America In Paris also suffers from the other problem with movie-musicals, which is that they are simply too slight.  At 113 minutes, An American In Paris is truly too long by half – the story realistically can support only a single hour of running time, and even then it might be pushing it.  Yet, while the story is that thin, the film goes twice as long, led by a 16 minute ballet sequence that, while a bit charming, when combined with all the other musical numbers it made the film a bit interminable.  That it not only won Best Picture, but also a screenplay award, seems like a slap in the face to other writer’s, who actually wrong full-length movies.

As terrible as the film is, though, it is anchored by a rather charming performance by Gene Kelly.  No matter the film, in everything I’ve seen him in he’s been quite good and he richly deserved the Honorary Award the Academy gave in 1952 – probably earned because of that charmingly-interminable ballet sequence.

While I like Gene Kelly, though, I cannot stand Leslie Caron.  An American in Paris is the second film in which I’ve seen her playing the romantic lead and to be honest, in neither film was she all that impressive.  First of all, she’s a middling actress, at least in the two films I’ve seen her in.  Perhaps she was better in others – after all, she was nominated for two Academy Awards – but I doubt it.  Secondly, she’s not charming and if there is one thing musicals need, its charm.  Thirdly, and worst of all, she’s not at all attractive.  She’s got teeth like a horse and eyes pulled tight like a cat and I don’t see how any man on earth could seriously get hooked by her.  Yuck.  And because of it, the movie is yuck by implication.

Trivia

An American In Paris is in a select ground of Best Picture winners that didn’t rate a single acting nomination.  The other instances:

Wings (1927/8)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)

Grand Hotel (1931/2)

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

Gigi (1958)

The Last Emperor (1987)

Braveheart (1995)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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