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An American in Paris: Best Picture, 1951

The 24th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Danny Kaye. An American in Paris was nominated for 8 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Art Direction, and Best Costumes. The top competitors that year were A Place in the Sun (9 nominations, 6 wins), an inter-class romance-cum-social drama starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, Tennessee Williams’s electrifying A Streetcar Named Desire (12 nominations, 4 wins), and John Huston-directed Hepburn/Bogart classic The African Queen (4 nominations, 1 win).

At the time, the Oscars still split multiple awards into subcategories for color and black-and-white films, separating the more serious Place in the Sun and Streetcar from direct competition with An American in Paris in those categories. Ultimately, A Place in the Sun scooped up both Best Director and Best Editing, while Streetcar all but swept the acting awards (in a clash of the titans, Humphrey Bogart beat out Marlon Brando for Best Actor; it was Brando’s first of eight nominations and Bogie’s first and only win). An American in Paris (which had no acting nominations) coolly collected the other six awards. Its Best Picture win was considered a major upset, even at the time, and many speculated that Place in the Sun and Streetcar had split the vote, allowing the dark horse to move in. On Oscar night, an additional special award was presented to Gene Kelly, the film’s star, for his magnificent choreography. It was presumed to be a consolation prize for his movie’s defeat, which failed to materialize.

When it is about anything at all, An American in Paris is about the romantic ups and downs of Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), an American GI who has stayed on in Paris after World War II to pursue his former career as a painter. Jerry, who mostly paints Parisian cityscapes, is “discovered” and adopted by Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy American woman of leisure, who quickly falls in love with him. Jerry does not share her feelings, and makes no secret of the fact, and their relationship soon becomes awkward, as Jerry’s pride makes him reluctant to accept her help and his lack of affection for her makes him leery of further involvement. Meanwhile, Jerry is good friends with Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a brilliant pianist who lives across the hall, who is, in turn, good friends with famous French singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary). Henri is in love with Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), a 19-year old French girl that he sheltered from the Nazis during the war, and she is affectionate and dutiful in return.

Without being aware of the connection, Jerry runs into Lise and talks her into a date. Soon, they fall in love, but only Lise knows that she’s got two irons in the fire. None of this is as complicated as it sounds, which is fortunate as the movie spends as little time as possible on character development and plot movement. After all, stuff like that would only get in the way of the film’s lush and elaborate musical numbers, all of which, incidentally, were written by George and Ira Gershwin.

The movie begins clumsily, with all three male leads introducing themselves in hackneyed, gratingly-similar voice-overs, and it never manages to shake that tone of artificiality and general laziness until the music starts. The song-and-dance routines, for their part, often seem to exist in a totally different movie and lack even the most tenuous connection to story or characters (think “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain). The film’s inability to decide whether it is a traditional movie love story or an abstract work of performance art rapidly grows tiresome. I found myself feeling the most in tune with Adam, who has the sourest face I’ve ever seen in a musical. He’s a cynical, cranky fellow who spends most of his screentime winsomely glowering and brooding until prevailed upon to tickle the ivories so that his annoyingly cheery friends can sing and/or dance. This he seems to do just because it is the quickest way to get them to leave him alone. Right on.

If one can ignore how poorly An American in Paris functions as a film, there are some things to like. I’ve always loved the music of Gershwin, and it is put to excellent use here. There has never been a dancer like Gene Kelly (no, not even Fred Astaire), and he is in top form in this movie. Leslie Caron’s acting skills are no better in this (her first film) than they would be seven years later when she played the title role in another Best Picture travesty: Gigi. But, at least here she’s actually playing a character her age. She is also a trained ballet dancer (Kelly discovered her himself), and well-suited to the role in that respect.

Of course, one cannot discuss An American in Paris without mentioning the final big musical number after which the film is named. The sequence, which is set to an arrangement of Gershwin’s “American in Paris,” runs an astounding eighteen minutes, or more than 15% of the total runtime. Yet another scene that effectively exists in a completely different movie, the number is a sort of daydream Jerry drifts into while the plot is being resolved elsewhere off-screen. After the number ends, the film concludes happily in under a minute without the need to resort to any further dialogue.

The sequence is, overall, extremely impressive in scope, design, staging, choreography, and (of course) melody. It is, effectively, the climax and raison d’etre which the conventional portion of the film has completely failed to deliver. An American in Paris never really manages to transcend the musical genre, or even function in movie terms, as the far superior Singin’ in the Rain would just a year later. While not without its charms, it joins the likes of Gigi in the ranks of empty fluff musicals which can function as entertainment on some level but are woefully unworthy of the attention and praise they have received.

It is patently ridiculous that A Streetcar Named Desire failed to sweep the 1951 awards. Long after the novelty of An American in Paris has worn thin, Streetcar remains a challenging and disturbing experience. Brando is a barely-caged animal, and Vivien Leigh startlingly deconstructs the Southern belle persona she had helped make into an icon in Gone with the Wind in 1939. Equally ridiculous is the lack of a Best Picture nomination for the classic, rollicking adventure of The African Queen, also a superior film to the winner. Incidentally, the Hitchcock film which the Academy ignored in 1951 was Strangers on a Train.

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~ by Jared on October 2, 2008.

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