An American in Paris

USA 1951, 113 mins
Director: Vincent Minnelli

When producer Jesse L. Lasky opened the envelope that revealed the name of the 1951 Best Picture Academy Award, he could not hide his disappointment. ‘Oh dear’ he declared, ‘the winner is An American in Paris’. Lasky’s ungracious aside came at the end of an award ceremony in which the MGM film had been riding high, garnering a raft of Oscars in all the major technical categories: art direction, cinematography, costume, musical score and screenplay. The film’s star and choreographer Gene Kelly had been singled out for an Honorary Academy Award that celebrated his career as a performer, director and choreographer, while the Irving Thalberg Award went to the legendary Louis B. Mayer for his achievements as a producer at MGM. The clean sweep was marred only by the Academy’s apparent snub to Vincent Minnelli, who would have to wait another seven years to receive Best Director recognition for second Paris film Gigi (1958). Minnelli’s omission may have been entirely within the norms for a contract director of the era – genre directors tended to be seen as helmsmen rather than talented artists in their own right – but the slight rankled: as Minnelli remarked many years later in his autobiography: ‘Some erudite types point to An American in Paris as the perfect example of the studio-as-auteur theory. I disagree. Though I don’t minimise anyone’s contributions, one man was responsible for bringing it all together. That man was me.’

Lasky’s shock at the outcome was perhaps less surprising then than it might appear now. In the 1940s, MGM was famed for its witty, colourful musical productions, many of which had been directed by Minnelli, and the genre was the particular fort of the MGM Arthur Freed Unit, an in-house production team with deep links to Broadway theatre. The studio’s reputation for quality and excellence was underpinned by two factors: vast technical resources (overseen by MGM’s supervising art director Cedric Gibbons) and a roster of top stars (‘more stars than there are in heaven’ as the publicity boasted). But the finished product was rarely considered to amount to more than the sum of its parts. In 1952, for the first time, an integrated, story-led musical was comprehensively acclaimed as accomplished and complex, and with the success of An American in Paris, the critical fortunes of the Hollywood musical were definitely remade.

An American in Paris was very much a pet project for Arthur Freed and his friend and frequent collaborator Minnelli. The film was structured entirely around the music of the composer George Gershwin, who had died of a brain tumour in 1937 at the age of only 38. The title rights to Gershwin’s eponymous composition were acquired by Freed from Ira Gershwin, the late composer’s brother, over a weekly poker game at the latter’s home; the purchase price was $300,000, and the condition was that only music from the Gershwin back catalogue would be used in any film that would be made. In an era when successful Broadway shows were forensically mined for film adaptations, the success of the former offering a guarantee of the success of the latter, An American in Paris, or Production 1507, represented something of a break with MGM practice: there was no pre-existing story to work with and no insistence that George Gershwin’s life be the subject of the film. Indeed, the only certainties were those dictated by the title: the setting would be in Paris and the main character would be an American who lived there.

Although the film was a popular and commercial success on release (grossing over $8 million from a budget of $2.7 million), critical reactions to it, as hinted in Lasky’s reaction, were mixed. Many felt that while it was superbly crafted, the film was more memorable for its weaknesses than its strengths: the energetic Gene Kelly tied down to a painter’s easel; a patently artificial Paris populated by Gallic stereotypes; a timid leading lady who doesn’t sing; and a thin, at times quite cynical plot in which ‘a kept man falls in love with a kept woman’. Its 17-minute ballet finale was widely admired, but was also criticised as an opportunistic imitation of the ballet in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the British film which had dominated the American box office in 1948. Admittedly, the film offered a feast of George Gershwin’s music, but this came hot on the heels of the Irving Rapper biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945), and offered none of its insights – however inaccurate – into the composer’s short life. The view of New York Times’ critic Bosley Crowther that the film was little more than ‘a minor romantic compilation in the usual gaudy Hollywood gay Paree’ was typical of many reactions. But for others, its flaws notwithstanding, it stood as the apogee of the craft of musical production. Among its supporters was producer David O. Selznick, who wrote to Freed: ‘My most sincere congratulations to you on An American in Paris. It is that rarity – a truly great film, and unquestionably the most distinguished musical ever made’.

Sherwin Kane writing in Motion Picture Daily was effusive: ‘If any serious fault can be found with An American in Paris it must be that it gives the customers too much for their money. It would be embarrassing, experience would indicate, if they expected as much every time they entered a theatre. The picture is a credit to the industry as well as the people and the studio who made it. No intelligent showman can sit through its unreeling without feeling proud that he is part of the industry in which it was produced. An American in Paris is Entertainment with a capital E, and of the highest order.’

As Minnelli so eloquently put it in his memoirs ‘just as no one sets out to make a bad picture, rarely under the studio system did anyone set out to make a classic. An American in Paris certainly wasn’t designed as such’. The film may have begun life as just another commercial entertainment project, but what coalesced around Production 1507 was a remarkable amount of talent and creative vision in the form of skilled artists and craftspeople for whom this project was deeply personal: a director reputed to be Hollywood’s most flamboyant stylist; the leading dancer-choreographer of his generation; a new screen star direct from the Paris ballet; family and friends of the late George Gershwin; musicians who had learned their craft from him; designers and technical advisors who had lived, worked and even trained in Paris. And the unparalleled creative infrastructure at Culver City, Los Angeles was entirely at their disposal: ‘We had the stages, we had the tools, we had the savvy, we had the manpower, and were geared to do this kind of thing’ remembers art director Preston Ames. Seymour Peck, writing in Compass, was bowled over by the achievement, and understood immediately the impact the film would have with audiences: ‘An American in Paris shoots the works, it is a lush, lavish, large scale, supercolossal, all out MGM lovesong to a city. Who knows, it may even put Paris on the map’.
Extracted from An American in Paris by Sue Harris (BFI, 2015). Reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. ©Sue Harris

Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
©/Produced by: Loew’s Incorporated
Made by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Produced by: Arthur Freed
Screen Play by: Alan Jay Lerner
Director of Photography: Alfred Gilks
Ballet Photographed by: John Alton
Technicolor Colour Consultants: Henri Jaffa, James Gooch
Special Effects: Warren Newcombe, Irving G. Ries
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Montage Sequences by: Peter Ballbusch
Art Directors: Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames
Set Decorations: Edwin B. Willis
Associate: Keogh Gleason
Gene Kelly’s Paintings by: Gene Grant
Costumes Designed by: Orry-Kelly
Beaux Arts Ball Costumes Designed by: Walter Plunkett
Ballet Costumes Designed by: Irene Sharaff
Make-up Created by: William Tuttle
Hair Styles Designed by: Sydney Guilaroff
Music by: George Gershwin
Lyrics by: Ira Gershwin
Musical Direction: Johnny Green, Saul Chaplin
Orchestrations: Conrad Salinger
Choreography by: Gene Kelly
Recording Supervisor: Douglas Shearer
Sound System: Western Electric

Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan)
Leslie Caron (Lise Bourvier)
Oscar Levant (Adam Cook)
Georges Guetary (Henri Baurel)
Nina Foch (Milo Roberts)
Eugene Borden (Georges Mattieu)
Martha Bamattre (Mathilde Mattieu)
Mary Young (old woman dancer)
Ann Codee (Therese)
George Davis (François)
Hayden Rorke (Tommy Baldwin)
Paul Maxey (John McDowd)
Dick Wessel (Ben Macrow)
Don Quinn, Adele Coray (honeymoon couple)
Lucien Plauzoles, Christian Pasques,
Anthony Mazzola (boys with bubblegum)
Charles Bastin (smiling young man)
Jeanne Lafayette, Louise Laureau (nuns)
Captain Garcia (man at shutters)
Charles T. Millsfield (man with books)
Louise Colombet (woman with cats)
Alfred Paix (postman)
Noel Neill (American girl)
Nan Boardman (maid)
John Eldredge (Jack Jansen)
Anna Q. Nilsson (Kay Jansen)
Albert Pollet (man at table)
Madge Blake (Edna Mae Bestram, customer)
George Dee, Albert D’Arno (waiters)
Art DuPuis (driver)
Charles Mauu (man)
Greg McClure (artist)
André Charise (dancing partner)
Marie Antoinette Andrews (news vendor)
Dorothy Tuttle (ballet dancer)
Benny Carter and his Orchestra

USA 1951©
113 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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