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Film Friday: "An American in Paris" (1951)

To celebrate Leslie Caron's 84th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the first film she ever made, which also happens to be the Best Picture winner of 1951.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris (1951) tells the story of Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), a happy-go-lucky American veteran of World War II now making his life as a struggling artist in Paris, along with his friend and neighbor Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a cynical American concert pianist. One day, a lonely society woman and heiress named Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) finds Jerry displaying his paintings and takes an interest in him and his art. She invites him to a jazz club, where they talk about their lives and his paintings, and Milo offers to sponsor an art show for him as a friendly gesture. While Milo is dancing with a friend, Jerry spots a pretty French girl, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), and is immediately smitten.

Ignoring Milo and her acquaintances, Jerry pretends to know Lise already and dances with her. She is standoffish and gives him a wrong phone number, but is innocently corrected by someone at her table. The following day, Jerry calls Lise at work and she tells him never to call her again. He then goes to the parfumerie where Lise works and she finally agrees to have dinner with him. As they share a romantic song and dance on the banks of the Seine, the couple begins to fall in love. Unknown to Jerry, however, Lise is loved by the popular French singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), who took care of her after her parents were killed during the war. After a whirlwind courtship, Jerry tells Lise that he loves her, but she confesses that, although she loves him too, she is marrying Henri because she feels a sense of duty to him. Heartbroken, Jerry runs off to Milo, kisses her passionately and invites her to the art students' costume ball that night, where they run into Henri and Lise. At the party, Jerry tells Milo that he is not interested in her and Henri overhears Jerry and Lise saying goodbye to each other. When Henri and Lise drive away, Jerry imagines himself dancing with her throughout Paris. A few minutes later, he hears the horn of a car, as Henri brings Lise back to him. Jerry and Lise run to each other and embrace passionately.

Jerry Mulligan: What gets me is, I don't know anything about her. We manage to be together for a few moments and then off she goes. Sometimes we have a wonderful time together and other times it's no fun at all. But I got to be with her.

The idea for An American in Paris first came to MGM producer Arthur Freed after he attended a concert of George Gershwin's jazz-influenced symphonic poem of the same name. Written in 1928, An American in Paris was inspired by the short time Gershwin had spent in the French capital in the mid-1920s, evoking the sights and energy of the city during that decade. The piece received mixed reviews upon its first performance at the Carnegie Hall in December 1928, but it quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and the United States. Using the title of the composition as a springboard, Freed imagined a musical about an expatriate Yank living in Paris that would somehow incorporate the Gershwin song catalogue as part of the story. In June 1949, after months of negotiations with the Gershwin estate, MGM purchased the rights to An American in Paris, as well as various other songs, and hired brother Ira Gershwin to provide new lyrics and revise old ones, as needed.

In late 1949, Freed approached director Vincente Minnelli to discuss the project with him. Although Freed and Minnelli's previous collaboration, the Judy Garland-Gene Kelly musical The Pirate (1948), had been a commercial failure, the Francophille director identified completely with the story's hero and took the job right away. A production like An American in Paris also had a sentimental value for Minnelli; it was a personal reminder of his friendship with the Gershwin family and his own tribute to George, who had died of a brain tumor in 1937. With only the fictionalized biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945) to showcase Gershwin's extraordinary legacy, An American in Paris present itself as the perfect opportunity for Minnelli to honor his friend.

Caron and Kelly during rehearsals
Both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were initially in the run for the part of the carefree painter Jerry Mulligan. Once it was decided to create an extended and extravagant ballet sequence as the film's climax, however, Kelly became the logical choice for the title role. A trained dancer since childhood, Kelly enjoyed a successful career on Broadway before making his film debut opposite Judy Garland in  Busby Berkeley's For Me and My Gal (1942). By the early 1950s, Kelly was at the height of his career, having starred in a series of musicals that helped define the genre, including Anchors Aweigh (1945), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and On the Town (1949).

MGM contract players Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen and Marge Champion were all briefly considered for the role of the ingenue working girl Lise Bouvier, as were French actresses Jeanine Charrat and Odile Versois. Freed, however, wanted someone "fresh" for the part and an actual Parisian ballet dancer. At that point, Kelly mentioned that he remembered meeting a young ballerina named Leslie Caron, whom he had seen dancing about two years earlier at the Ballets des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The studio then sent Kelly back to France to conduct a screen test with Caron and when he returned to Hollywood, everyone was impressed by the results. Despite her lack of acting experience, it was decided that Caron possessed the exact kind of freshness and spontaneity that the character demanded. She was immediately offered a long-term contract that would catapult her to stardom, with future productions like Charles Walters' Lili (1953) and Minnelli's own Gigi (1958).

Kelly and Caron between takes
Struggling with English as a second language, Caron found it extremely hard to adapt to a place as disorienting as Hollywood. The make-up tests were a torture for her and her pixie haircut (her idea of a modern French girl's hairdo) horrified the hairdressing department, who wanted her to adopt the fashionable look of the day: "a crown of tight little curls" in the style of Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. The studio even waited three weeks before starting shooting her scenes to allow her hair to grow. According to Caron, Minnelli offered no guidance either, with his only intelligible bit of direction to her during filming being, "Just be yourself, darling."

Kelly, on the other hand, was very attentive with his young leading lady and he was really the one who guided her in front of the camera, "with patience and good humor." Because of a natural anemia, aggravated by long stretches of malnutrition during World War II, Caron was often physically exhausted after lenghty rehearsals and shooting. When she was diagnosed with mononucleosis, Kelly was so concerned about her health that he arranged for her to have several breaks and rest periods during filming, frequently giving her an entire day off. Caron, who had never seen a Gene Kelly film and was unaware of who he was before her screen test in Paris, would always remember the song-and-dance man as "my protector."

The role of the dapper music-hall entertainer Henri Baurel was originally conceived as a comeback vehicle for the 62-year-old Maurice Chevalier, after his long absence from the American screen. However, MGM ultimately decided against him for fear of controversy about his alleged collaboration with the Nazi regime during the Second World War. Yves Montand was then considered, but he was also disqualified because of his "Communist tendencies." In the end, the studio decided on Georges Guétary, a veteran of French musicals who had recently appeared with Nanette Fabray in the Broadway show Arms and the Girls (1950). An American in Paris would be Guétary's only Hollywood film.

Kelly, Guétary and Levant
The part of the acerbic pianist-composer Adam Cook, a perpetual expatriate living in Europe on a succession of foundation fellowships, was tailored to Oscar Levant, Gershwin's close friend and confidant. Levant had met and befriended Gershwin in 1928 and Minnelli felt that  "including him in the film lent the enterprise a legitimacy." More of a pianist than an actor, Levant essentially played himself in An American in Paris and functioned as the film's primary source of comic relief, offering sardonic commentary from the sidelines. Fun fact: Kelly and Levant were both born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For the pivotal role of the wealthy American patron Milo Roberts, Minnelli initially considered Anne Sergeant, Mercedes McCambridge, fresh from her Academy Award win for All The King's Men (1949), and Celeste Holm, who was about to receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination for All About Eve (1950). However, when the Dutch-born actress Nina Foch came in to read for the part, it became obvious that no further testing was necessary, as she possessed "the right amount of savoir-faire, worldliness, sweetness and bitchiness" that the character called for. Foch, who made her feature film debut opposite Bela Lugosi in Columbia's horror picture The Return of the Vampire (1943), became ill with the chicken-pox during filming and when she returned to the set, the make-up department had to work hard to cover her pockmarks.

Minnelli and Kelly behind the scenes
Shooting began in August 1950 and proceeded smoothly throughout, despite Caron and Foch's illnesses. For the reunited team of Minnelli and Kelly, the division of duties that existed on The Pirate continued through An American in Paris, as Minnelli was smart enough to know when to let a collaborator do what he or she did best for the benefit of a picture. Relinquishing the reins to Kelly was also a pratical necessity, since Minnelli was obliged to direct the comedy Father's Little Dividend (1951) at the same time. After six weeks, when most of the script and musical numbers were done, production closed down to allow Kelly the time to work out the details of the climatic ballet sequence.

For the extravagant number set to Gershwin's An American in Paris, Kelly came up with the idea of having the lovesick Jerry think about Paris and Lise and what they both mean to him, with the dance evolving as his way of expressing his varied emotions as he pursues the girl throughout the city. Both Kelly and Minnelli wanted the ballet to visually reflect an artist's viewpoint, so they decided to have each section of Paris be shown in the style of a famous painter: Dufy for the Place de la Concorde, Renoir for the Pont Neuf, Utrillo for Montmartre, Rosseau for the zoo, Van Gogh for the Place de l'Opera and Toulouse-Lautrec for the Moulin Rouge. Each scene in the number was also shot in a different color scheme, with the costumes, sets and coreography of the large company of dancers reflecting the mood of the various sections of Gershwin's tune. Lasting 17 minutes, the unique Impressionistic ballet cost over $500,000 dollars and took one month to shoot. Ironically, it took two days longer to film the ballet than Father's Little Dividend.

Kelly and Caron in the ballet's Renoir sequence
An American in Paris opened at the Radio City Music Hall on October 4, 1951 to generally positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that the film "is spangled with pleasant little patches of amusement and George Gershwin tunes. It is also blessed with Gene Kelly [...] But it is the wondrously youthful Miss Caron and that grandly pictorial ballet that place the marks of distinction upon this lush Technicolored escapade." Crowther gave high praise to Caron's "freshness and charm," saying that "the picture takes on its glow of magic when Miss Caron is on the screen. When she isn't, it bumps along slowly as a patched-up, conventional musical show." The iconic ballet sequence was also greatly applauded by Crowther, who described it as "the uncontested high point of the film." For their part, Variety called An American in Paris "one of the most imaginative musical confections turned out by Hollywood in years," highlighting the ballet sequence as a "masterpiece of design, lighting, costumes and color photography."

At the 24th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1952, An American in Paris destroyed the perceived prejudice against musicals by winning six Oscars - Best Picture, Best Story and Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Musical Score and Best Costume Design (Color). It also received nominations for Best Film Editing and Best Director for Vincente Minnelli, who became the first filmmaker to be nominated for a musical since Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Very few people in the industry expected An American in Paris to win the coveted award for Best Picture, especially since it was up against such dramatic heavyweights as Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and George Stevens's A Place in the Sun (1951). When the veteran industry leader Jesse Lansky opened the envelope and announced that the winner was An American in Paris, "the roars that had greeted Freed when he accepted the Irving Thalberg Award were not repeated when he returned to stage for a second time." MGM greeted its unexpected success with an ad that depicted Leo the Lion, the studio's mascot, looking modestly at the statuette with an apology, saying: "Honestly, I was just standing In the Sun waiting for A Streetcar."

A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (2010) | George Gershwin: His Life and Work by Howard Pollack (2006) | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) | Thank Heaven: A Memoir by Leslie Caron (2010) | Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer by Emanuel Levy (2009) | IMDb | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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