Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
The first lines in An American in Paris, as the camera lovingly pans over Paris and we see all the famous architecture and tree-lined streets, are “This is Paris. And I’m an American who lives here.” You don’t say! It’s so useful when movies tell you right up front what kind of movie they are.
An American in Paris is the
first movie musical and first film in color in this series. Okay, fine… The Wizard of Oz was both a musical and it was in color. But it came out a full 12 years before this one and was a technological marvel at the time. All the films I’ve watched recently from the intervening years have been in black and white, so we’re only really hitting the Era of Color now, with An American in Paris. Same deal for big-time movie musicals.
With that out of the way, man, is this movie special. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the rest of the movie struggles to live up to the class and subtlety of the opening lines. Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), the most gratingly American name they could have picked, is, wait for it, an American, who, you’ll want to sit down for this… lives in Paris. He’s an artist, of course, though not apparently a very profitable one (which raises the question of how he affords things like his apartment, though it is so charmingly tiny that he can probably get by with what he makes selling art). Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy woman with a hobby for sponsoring starving artists (in more ways than one, wink wink), sees him on the street and takes an interest. Meanwhile, he falls in love quite obviously (and with a certain callous disregard for Milo) with Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), a girl closer to his station who works in a perfume shop. As it happens, Lise is already in a relationship with a friend of a friend of Jerry’s. This is a tragic and climactic reveal at the end, but since the audience knows for most of the movie, it’s not a spoiler.
Interspersed with this very complicated and tricky plot are a number of opportunities for Gene Kelly to sing and dance. They are largely irrelevant to the plot of the movie, even by the standards of movie musicals. Its most recognizable songs weren’t even written for the movie; “I Got Rhythm” was 22 years old when it was included here, and ” ‘Swonderful” was 24. It would be like the equivalent today of putting in songs from 1990 or 1992; “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Baby Got Back” are fine songs, sure, but they’ve been around the block a couple times already. It’s safe to say that An American in Paris did not beget any new standards.
Now we come to the part where I might be a heretic and shunned forever more by certain snobby parts of the internet. deep breath I just don’t care about George Gershwin. I know he’s supposed to be the Great American Composer and his work is so well-regarded, but it just doesn’t land with me. It’s in one ear and out the other. Just last fall I had an opportunity to see Rhapsody in Blue performed by a local orchestra and I was so excited because I knew it was famous and I knew I should have heard it before and couldn’t remember any of it. I listened attentively, and… I still can’t tell you anything about it. It is surely a crime against music to compare George Gershwin to elevator music, but for me, that’s how my brain takes it. It’s just something that’s there and doesn’t captivate me at all. I’m sorry.
Which makes it rather hard, unfortunately, to be very fond of An American in Paris when the plot doesn’t sustain itself and the main focus is on The Music of Gershwin(s). The ballet at the end goes on forever and is nice to look at, but not worth the time spent trying to engage with it.
In miscellaneous Oscar news, An American in Paris actually won Best Picture in its year, beating out A Streetcar Named Desire. Now, I have no particular fondness for Streetcar, but it totally deserved the win over this. You can argue that singing and dancing displays more total talent than acting alone, but all the pageantry is in service of nothing substantial. The whole thing is airy and inconsequential. At least there’s more going on in Streetcar, delusions covering up reality and a power struggle and stuff like that.
While there’s nothing actually wrong with An American in Paris, I can’t endorse it heartily. There are much better uses for your time spent watching classic movie musicals (like the next entry in this series, Singin’ in the Rain). If you like Gershwin, though, this is going to be your new favorite movie ever.