Saturday, October 04, 2008

Tonight's Movie: An American in Paris (1951)

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, winner of six Academy Awards, is one of the greatest examples of the brilliance of the MGM musical "stock company" of the '40s and '50s. Happily for musical fans, as well as for film history, there is a new DVD Special Edition which ranks as one of the best DVD releases of the year.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS holds a special place in my viewing memories as I was privileged to attend a screening of the film with director Vincente Minnelli present in the audience. This event took place at the Tiffany Theater in Hollywood in the late '70s or early '80s. The autographs on my program from that night are a partial "Who's Who" from MGM musicals -- along with Vincente Minnelli and music director Saul Chaplin (an exceptionally nice man whose autobiography I recommend), it holds the signatures of Ann Miller, Tom Drake, Mel Torme, and Virginia O'Brien, and one or two names which have slipped my mind. At the conclusion of the title ballet, the audience expressed its appreciation to Minnelli with thunderous applause.

The story is fairly simple: Jerry (Gene Kelly), an ex-G.I. painting in Paris, falls in love with Lise (Leslie Caron), a young French girl he spots in a nightclub. Jerry and Lise's romance is complicated by her relationship with the man (Georges Guetary) who protected her after her father died during the war, as well as by Jerry's relationship with his jealous wealthy patron (Nina Foch). Oscar Levant provides sarcastic comic relief as Jerry's friend.

The story is somewhat dark at times, especially as Guetary plays a nice, decent man who will be hurt if Lise chooses Jerry. However, the difficult romance is set against the backdrop of a marvelous catalogue of lighthearted, romantic Gershwin songs. My favorite musical number, other than the concluding ballet, is "Our Love is Here to Stay," a romantic dance which rivals another MGM classic, the Astaire-Charisse "Dancing in the Dark" from THE BAND WAGON, as one of my all-time favorite dance duets.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, which runs 113 minutes, won an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film's other Oscars were for Best Screenplay (Alan Jay Lerner), Best Color Costume Design (Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, and Irene Sharaff), Best Color Art and Set Decoration (Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons, Edwin Willis and F. Keogh Gleason), Best Scoring (Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin) and Best Color Cinematography (John Alton and Alfred Gilks).

John Alton, who filmed the concluding 17-minute ballet, is best-known today for his black and white photography in the film noir genre. I wrote a little about Alton in a review of MYSTERY STREET (1950), filmed the year before PARIS. Remarkably, the PARIS ballet, a veritable explosion of color, was Alton's first-ever color cinematography.

It's truly remarkable, from the perspective of today, to realize that the artistic talents who made this film, along with so many other great MGM musicals, were all simultaneously under contract to MGM, where they could come together to create original musicals. Every aspect of the film, including the costumes, sets, and music, was created and performed by professionals at the peak of their craft.

For example, not only is the orchestration of the ballet superb, it's one of the all-around greatest representations of the "MGM sound," with the MGM Symphony performing brilliantly. (The liner notes for the terrific 2-disc Rhino CD list every one of the Symphony's musicians. Conductor Johnny Green gave away LPs of the orchestra's performance of the ballet for Christmas the year the film was released.) The trumpet solo and orchestration of the "Chocolat" sequence near the end of the ballet is one of my favorite musical moments; it's nothing less than thrilling. When you combine the total effect of the music with dance, cinematography, art design, and costumes, it's easy to understand why the ballet was chosen as the piece de resistance for the conclusion of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! in 1974.

The new two-disc DVD is superb in every way. The spectacular print was produced with the "Ultra-Resolution" process which was also used for the special editions of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, and GONE WITH THE WIND. It looks terrific. Mike Clark writes in USA Today "Contrasted with the standard DVD, its new kick is akin to a friendly bartender putting extra shots in your drink." I'm not a drinking person (grin), but he's right; the original DVD looked fine, but the new one looks even better.

Another review of the DVD can be read at DVD Talk. Leonard Maltin terms the new release "dazzling."

The many DVD extras include an excellent new 42-minute documentary covering every aspect of the film's production; along with new interviews with Caron and Foch and archival interviews with other filmmakers, the documentary features two of the French children from "I've Got Rhythm," one of the dancers from the ballet, and Uan Rasey, the first chair trumpet in the MGM Symphony Orchestra. (An interview with Rasey can be read here at the Robert Farnon Society website.) Film historians Drew Casper and Hugh Fordin are also among the participants. Casper is the author of VINCENTE MINNELLI AND THE FILM MUSICAL, while Fordin wrote one of the all-time great books on MGM musicals, THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST MUSICALS, which focused on the "Freed Unit" at MGM and how they created films such as AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.

The outstanding DVD commentary track is narrated by Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene Kelly's widow. She is very articulate and intimately familiar with her husband's work. Mrs. Kelly identifies each of the track's many speakers. New recordings by Leslie Caron and Nina Foch are integrated with archival interviews with Vincente Minnelli, Arthur Freed, Gene Kelly, Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Preston Ames, Irene Sharaff, and Alan Jay Lerner.

For those who are interested in learning more, I highly recommend THE MAGIC FACTORY: HOW MGM MADE AN AMERICAN IN PARIS by Donald Knox (1973). The Knox and Fordin books mentioned in this post are the two single most informative books about the making of MGM musicals.

The film and the DVD set are most highly recommended.

December 2010 Update: Tonight's Movie: An American in Paris at the Egyptian Theatre with special guests Leslie Caron and Patricia Ward Kelly.


Blogger Cathy said...

Nothing to write... just know that I am smiling- I adore this movie.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

It's so nice to hear from you, Cathy! Thanks for sharing the smile. :)

Best wishes,

3:24 PM  
Blogger mel said...

Thanks for your wonderful write-up about the new DVD set of my top favorite movie musical. My mouth waters but how many more times can one purchase a new edition of the same movie, even though it happens to be one's favorite - especially if one is living on a limited income?

5:03 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm glad to know you enjoyed the post, Mel!

Deciding when to "double dip" on "upgraded" DVDs is definitely a challenge. In this case, there are so many new extras that it's worth saving for, if it's your favorite. Or perhaps your library system is one of those which carries DVDs? I hope you'll have the opportunity to check it out!

Best wishes,

8:44 AM  

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