Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tonight's Movie: An American in Paris (1951) at the Egyptian Theatre

We've had some wonderful experiences this year at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, but last night's event was extra-special: a screening of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) with personal appearances by Leslie Caron and Patricia Ward Kelly, widow of Gene.

Most of the family was busy last night with various activities so I was accompanied only by my oldest daughter on this trip. We're having a rainy week here in Southern California so we left for L.A. very early to make sure we didn't end up delayed by traffic. We made good time and stopped at a Tommy's drive-through on Hollywood Boulevard for burgers. Somehow I'd never had a burger from Tommy's before; I found it somewhat bland but reasonably good. Most people load up Tommy's burgers with chili so that might account for the bland burger; I prefer my burgers totally plain!

After parking behind the Egyptian and picking up our tickets at will call, we grabbed umbrellas and made our way down the street to the legendary Larry Edmunds Bookshop. I spent countless hours in this store as a teenager and on into my 20s, collecting stills, used books, and old issues of FILMS IN REVIEW, but I've only been a couple of times in the last 20 years or so, between having young children, less disposable income, and so on. The area had also become fairly seedy by the late '80s and '90s, but thanks to redevelopment it's now relatively nice once more.

When I walked into Larry Edmunds, I immediately met up with Mike Hawks, who's worked there for decades. I could see the flash of recognition on his face, and we had a lovely chat. He helped me amass my large collection of stills from SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and many other special things. It was great to see him again! I hope to spend more time in Larry Edmunds on future trips.

As a side note, Mike's collection of lobby cards is featured in two beautiful books: LOBBY CARDS: THE CLASSIC FILMS and LOBBY CARDS: THE CLASSIC COMEDIES.

Back to the Egyptian, where we were among the first in line to meet the legendary Leslie Caron and have her sign her book:

This evening had special meaning for me as, aside from MARY POPPINS and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, my first great movie loves were MGM musicals. Indeed, back then I had a still from AN AMERICAN IN PARIS framed on my bedroom wall (pictured at the right).

Over the years I've been privileged to briefly meet or see in person many MGM musical greats; in fact, as I've recounted previously, I once attended a screening of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS with director Vincente Minnelli and many MGM musical stars in attendance. That was close to 30 years ago, and there aren't many MGM musical stars left with us, although there are a few -- Esther Williams, Jane Powell, Marge Champion, Betty Garrett, and Margaret O'Brien come to mind, along with other MGM ladies like Ann Rutherford and Marsha Hunt.

I was very appreciative of the chance to see Miss Caron in person; it was wonderful to be able to thank the star of not only AN AMERICAN IN PARIS but LILI, THE GLASS SLIPPER, DADDY LONG LEGS, GIGI, and FATHER GOOSE and tell her that her work has brought my entire family much happiness.

The evening was hosted by historian Foster Hirsch, whose name may be familiar to some film fans due to his film noir commentary tracks. He also wrote the books on Edward G. Robinson and Elizabeth Taylor in the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series. The Pyramids were an essential part of my education growing up as a classic film fan.

Mr. Hirsch announced that the Egyptian didn't do things halfway and that he had a surprise guest to introduce the film: Gene Kelly's widow, Patricia. I was very impressed with Mrs. Kelly's work on the AMERICAN IN PARIS Special Edition DVD and her command of the facts regarding her husband's career. She seems deeply committed to helping preserve his legacy and the history surrounding his work. She gave an enjoyable talk for about 10 minutes, and then it was on to the film. Mrs. Kelly will return to the Egyptian on December 26th to introduce SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952).

Incidentally, after the film it was announced that Russ Tamblyn was in the audience, but I didn't spot him. Fortunately I got his autograph at a special SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS screening hosted by the Academy a number of years ago...

I won't review the film in detail, as I posted a review a couple of years ago. I will say that it's a shame more comedic performances aren't recognized by the Academy, because the more I see it the more I think Oscar Levant deserved a nod as Best Supporting Actor. The audience was convulsed with laughter in the scene where Adam (Levant) realizes that Jerry (Gene Kelly) and Henri (Georges Guetary) are, unbeknownst to each other, in love with the same woman (Leslie Caron).

The "Chocolat" sequence and especially the amazing trumpet playing by Uan Rasey, combined with the dancing, continue to provide a huge thrill each time I see the film. Mrs. Kelly recounted that the first time the MGM Symphony ran through the "American in Paris" music, Mr. Rasey played the music in "standard '20s Gershwin style." Gene Kelly asked him to play it "subtly sexy" and kissed Mr. Rasey with joy after the spectacular recording was completed. This sequence is one of the greatest examples of the "MGM sound" of the late '40s and '50s.

Yesterday I commented at another blog that I respond to the end of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) emotionally not just because of the story, but seeing the camera pan past those amazing faces -- Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Beulah Bondi, and all the rest -- who are so representative of a Hollywood now gone moves me enormously. So it is for me with the AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet. It seems nothing short of a miracle that for a brief period of time so many talents all came together in the studio system to create such amazing work. The last shot of the huge ballet company, before they all disappear from the screen, causes me to tear up, as does the film's final title card, "Made in Hollywood, U.S.A." We're all so fortunate that that special time in film history existed.

I must note that while every other film I've seen at the Egyptian in the past year was a pristine print, this print did leave something to be desired -- it was scratched in spots, especially near the start of each reel, and darker than it should have been. I've certainly seen far worse prints in my years of moviegoing, but it was not up to the standards I've become accustomed to at the Egyptian, and it was especially disappointing given the beautiful copy I own on DVD. However, what the print was lacking was made up for by the pleasure of watching the film with an enthusiastic, appreciative audience who applauded the musical numbers, except for "Our Love is Here to Stay," which ends so quietly that it seemed applause wouldn't have been appropriate.

Miss Caron was introduced to the audience immediately after the film ended -- what a treat to be able to express our admiration and appreciation with a standing ovation.

Miss Caron, who will be 80 next summer, is feisty and articulate. She has no plans to retire as she doesn't think it's healthy; however, she was amused by a query as to whether she still dances, saying at her age she walks her dog! She continues to challenge herself in various ways, such as singing in a stage production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in Paris earlier this year.

She said her most vivid memory of being a shy French-speaking 19-year-old filming AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was having no idea what she was doing and feeling terribly embarrassed all the time. She also found the slippery concrete soundstage floors very difficult to dance on and said Gene Kelly would sometimes have the floors repainted with sand in the mix to try to prevent falls.

She came to love acting, especially after Gene Kelly's then-wife, Betsy Blair (MARTY), introduced her to her drama teacher. She was very interested in the new style of acting in the '50s embodied by actors like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, and said that her performance as Cinderella in THE GLASS SLIPPER (1955) was her attempt to do a role in that acting style! She also said that Joseph Cotten was amused by her attempts to "get into" her role in her second film, THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (1951), and when she was concentrating hard before shooting started, he would ask with concern, "Darling, are you feeling well?" She spoke of both Cotten and Barbara Stanwyck with admiration.

She described director Vincente Minnelli as a very inarticulate man who nonetheless somehow has a distinctive style which shows up on screen. She was directed by Gene Kelly in PARIS and had great respect for both him and Fred Astaire; both men were very hard workers who expected long hours of rehearsals in pursuit of perfection, which was fine with her as she was used to that from dancing in the ballet in France. She also said that Oscar Levant was a very amusing man who said she'd never be a success because she looked too much like him.

She spoke for half an hour or 45 minutes and also took a few questions from the audience. It was a very special evening for everyone in attendance, and I'm so glad we were able to be there!

Previous Egyptian Theatre posts: Tonight's Movie: West Side Story (1961) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: Cleopatra (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre; A Visit to the Noir City Film Festival.


Blogger mel said...

Thank you so much or this wonderful post, Laura - I think it's the next best thing to actually being there.

I'm copying and pasting it to a word document for reference and posterity.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Mel, you were on my mind last night as I know from your past comments how much you love this film (as well as WEST SIDE STORY, and one of the stars of that film was said to be in the audience). I really wish you could have experienced it and am *very* happy to know that you enjoyed my post and will revisit it in the future.

Best wishes,

9:20 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Laura, what an exciting event! Thanks for sharing the pics. P.S. - I'm happy to hear that the Larry Edmunds Bookshop is still there.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm glad to know you enjoyed it, Tom! And another fan of Larry Edmunds, too. :)


10:40 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This was terrific. Thanks so much for sharing Leslie Caron's visit with the audience.

I also like this: "I respond to the end of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) emotionally not just because of the story, but seeing the camera pan past those amazing faces -- Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Beulah Bondi, and all the rest -- who are so representative of a Hollywood now gone moves me enormously."

I think you've hit the nail on the head here.

5:06 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

How neat! I loved reading your report. It was almost like being there. This is one of my sister's favorite musicals. She would have loved this.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Irene said...

Enjoyed reading this very much. What a wonderful time you had!

9:53 AM  

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