BluRay/DVD Reviews

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

By • Sep 21st, 2008 •

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I came late to musicals. Despite how vastly cinematic they are, with their uses of camera movement, two-dimensional design, pre-recorded voices and lip-synching, etc., they still seemed inescapably stage-bound to me, with the exception of the rare few like WIZARD OF OZ. Even while I was at Tulane University in the 60s, and co-booking the weekly film screenings in a 35mm theater build on campus during World War II, I shunned this particular film when a glorious Tech print was shown.

But when their virtues finally hit, I couldn’t get enough, catching up with a genre I’d fastidiously avoided since childhood. The B&W light musical-comedies of Astaire and Rogers, whose narratives I still found off-putting, but whose dance sequences were cinematic perfection. Then, the later, Technicolor works of Astaire and Kelly. And later still, the sunset of the genre, which was Astaire’s swan song in Coppola’s FINNIAN’S RAINBOW. Again, as with Astaire’s RKO films, I didn’t warm up to the narrative, but Astaire blew me away. And in the years since, there were the odd jabs at re-inventing the genre by Ken Russell and Barbara Streisand, and with films such as CHICAGO, and EVITA.

In 1948, Powell & Pressburger experimented with the musical genre by inserting a huge ballet sequence into the middle of their film, something hitherto untried. It played a year in NYC at one theater, and was an unqualified hit worldwide, except, curiously, in the UK where it was made. Gene Kelly, wanted to do something new like that, screened THE RED SHOES for MGM, and Arthur Freed, the studio’s musical magnate, came on board. A year after AAIP’s release, Chaplin would try his hand at it, inserting a ballet, which he composed and in which he appeared, in his greatest film, LIMELIGHT.

Warner Bros’ DVD release of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is sublime. I couldn’t wait to show it to everyone. The reproduction of the Technicolor palate is absolutely sumptuous, demonstrating Minnelli’s odd gift of using color both garishly and subtly at the same time, through his signature mise-en-scene. The recent release of Minnelli’s GIGI (also Warner Bros Home Entertainment) fares less well, its Tech colors now contrasty in the extreme. (Is that because AAIP was shot in studio, whereas GIGI was shot mainly on location in Paris? I don’t think so, but…)

This all-Gershwin extravaganza features gifted eccentric-hypochondriac Oscar Levant in a fun supporting role. Levant appeared in many films, and wrote music for nineteen of them (including CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA), but here he is emblematic as well, since he’d been close friends with George Gershwin and, after the composer’s death, was given special status as the premiere interpreter of his friend’s work. As if to hammer this point home – that Gershwin’s music was his private domain – Levant is seen in a day-dream sequence conducting himself in a performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, playing all the instruments as well as piano.

For someone who seems to be doing an Audrey Hepburn impression, then-eighteen-year-old Leslie Caron must have been psychic, since this film was made two years before Ms. Hepburn had her first lead role in ROMAN HOLIDAY. When AAIP was released, the 22-year-old, Belgian-born Ms. Hepburn was playing such invisible roles as a Hotel Receptionist in ONE WILD OAT, and Chiquita in THE LAVENDER HILL MOB. Nonetheless, time has blurred chronology, because Ms. Caron definitely seems to be doing Ms. Hepburn, and in fact, seven years later, when Ms. Hepburn, who had performed GIGI on stage, refused to reprise the role on celluloid, it went by default to Ms. Caron.

The story was criticized at the time as being trivial. American GI Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) wants to make it as a painter in Paris. Rich vampire Nina Foch encourages young talent and then crawls all over them. Naïve Lise (Caron) is about to wed an older man to whom she is indebted, but then, love walks in…

Today, the critics of 1951 seem to have been wrong. The material between Kelly and Foch is hard-edged (as much as the censorship brigade would allow…) and real, and ends unresolved. A nice balance to the lighter touches. And a melancholy sense of loss pervades much of the story. Story and screenplay credit belong to Alan Jay Lerner, and he won the Academy Award for it. It also won five other awards, including Best Film, beating out such heavyweights as A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and A PLACE IN THE SUN. But Minnelli lost his bid for Best Direction.

The ballet advances beyond Powell/Pressburger’s landmark usage in two impressive ways: it literally ends the film (daring), and it is broken into six sections stylized after the work of French impressionists Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Lautrec (brilliant). Minnelli, Kelly, and Sharaff pounded the concept out during a hiatus while Foch was recovering from chicken pox…or at least that’s how it’s remembered in the excellent documentary on Disc Two – “S’Wonderful: The Making of An American in Paris.” The doc, strangely, has no tech credits, so I’ll imagine George Feltenstein (winner of the NBR’s 2005 William K. Everson Film History Award) was behind it. And the editing is particularly seamless. Included are a fine collection of interviews, even down to having located two of the kids who appeared in the “I’ve Got Rhythm” dance number, now in their late 50s or early 60s.


FIR writer Mark Gross wrote me with the above information: “GIGI, unfortunately, was done in Metrocolor, which doesn’t hold a candle to Technicolor, but is at least a lot more attractive then Ansco color which MGM foisted on Minnelli for BRIGADOON & KISMET, and generally emphasizes orange and green. I thought the color in this new transfer of GIGI was a million times better than the first transfer from 1998, which was reddish and grainy. This is about how it looked in a theatre, and the contrastiness may have been purposeful, trying to match the pastel quality of Degas & Toulouse-Lautrec. In fact, I began to like the film again with this color palate. It’s very close to my memory of what it looked like 50 years ago. Also, I enjoyed GIGI a lot more listening to the French soundtrack. Chevalier, in particular, has a lot more oomph & naturalness singing in French, even if the lip movements don’t match.”

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