Posted by Susan Doll on May 2, 2011
Fans of An American in Paris must be enjoying the musical’s high profile this year, which is its 60th anniversary. Last Thursday, a restored version of the MGM musical opened this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, and for those of us not lucky enough to attend the fest, the movie aired on TCM on Saturday. Closer to home, I recently presented An American in Paris at a local Chicago arts organization. I have seen the film many times, but researching and preparing my remarks provoked new insights into an old favorite.
Much has been written about An American in Paris as one of MGM’s classic musicals from its famed Arthur Freed Unit. Freed, a lyricist turned movie producer, gave Hollywood its longest-running series of musical blockbusters. Freed had produced musicals during the 1930s, including several Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland vehicles, but those made by his so-called Unit were large-scale, Technicolor integrated musicals. They began in 1942 with Gene Kelly’s first film, For Me and My Gal, and ended in 1960 with Bells Are Ringing starring Judy Holliday. Arthur Freed’s Unit of stars, directors, and other crew members remained consistent over the decades and included directors Vincente Minnelli , Stanley Donen, Charles Walters, Busby Berkeley, and George Sidney; screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green; choreographers Robert Alton and the team of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; stars Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Cyd Charisse; and musical associate Roger Edens.
The central theme of the MGM musicals is courtship and romance; indeed, in scholarly studies, much is made of the function of the musical genre in general, which is to support the social institution of marriage, or male-female relationships. The storylines of most musicals, including MGM’s classics, is to bring the leading male and female characters together into a union—so that the two become one. Opposing forces are established that complicate or stall that union, but as the narrative progresses, those forces are gradually reconciled or removed so that the two can become one. Typically, the main set of opposing forces is represented by the leading male and female, who are initially depicted as separate characters with separate lives. The narrative seeks to bring the two together, announce their attraction and present their fitness as a couple, and then secure that partnership or union by the end, often in the final production number.
The production numbers do as much as the dialogue scenes to advance the relationship. And, they do so in an abstract way, disrupting the illusion of real time and space created by the naturalism that marks conventional, mainstream filmmaking. Characters break out into song and dance at any time—in their tiny artist garrets, in a café, along the banks of the Seine. Some viewers—even those who love classic movies—can’t tolerate this break with the illusion of reality. Others are willing to accept it as part of the storytelling structure of a musical.
An American in Paris reflects the central theme of courtship and romance and follows the typical narrative structure of the genre. In the beginning, the couple is presented as separate characters with their own lives. Jerry, played by Gene Kelly, describes his life in Paris in a voiceover as he makes breakfast in his tiny attic studio. He begins his day by rearranging his one-room space from a bedroom into a dining area where he can eat breakfast. He pulls up his bed, which is suspended from the ceiling by ropes, removes a tiny table from a cupboard, and prepares his modest meal. Though not a musical number, he does this so fluidly and with such coordination, it comes across as gracefully as a dance. Lise, played by Leslie Caron, is introduced in a dance number as Henri (Georges Coutary) describes her many qualities to his buddy Adam (Oscar Levant). Boy eventually meets girl, as the narrative dictates, but it doesn’t go smoothly, represented by Jerry and Lise’s first number together. Jerry and Lise dance to “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” but Jerry is too brash and cocky for the serious young woman, who is offended when he whisks her away from her friends on a ruse. They dance in an over-crowded jazz café, which looks claustrophobic and uncomfortable, suggesting that the two are NOT making beautiful music together. Later, Jerry and Lise perform the song “Our Love Is Here to Stay” once again. By this time, their mutual attraction has been established, and they begin to dance together in perfect unison. Dancing and singing in harmony indicate to the audience that Jerry and Lise have fallen in love, something the couple realize as the number progresses.
The leading male and female characters are not the only opposition that has to be reconciled in a musical. Typical sets of opposing forces that will interfere with or affect the central union include youth vs. age, immaturity vs. maturity, and being broke vs. being wealthy. All of these occur in An American in Paris. For example, youth vs. middle age takes the form of Lise and Henri. The two are betrothed, but he is clearly too old for her—an idea suggested via his musical numbers, which paint him as an old-fashioned gent from another generation. In an operetta-style number called “By Strauss,” Henri sings with Adam and Jerry, reveling how much he likes old-fashioned operettas while Jerry prefers jazz. Later, Henri sings “Stairway to Paradise,” an old-style type of production number that was popular back in the days of musical reviews, such as the Ziegfeld Follies. In comparison, Jerry sings and dances to an energetic “I’ve Got Rhythm” for the neighborhood children, suggesting his youthfulness. The musical numbers telegraph to viewers that it is Jerry and Lise who belong together—not Lise and Henri—while simultaneously smoothing over any discomfort the audience feels that Jerry is stealing another man’s girl.
What makes An American in Paris stand out is a unique opposition that reflects Vincente Minnelli’s personal interests. Minnelli, who had been a set designer on Broadway and was also an amateur painter, had a life-long interest in bridging the gap between fine art and popular art. In terms of significance to a culture, or the discipline and aesthetics involved in both, Minnelli felt there was no distinction between high and low art. In the film, the opposition of high art vs. popular art crops up in several scenes. When Oscar Levant as Adam dreams of performing in a major concert hall, he plays Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” with seriousness and verve, but Minnelli lightens the scene—without destroying the credibility of the performance—by using special effects to make it look like every musician in the orchestra is Levant.
It’s the glorious 17-minute ballet that ends An American in Paris where Minnelli most effectively reconciles high art and popular culture. The ballet re-spins the main story of Jerry and Lise in dance form, conveying the story of boy meets girl/boy loses girl in chapters, or sections. Each section is structured around the painting style of a different Impressionist or Post-Impressionist artist. The ballet opens with Jerry, or the boy, in front of a drawing of the Place de Concorde in the linear style of Raoul Dufy. As the romance begins, the boy dances down a lane in front of a flower stand where he spots the girl. The subject matter of a Parisian street scene along with the splotches of bright color echoes the work of Auguste Renoir. As the boy loses sight of the girl, he finds himself in an alley where he meets four male friends. The set design is in the style of Maurice Utrillo. The characters dance toward a fair scene rendered a la Henri Rousseau. There, boy sees girl once again, and the pair re-unite through dance, including a romantic, erotic moment in which they move in silhouette against brightly colored backgrounds. The pair moves to the Paris Opera House, which is based on a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. The dominant color in this scene in yellow; as a matter of fact, costume designer Irene Sharaff and art director Preston Ames used 27 different yellows to re-create this image. A character steps into view wearing a sandwich board advertizing the work of Toulouse-Lautrec. He turns around to reveal Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawing for La Rire magazine titled “Chocolat Dansant dans un Bar.” Chocolat, a popular Black entertainer who was a regular performer at the Nouvelle Cirque, had been rendered by the artist having fun at a Parisian night spot called Bar Darchille. The drawing dissolves into Gene Kelly striking Chocolat’s pose before launching into a jazzy dance that showcases Kelly’s muscular body and athleticism. He’s eventually joined by Leslie Caron in the guise of Jane Avril, a real-life can-can dancer who was the toast of the Moulin Rouge when Toulouse-Lautrec was capturing that era in its heyday. After this robust set, the couple returns to the fountain where the boy suddenly finds himself alone, and the setting dissolves again into the Place de la Concorde a la Dufy.
Interpreting the ballet via the imagery of the Impressionists was more than just copying paintings by the artists and using them as backdrops. Minnelli tried to translate the mood of each painter through lighting techniques, color, and composition. Legendary cinematographer John Alton was in charge of the ballet sequence, and he specialized in the expressionistic lighting effects often used in film noir. Alton perfected shooting through fog, using streaks of light to enhance the movement of the characters, and shooting characters in silhouette—all of which Minnelli applied to the ballet sequence to recast the work of the Impressionists in cinematic language. Alton authored a book in 1949 titled Painting with Light, which not only describes cinematography but also echoed the goal of the Impressionists, who placed more importance on capturing the effects of color and light than on subject matter.
Costumer Irene Sharaff and art director Preston Ames (aka E. Preston Ames) worked closely with Minnelli in the ballet to translate the colors used by the Impressionists into those that looked best in Technicolor film. MGM musicals were famous for the use of primary colors in their visual design, which doesn’t really define the Impressionists’ palette. But, the careful placement of colors by Minnelli’s team so that one brings out the vividness of the other recalls the Impressionists’ ability to understand how one color affects another when juxtaposed to it. Technicolor red was used to such great effect in the ballet that it was dubbed Minnelli red.
My favorite part of the ballet was the interpretation of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and drawings of Chocolat and Jane Avril. In addition to the wonderfully jazzy choreography by Gene Kelly, which also seems to capture the tense lines and dynamism of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and drawings, this section provides a terrific example of Minnelli’s attempts to reconcile high art and popular art. In effect, the style and personalities of 19th century popular artists Chocolat and Jane Avril were interpreted by fine artist Toulouse-Lautrec, whose work was then re-envisioned by popular artist Minnelli in a 20th century medium. Minnelli had indeed collapsed the boundaries of European high art and American pop culture. And, on top of all that: The boy still gets the girl.
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