An American in Paris at the Glasgow Film Festival

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Glasgow Film Festival.

Sunday 19th February, 11am – An American in Paris (1951)

An American in Paris at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning? This will gauge the true extent of Gene’s appeal in the old city, and, I have to say, the turnout was pretty good, much better than I had anticipated — not like yesterday’s packed-to-the-rafters crowd, but pretty close. As usual we began with an introduction from Allan Hunter and a thank you to the sponsors of the festival — Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, Creative Scotland, and Event Scotland.

A chap in the seat in front of me, who had clearly been dragged to the cinema by his girlfriend, asked, “Is this a musical?” Not a good start. Then, to my utter astonishment, I spotted Pat bounding up the stairs and waving at me like an old friend. An “Astaire man” at a Sunday morning screening of An American in Paris? This was much more promising. [Read yesterday’s post for more on Pat.]

Fans usually place An American in Paris either at the summit or at the second spot in the Gene pantheon. For the score, the choreography and the dancing, I would place it third. There are some problems, not least of which is the character of Jerry Mulligan: a petulant, self-righteous narcissist who also exhibits the behavioural patterns of a serial stalker. Mulligan’s wooing of Leslie Caron in the Perfume Shop is perhaps the most implausible courtship recorded on film — she makes the transition from revulsion to breathlessly charmed in precisely 1.8 seconds and all because her relentless suitor (not even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator possesses that kind of doggedness) pretends to squirt perfume in his mouth and put one of the bottles on his head…

Gene is supposed to be playing a much younger man here, so we can maybe forgive Jerry’s atrocious behaviour in the nightclub, mere minutes after his haughty and precious indignation at Milo’s little ruse to lure him to her apartment. Personally, I’ve always preferred Nina Foch’s predatory heiress to Leslie Caron’s irritatingly childish gamine; the giant bow on Milo’s blouse when we first see her is identical to those favoured by Romantic poets like Keats, Shelley and Byron, and it tells us much about her character — the romantic notions that define her will also be her undoing.

Directorially and choreographically, the film is an unadulterated joy. Vincente Minelli and Gene have never been more masterful. Gene’s heavily choreographed morning routine was met with titters of delight by the audience and I found myself marvelling again at the movement of Minelli’s camera during the initial introductions and his use of subjective camera — very reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch. When the camera pans from Georges Guetary and Oscar Levant to the mirror where their reflections dissolve for the beautifully framed ‘Embraceable You’ medley that showcases the various aspects of Lise’s personality, it’s difficult to think of anybody who has received a more gorgeous on screen introduction than Leslie Caron is favoured with here.

Georges Guetary is more than an able replacement for the original choice of Maurice Chevalier and his rendition of ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,’ complete with unruly displays of affection from adoring fan girls, is a splendid evocation of Parisian Music Halls. Although his romantic ‘advice’ to a typically self-absorbed Jerry amounts to this: tell her you love her and ignore every other aspect of the relationship… and reality. That Jerry is not only dumb enough to believe this, but to actually put it into practice, is always met by a silent cheer from me and the wish that both men should be woefully unhappy for the rest of their lives.

Oscar Levant was possibly as big a hit with today’s audience as Donald O’Connor was yesterday. The endearingly misanthropic and cynical Adam Cook fits Oscar’s hangdog expression and pessimistic demeanour like a surgical mask. The scene where Adam is composing ‘I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today’ while a troubled Jerry is lying on the bed is one of the film’s most natural scenes: it begins and ends with Adam whistling the tune’s melody, fitting bookends to his subtle implications about the real nature of Jerry and Milo’s relationship. It is beautifully written and played, but is all too brief. Oscar is a great pianist, too, and I wondered exactly how many people in the audience instinctively reached for the fast-forward button when he sat down to perform the Concerto in F… Ah, the magic of cinema.

Gene’s most important co-star in An American in Paris is, of course, the music of George Gershwin. The audience is treated to a compendium of varying interpretations and styles throughout: from the lushness of ‘Embraceable You,’ through the jazzy medleys in the nightclub and the achingly romantic ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ number to the breathtaking interpretation of the ‘An American in Paris Suite’ that closes the film, you merely have to sit back and allow the genius of a master craftsman to bathe you in a heavenly light. Those close to Gershwin have commented that he probably wouldn’t have liked ‘The American in Paris Ballet,’ but surely for a dance fan who would often offer Fred Astaire terpsichorean advice on set there are many elements that would have pleased him? As a film ballet and the realisation of Gene’s vision, it simply stands alone. The music, the costumes, the colour, the lighting, the interpretations of the styles and moods of various artists, the choreography and its execution… It is a cinematic gift of riches and time has been unable to diminish its majesty.

“I much prefer this to yesterday,” said Pat excitedly, the ballet clearly having worked its considerable magic on him. “Here you can see Gene Kelly the artist, whereas yesterday it was Gene Kelly, the all American.”

More to come tomorrow… And here’s what you may have missed so far:

About 

I am a 40-something-year-old Scotsman with an obsessive nostalgia for the past, particularly the films of Hollywood's Golden Age and American music from the '40s to the '60s. My appreciation and love for Gene and the field in which he worked is something I hope to instill in future generations -- I'm currently studying towards becoming a teacher and firmly believe it is a role in which I can flourish, once I overcome a small, but stubborn, obstacle: a pathological hatred of teenagers.

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  • Jennifer

    I was happy to see Pat return! Tell me – is he going to make an appearance in your first novel? Perhaps he will be godfather to your firstborn? I find myself warming to him and his bounding-up-stairs ways.

    This was a joy to read, mostly because it is a film I am so familiar with and because we share so many of the same opinions – particularly with regard to Gershwin’s music. The MGM orchestra was top notch and their powers are really on full display here. That searing trumpet solo in the “homesick” section on the fountain, during the ballet? *fans self* So incredibly evocative of… what the dance goes on to portray. I would also mention, if I may, the music in the “jazz hot” cafe where Jerry meets Lise. More Gershwin, this time from Benny Carter and his orchestra, and it’s terrific.

    Nice observation on Milo’s Romantic (with a capital R) scarf. I never thought of that before, but it tells the subconscious something, doesn’t it? There seems to have been a vague attempt to make Milo out to be a villain, but I just wind up feeling sorry for her.

    Completely and totally agree with you on Georges Guetary and his shining musical moment on the stairway to paradise. It’s a great song, and captures a sense of triumph and confidence, like “I’ve Got the World on a String” or “Sitting On Top of the World.” It always gives me a charge.
    And Oscar. Dear despicable Oscar. My favorite moment with him, as I’m sure I’ve told you before, is when Henri says “You only find right girl once,” and he retorts, “That many times?” It’s a little thing, but to me it perfectly captures Oscar’s cynicism, his deadpan wit, and ultimately, a bittersweet kind of solitude.

    If this is third in the pantheon, I can only assume ON THE TOWN is second. Looking forward to the rest of this series.

  • Marc

    Jen, you would have absolutely adored Pat; imagine, if you can, a cross between Henry Fonda in ‘On Golden Pond’ and Anthony Quinn in ‘Zorba the Greek.’ I was mindful of your affection for senior citizens the moment we started speaking.

    I had jotted down some notes about the music in the café during the screening, but somehow managed to overlook them in the final edit. Wonderfully jazzy interpretations that I had forgotten about because I find it such a difficult scene to watch thanks to Jerry’s behaviour and Gene’s inability to make him seem anything other than thoroughly obnoxious. The horn, no pun intended, in that segment of the Ballet is extraordinary, you’re right. The strings in the Florist section never fail to move me, either – so full of longing.

    I agree about Milo, I find it impossible to feel anything but pity for her, despite her obvious track record; she’s a slave to romance and that exposes her to all kinds of torment.

    It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I was able to properly appreciate George Guetary’s number, through my teens and twenties I always ‘fast-forwarded’ it; I even resented a still from his number gracing the cover of the first vhs version of this film that I owned in the 80s. Numbers that are staged in such a simple manner don’t feature often in Gene’s films, as you know, but there’s something just so wonderfully authentic about this one.

    I thought certain sections of the audience were going to have seizures during Oscar’s ‘realisation’ scene. Love the line you quoted and also the one just before that when Henri tells Jerry that, so far, his predicament is very normal, and Adam quips: “So far.” From Adam’s comments you do get the sense that his cynical bravado is a defence mechanism to hide something much darker.

    Yes, ‘On the Town’ is second and I know that you’re as big a fan of that as I am.

  • Pat rocks!

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