On 2nd November I made a flying visit to London, to the British Film Institute, to hear Leslie Caron talk about her career and to see a newly restored print of An American In Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951). I am back home now but still on quite another planet. I was totally stunned by AAIP on the big screen. I am not usually lost for words, but I don’t really know how to describe it. I’ll try below.
On the Restoration
Firstly, the restoration is fantastic. They have taken some of the ‘orange’ tinge away, especially from Gene’s skin. It is all so sharp and clear. I knew Gene’s feet were dirty in the first scene but I didn’t realise just how dirty. And when he opened his eyes, I was almost blinded by the whiteness!
As well, the sound is incredible. I know it is always better in a theatre system than through TV speakers, but you can hear so much more background sound, which makes things more realistic. I love the river scene even on DVD where the sound changes from the busy street to the rather echoing riverbank, but now you can hear how clever and innovative the sound technicians actually were.
(If I keep on repeating the same superlatives please forgive me, but I find myself running out of words.)
Where to start describing Gene’s voice? You ain’t heard nothin’ if you only heard DVDs and CDs. Sometimes we may think that the emotional impact of his singing outweighs his vocal shortcomings but I heard no shortcomings in this restoration, even with the much more sensitive improved sound. He was pitch perfect. The first bars of ‘It’s very clear, our love is here to stay…’ reached right down to where no simple sound should ever reach.
In spite of An American In Paris being my favourite film, I never thought Jerry Mulligan was Gene’s most appealing character, but now I can see more of Gene himself in little throwaway looks or comments, and I have warmed towards the character considerably.
I’m trying to avoid getting to the ballet because it had such an impact it is difficult to know what to say. Just thinking about it now brings back vivid emotions. I think I already used ‘stunned’, ‘overwhelmed’ ‘intoxicated’. I eventually stopped trying to see everything and just let my eyes and my soul absorb Gene’s movements. I appreciated more, every step and line and perfect arrangement of his body, how thoroughly he had learned his craft, then imbued it with some magic, which lessons alone could never impart.
One thing I came away with is that Gene Kelly is much more sexy on a cinema screen than even I imagined him to be. I don’t mean that in any tawdry way; rather, it just oozes from him quite naturally. Yes, I know I’ve already seen this film and all of his others several hundred times on DVD (and Singin’ In The Rain on a big screen), and it sounds crazy to say I just discovered how sensual, lithe, graceful, appealing, beautiful, formidable, talented, love-joy-and-light-bringing he is.
If I didn’t ‘get it’ before — which I did — as to why the film scooped so many Oscars, I sure get it now. The film as a whole is such an assault on the senses that you eventually have to sit back and let it overwhelm you. It is quite intoxicating. Never let anyone in my hearing say that Gene is not a wonderful actor. It almost looked as though it was another version of the same film, with more attention paid to every detail and every word and expression of Gene’s placed perfectly. I even saw and heard a few things, which I am convinced are not on the DVD version!
On Leslie Caron and Audience Reception
The BFI interviewer said to Leslie that although Minnelli was the director, he gets the impression that it was Gene’s film, and she said that is true. She said that Gene was always behind the camera and directed everything except the crowd scenes and other actors’ scenes. He even taught her how to get the right accent for her lines and how to pronounce things. He wanted her to sing, but she refused as she says she had no voice. He did, however, get to her to hum a little during the riverbank scene. She says that she and Gene did not do a lot of rehearsing of their spoken scenes, that they just went with what felt right. Minnelli let them get on with it.
The audience at the BFI was not large but was responsive. The funniest scene was stolen by Oscar Levant, in the coffee shop. It really is much better when shown in larger format. The audience laughed out loud. They applauded at the end of the movie. There were young couples either side of me who looked like they might be a distraction — some people have no idea of theatre etiquette these days — but they were soon sitting as quiet as mice, except for the girl next to me who I could sometimes hear sniggering quietly — I think she had been drinking. But as the film went on, I saw her doing the same as I, surreptitiously wiping her hands down the side of her face….
Leslie Caron was entertaining. She was on the stage for more than 90 minutes before the film was shown. She looks very much younger than her age, 80. She and the interviewer talked about An American In Paris only at the beginning and showed the black and white Ball clip when Lisa and Jerry come face to face. That prepared me for what was ahead (i.e., seeing Gene’s face fill the large screen). Caron told the usual stories of how Gene found her and of cutting her hair with nail scissors just before shooting started. There was not much we didn’t know already from her book and other interviews.
The two talked about her other movies and the actors she worked with. She said that when making Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958), Maurice Chevalier saved his smiling persona for the camera and Louis Jourdan was an insecure worrier. They also showed clips from some of her more serious roles, for which she has won several awards.
An American In Paris is supposed to be on general release in Britain, but it is in only about four cinemas so far as I can ascertain. The BFI is featuring MGM films until Christmas, with AAIP running throughout November, then On The Town, Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and It’s Always Fair Weather showing also. Another London theatre in Hammersmith will show AAIP along with Brigadoon for one day only. I hope to make it to all of them, if I can find the time and the money. And I hope to meet more Gene fans there. It is a 260-mile round trip each time, but I might never get the chance to see these films on a cinema screen again.
No matter how excited I am by the prospect of all of this, my ‘first time’ with Jerry Mulligan will be an evening I will never forget.