For most of An American in Paris, Gene Kelly’s charm makes up for his lack of acting ability. Even after it turns out the story’s about him stalking Leslie Caron until she agrees to go out with him. It’s okay after that point because she falls immediately in love with Kelly once she does. He makes her laugh.
Funny thing about Caron’s part being so razor thin? She’s the only one with a backstory. She’s the orphan of French Resistance fighter parents. Georges Guétary took care of her. And now she’s legal age and so of course Guétary wants to marry her. So there’s a lot of potential character development.
The script–by Alan Jay Lerner–does none. Caron’s introduction is a series of dancing vignettes, as Guétary describes her. Her personality changes with each. Then later it turns out she doesn’t get a personality at all.
Anyway. Adding to Kelly’s creep factor is how he picks up Caron when he’s out on a date with Nina Foch. She’s a wealthy American who likes Kelly’s paintings and wants to be his patron. Kelly thinks she’s after his bod. But he still harasses Caron on a real date. There’s even a scene where Foch yells at him and Kelly blows her off.
Immediately after it’s forgotten–as in, the script has Foch and Kelly talking about how it’s forgotten; basically Foch is around for American to mock. Not really for comic relief, but in a vaguely mean-spirited way. Because the movie’s not actually about Kelly arriving as a painter.
Oh, right. Kelly’s an ex-G.I. who stayed behind in Paris to become a painter. He lives above a café. His neighbor and pal is Oscar Levant. Levant’s old friends with Guétary, leading not to a love triangle so much as some situation comedy regarding Guétary and Kelly being after the same girl. Both men are old enough to be her father (though in Guétary’s case, only because he’s French).
The film opens with Kelly, Levant, then Guétary narrating an introduction to themselves. The film almost breaks the fourth wall and just has the actors directly address the audience. Given how laggy the device gets–not to mention how the film completely abandons it–a direct address might have worked better.
So while Kelly starves and struggles–before Foch shows up to save him in the second scene–but he’s actually an amazing singer and dancer. Everybody on the block loves it when he and Levant (a concert pianist who’s never had a concert) does a big musical number. The traffic stops. The pedestrians stops. Everyone watches and applauds.
You’d think Kelly would just get a job singing and dancing then.
His numbers are all good. Guétary’s not so much. He only gets one, though he also drags at one of Kelly’s. Sure, he’s French, sure, it’s Paris, but the French-ness overwhelms the musical number value. The accent. It’s distracting. And Paris’s Paris is already a little too fake. It’s beautifully constructed, beautifully lighted (Alfred Gilks’s Technicolor is gorgeous), but there’s barely anyone but Americans around. Foch, Levant (Levant’s gutturally American), an uncredited Noel Neill. Except Guétary getting a number to himself (and a slight subplot) takes up time and An American in Paris is always looking for ways to kill time.
Like Levant’s daydream where he’s playing all the parts in a concert performance. Pianist, audience member, accompanying musician. It’s funny. It’s utterly pointless. But it’s funny. And it’s beautifully executed with the photography effects.
Caron might as well be American. She gets so few lines it barely matters her accent is authentic.
The movie moves along pretty well until the third act, which has a seventeen minute ballet. It’s sort of where Kelly’s heart is broken and he finds himself in the Paris of his paintings but not really because the film never spends enough time on the paintings. Though Kelly can’t make the painting thing work. He dances great. He acts not great.
Spectacular choreography, beautiful sets, great photography, awesome editing from Adrienne Fazan. Okay direction from Minnelli.
American is an expertly executed musical. Shame about the script and acting.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli; story and screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by George Gershwin; produced by Arthur Freed; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts), Georges Guétary (Henri Baurel), and Oscar Levant (Adam Cook).