Welcome friends and readers to Uncle AD's Classics Consultation. This is a feature that I'll be contributing to Film Faction from time to time in which I recommend classic films for you to check out. Basically I'm this site's annoying uncle who won't stop telling all the kids about his favorite movies.
The 91st Academy Awards will take place on February 24th, and this year's ceremony is already surrounded by controversy. To say that the average cinephile was displeased with the list of nominees would be an understatement. While I have no idea which title is considered the front runner to take the top prize, we can all be certain that, whatever wins, plenty of people will find a reason to complain about it. But of course this is nothing new. Back in 1952 the 24th Academy Awards had a bit of a Best Picture controversy of their own. Top contenders that year included "A Place in the Sun" which won George Stevens the Best Director award, and Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire" which dominated the acting categories. But the Best Picture for 1951 was awarded to a little musical you might have heard of called "An American in Paris" and to this day many people still wonder why. I'm here to tell you that the Academy actually got that one right.
For many years "An American in Paris" was considered the crowning achievement for the prestigious Arthur Freed musical production unit at MGM. But it's fair to say that time has not been kind to it's reputation. It routinely pops up on lists of weak Best Picture winners. And it's only got an average rating of 3.6 (out of 5) among fans on Letterboxd. A respectable number for any common new release. But for an all-time classic? An insult! Maybe this drop is because musicals aren't considered "cool" anymore. Or maybe it's just been eclipsed by "Singin' in the Rain" as the standard-bearer in the musical genre. While I have nothing but love for "Singin' in the Rain"--it's as joyous as any film ever made--I think this movie has just a touch of melancholy running through it that helps counterbalance all the singing and dancing and gives it a higher re-watch factor, at least for me.
The story, not that it matters much, deals with an American painter named Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), who, you may have guessed, lives in Paris. He meets a wealthy heiress named Milo (Nina Foch) who wants to bankroll his work while she gets to know him better. He's not too keen on the idea of becoming a rich lady's personal gigolo, even though she is very attractive, but allows himself to be talked into it because the dude is broke. Things become complicated after he meets and falls in love with a French girl named Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), who happens to be engaged to Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), one of Jerry's friends. It's a thin plot, nothing that's gonna hold your attention on it's own (Alan Jay Lerner's Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay is a bit of a head scratcher). But it's really just a vehicle to carry you from one song and dance number to the next.
Musicals, like action movies and some kinds of thrillers, are often only as good as their best set pieces. One of the highlights here is a tap dance number by Gene Kelly as he sings "I Got Rhythm" rhythm with a group of children on the street outside his flat. Leslie Caron gets a memorable introduction in her film debut dancing to "Embraceable You" in various color-coordinated costumes and rooms. And if you don't swoon to the sight of the two of them dancing together on the banks of the Seine as Kelly serenades Caron with a rendition of "Our Love is Here to Stay" you might need to make sure you still have a pulse. All these songs were written by George Gershwin, by the way.
Then you get to the climax. It comes in the form of "The American in Paris Ballet". The production number to end all production numbers. Kelly, along with collaborator Stanley Donen, had been experimenting with fantasy musical sequences for years at this point. But this time, perhaps inspired by the ballet from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" he delivered his masterpiece. A nearly 20 minute dance sequence without a single spoken word (and not even any lyrics to accompany the music) that operates on a kind of dream logic that was rare in classic Hollywood. It is the definition of a showstopper. Literally it's own self-contained short film. Nothing has ever come close to rivaling it. I'm not sure anybody has ever had the guts to even try.
The great John Alton--who literally wrote the book on cinematography (it's called "Painting with Light", google it)--was brought in specifically to film the ballet. And it shows, as the screen explodes in a phantasmagoria of vibrant colors and expressionistic lighting. His angles break all the rules. Abandoning the standard "keep all the dancers in the frame" philosophy, he moves his camera through the sets, weaving between dancers, starting on isolated details and pulling back to reveal a full tableau. The effect is dizzying and rapturous. Throw in sets and costumes which pay homage to the styles of different French painters, and you've got one of the most visually inventive sequences in movie history.
It's true that nothing else in the movie can live up to the final twenty minutes. If you removed the ballet it would be a fairly unremarkable movie. But I've never understood that argument. Take the car chase out of "The French Connection" and it's just another New York cop movie. Get rid of the early montage in "Up" and it's fades in your memory like most heartwarming kid's movies. Without the No Man's Land sequence "Wonder Woman" isn't even a particularly good superhero movie. Delete the best scene from any movie and it becomes a far lesser movie. It exists. It's there. And it elevates the entire production to a whole other level.
Finally, I've managed to go this whole way without once mentioning the film's director Vincente Minnelli. Shame on me for that oversight. He was truly one of the great ones. Without doubt the master of the movie musical ("Meet Me in St. Louis" "The Band Wagon"). But also had an equally deft touch with serious dramas ("The Bad and the Beautiful" "Some Came Running") and light comedies ("Father of the Bride"). Just look into his work if you aren't familiar with it. He was special.