Saturday, July 3, 2010

An American in Paris: Ars Gratia Artis, part II

It will probably be best to start this review by saying that this will be less a summary of the 1951 Best Picture winner than an examination of what makes a movie a movie instead of something more properly categorized as part of another artistic medium. But I will be honest with you: as a movie, I think An American in Paris is a failure.

Unsurprisingly, the studio behind this art-for-art’s-sake musical is MGM (whose motto, visible under a roaring Leo the Lion at the start of every MGM film, is “ars gratia artis”). No studio was more adept at staging and producing musicals than MGM. From the silent era through the 1930’s and up until the American involvement in WWII, MGM was the undisputed champion studio of Hollywood. No studio had more stars under contract. No studio made more profitable and critically regarded pictures. In the 1940’s, MGM made a slow decline. Likely precipitated with the death of “boy genius” producer Irving G. Thalberg in 1936, Louis B. Mayer became both studio head and head of production (Thalberg’s old role). Where Thalberg preferred to mount tasteful and literary productions, Mayer liked crowd-pleasers, and when Mayer became entrenched atop MGM, he and his management team released a series after series of “serial films”, like the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy, the Andy Hardy films, and the “backyard musicals” starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, starting with Babes in Arms. Ultimately, production decreased by half; by 1940, MGM had gone from producing 50+ films a year to roughly 25.

MGM was onto something with the Garland/Rooney musicals though. Babes in Arms was produced by lyricist-turned-producer Arthur Freed, and Freed would eventually become the most celebrated producer of movie musicals ever. While other studios shied away from musicals because of the expensive costs associated with staging them—after all a musical needs not only a film crew and actors, but also a team of songwriters, composers, singers, musicians, dancers, choreographers, more advanced and elaborate production values (namely costumes and sets)—musicals accounted for roughly a quarter of MGM’s output in the 1940’s. (I would also argue that shifting tastes in audiences hardened by the realities of WWII caused the genre to be less popular with the other studios in Hollywood.) By 1950, MGM’s musicals were threatening to bankrupt the studio, and Mayer was ousted after creative conflicts with his “new Thalberg” Dore Schary. Mayer preferred wholesome, mainstream entertainment; Schary preferred edgier message films. The new guy won.

Despite Schary’s preferences for more mature material and the fact that MGM’s musicals placed a hefty burden on the overall operating budget of the studio, Freed’s productions were successful enough to justify their expense, but more importantly—the musicals carved out the identity of the studio. Freed ran his musical unit as an essentially independent film studio within MGM. He was able to attract top talent from Broadway by providing them nearly total creative control. Such autonomy was unheard of in an era where movie studios—MGM especially so—were controlled by corporate committee. Free rein in hand, the most talented musical performers in entertainment could be found at MGM—Garland, Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, and both the star and director of An American in Paris, Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli, respectively.

Minnelli was Freed’s top director. Possessed of incredible taste and style, Minnelli helmed Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944 with Garland, his future wife, as star (their union produced a daughter, Liza). Garland’s versions of “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” were featured in the film and immediately became standards. Minnelli and Garland would collaborate several times in musicals of a variety of different genres (for example, they teamed with Kelly in 1948 in The Pirate). Minnelli was also skilled in bringing lighthearted melodramas to life. In 1950, he directed Father of the Bride to several Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Spencer Tracy and Best Picture.

Gene Kelly was the most ambitious dancer of the era. Unlike the only male dancer rightfully considered his peer, Fred Astaire, who was a lean, lithe classicist—Kelly was muscular, brawny and a boundary pusher. One of his earliest films for MGM, Anchors Aweigh, had Kelly partnered with Jerry Mouse in a dance duet that combined live-action and animation. The film also starred Frank Sinatra, whom Kelly would co-star with three times. In the Kelly/Sinatra film On the Town, the pair made extensive use of real-life locations in Manhattan, one of the earliest instances of taking a musical outside of the studio. Kelly was also a huge fan of ballet, and was a constant proponent of using ballet in musical films.

Minnelli and Kelly would find themselves ideally matched in An American in Paris. With both men being ambitious artists given near-total artistic freedom from Arthur Freed the stage was set for a musical which would shatter conventions.

When looked at as a musical that achieved the unexpected, An American in Paris is a complete success. One of the earliest scenes in the film showcases its young lead actress—French-born Leslie Caron, 19 at the time of filming (and who would later re-team with Minnelli and Freed in the 1958 Best Picture winner, Gigi)—in an impressionistic sequence where we see five different styles of dance—each accentuated by a different color—expressing the different moods and aspects of Caron’s character, Lise. Within the first act of the film, the audience knows that dance—not story, not acting—will establish character.

Another unconventional scene that establishes character is centered on Adam (Oscar Levant)—in the best friend role to Gene Kelly’s lead. The script gives meager details about Adam, aside from his musical virtuosity on the piano, a detail that he has lived on an endless series of fellowships, and that his cynicism is used as a foil to the general optimism of Gene Kelly’s character, Jerry Mulligan. In a dream sequence, Adam imagines himself playing George Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F”. At first it is just Adam on the piano, but the dream becomes more elaborate with Adam taking on the role of conductor, then a variety of other instruments in the orchestra, and finally as a member of the audience who is applauding his own performance. Minnelli uses split-screen and special effects to portray Levant as a wunderkind, one-man orchestra, but what it best about the scene—my favorite in the film—is that the dream suggests Adam has feelings of inadequacy toward his genius. He only feels successful in his dreams, where he can be in complete control of his performances and how they are received. In the context of the dream, it is easy to understand why this character—though granted a series of opportunities to live up to his potential as an artist, has ultimately failed to do so.

The finale of An American in Paris contains the single most avant-garde sequence to ever appear in a Best Picture winner. Unique for even musicals, Kelly and Minnelli stage a wordless, uninterrupted seventeen-minute ballet sequence where Jerry and Lise tell the story of their relationship and time in Paris (essentially recapping the entire film). Audaciously, the ballet is inspired by French impressionist painters (a key detail, as Jerry is an artist) Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Vincent Van Gogh (a Dutchman, but nevertheless closely associated with Paris), Henri Rousseau and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Kelly and Caron dance through stages where works by these painters spring to life—the dancers are costumed like the people in the paintings, and Minnelli pumps in colored smoke to surreal effect, making the colors of the art something tangible for the dancers to pass through. For added effect, Kelly incorporates several styles of dance in the finale—modern, tap, jazz, classical, and yes, ballet. Overall, the “American in Paris Ballet” is a vivid, inspired and masterfully executed sequence that provides a very untraditional end to a genre of films that demands tradition.

Apart from the rest of the film, the convention-breaking sequences I’ve just discussed would, by themselves be worthy of Academy honor. But there’s the rest of the movie to deal with.

Now, musicals have never been noted for containing screenplays with the depth, wit, or insight of films like All About Eve or Casablanca. The story is likely beyond tertiary in a musical. The songs, dancing, and performers are the draw for these films. Suspension of disbelief is key. Believe me; I have no problem with suspension of disbelief. I think Aliens is the greatest movie ever made, and to buy into that, you have to believe on some level that predatory, acid-for-blood aliens exist. I can buy into a ton of bullshit Hollywood shovels my way. The story in this film is so insipid and implausible that I just couldn’t do it.

Jerry is an ex-G.I. who has remained in Paris after WWII to pursue his passion of becoming a painter. He lives on the West Bank of the Seine among other artists in Montmartre. The building Jerry and his neighbor Adam (the concert pianist living off of renewed fellowships) live in is indicative of their status as starving artists (the Rube Goldberg design of Jerry’s flat is another area where an artistic element in film—in this case, set design—really helps to establish character). One day, while dining in the bistro below their apartments, Jerry and Adam reunite with one of Adam’s old partners, the dapper Henri (Georges Guetary), who has been a successful music hall entertainer. Henri tells Jerry and Adam about his new love, Lise (cue Leslie Caron’s entrance in her five-faceted dance number).

Next, the film delves into Jerry’s struggles to establish himself as an artist. One day, while selling his paintings on the street, his work catches the eye of Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy American. Milo buys two of Jerry’s paintings and eventually offers to be his sponsor. Jerry suspects that Milo has interest in having Jerry become her kept man, and he resists any and all seduction from his patroness, even offering to return the money Milo has given him for his work.

Yet Jerry is persuaded to go out with Milo on a few harmless dates, and it is at a nightclub where he meets Lise, and Jerry is immediately smitten. Lise tells Jerry that she is flatly uninterested in beginning a romantic relationship with him—after all, she is with Henri, unbeknownst to Jerry—yet Jerry continues to pursue Lise with zeal that borderlines on stalking. Eventually, she too is won over and goes on a date with Jerry that ends with a lovely dance between the pair.

Complications, of course, ensue. Milo becomes more aggressive in her patronage, offering Jerry his own studio where he can live and create art unburdened by financial restraint. A guilt ridden Lise admits to Jerry that she is engaged to Henri, and she feels devotion and obligation toward him because he saved her after he parents were killed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Jerry and Lise mutually part despite a growing attraction, and Jerry accepts Milo’s sponsorship.

In the final act, all of the characters are brought together at a black-and-white ball, Lise and Jerry confront one another again, cue the extended ballet-sequence, and when the film returns to normal, Henri leaves, allowing Jerry and Lise—the true lovers—to be together.

I had all sorts of problems with the story. First of all, it doesn’t seem remotely plausible that Jerry would outright reject Milo’s offer. Although Milo is clearly sexually attracted to Jerry, it is never once implied in the film that they sleep together or that Jerry sleeping with Milo is an absolute condition of her support for him. She may be a cougar, but she is also a businesswoman. Also, Jerry has never had the opportunities Adam has, so his rejection of financial support seems too cynical for his character.

Then there is the Lise/Jerry/Henri love triangle. None of these characters are given any real reason to fall in love with one another, or why their relationships would work. Only after Jerry pesters Lise to the point where she has to go out with him to get rid of him does she agree to see him. Jerry and Lise fall in love because he is played by Gene Kelly and she is played by Leslie Caron, and Hollywood dictates that the stars must end up together. Furthermore, we are given a decent enough reason why Henri and Lise would be together. She feels obligated to him, he clearly adores her, and he’s financially stable, doesn’t treat her like shit, and allows her to be herself. Why would Lise even think about straying, and why doesn’t Henri put up a fight? No man is that much of a gentleman.

I also don’t think that—aside from their dancing, which is sublime—Kelly and Caron have any romantic chemistry. Suspension of disbelief can work really easily when there is chemistry along the lines of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Gable and Vivien Leigh, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Kelly and Caron can’t hold a candle to those pairings. Even in musicals, where not much more than “love at first sight” is required to buy into a relationship, there has to be some sort of implied, subtle reason why two characters will fall in love. Maria and Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music complete one another; she gets him to loosen up and provides a much needed mother role for his children, he shows her that love can come from other places than God. Tony and Maria in West Side Story have the Romeo and Juliet thing going for them. Even in a musical as stupid as Grease there is subtext as to why Danny and Sandy should be together (they can both be themselves around each other). In the storyline of An American in Paris, Jerry and Lise have nothing, no tangible reason for an audience to buy into their relationship, a supposed demonstration of true love.

Of course, all of the information you need to understand these characters is within the musical numbers (though I could live without the Gershwin standards—I vastly prefer an original or Broadway adapted musical score in a musical film). But that brings me to my original point: if the musical numbers, ballet sequences and other avant-garde indulgences is what really makes An American in Paris, is it really then a musical film, or is it a hybrid form of ballet and other artistic mediums?

Suspension of disbelief aside, I expect a film to have a logical screenplay as its foundation. Without one, you have the filmic equivalent of gibberish. Look at music videos. While some videos do tell elaborate stories, most simply exist to marry image, sensations, and music. With no original songwriting material, is An American in Paris no more than an extended music video for Gershwin tunes and Francophiles? Is this really a movie?

History really seals the deal for me. One year later, Gene Kelly teamed up with another celebrated director within MGM’s Freed unit—Stanley Donen—to create Singin’ in the Rain, which is widely considered to be the greatest musical ever filmed. That film also indulges Kelly’s tastes for bringing extended, avant-garde ballet sequences to film, has genre-defying numbers, and the music (save one song) is entirely recycled material. The difference between Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris: the story in the former film makes fucking sense. The characters behave logically. The 1927 Hollywood setting perfectly serves the themes of the story—talking films are replacing silent pictures. The acting is magnificent. The satire and comedy works. You buy into the world that is created on screen.

The other key difference: An American in Paris won six Oscars from eight nominations, Singin’ in the Rain was virtually ignored the next year with two nominations and zero wins. That represents one of the grossest oversights in Academy Awards history. Singin’ in the Rain is a movie musical done absolutely right. An American in Paris is an experiment that indulges in far too many art-for-art’s-sake moments that shifts the work from being a movie into something else.


An American in Paris (1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch, Georges Guetary

Studio: MGM

Total Oscars: 6 (Best Picture—Arthur Freed*, Best Original Screenplay—Alan Jay Lerner**, Best Art Direction (color), Best Cinematography (color), Best Costume Design (color), Best Score) from 8 total nominations*** (Best Director—Vincente Minnelli, Best Editing)

*Freed was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the ceremony
**The category for Lerner’s award was properly titled Best Writing, Story and Screenplay
***Gene Kelly also received an Honorary Oscar—his only—that year for "his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film."

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