An American in Paris (1951)

MGM, USA, 113 minutes, technicolor

Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner
Cinematography: Alfred Grills and John Alton
Choreography: Gene Kelly
Musical directors: Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin

Jerry Mulligan: Gene Kelly
Lise Bouvier: Leslie Caron
Adam Cook: Oscar Levant
Henri Baurel: Georges Guetary
Milo Roberts: Nina Foch
Georges Mattieu: Martha Bamattre
Kay Jansen: Anna Q Nilsson

At first sight, this 1951 MGM musical starring Gene Kelly has little to do with the ethereal world of cinematic dreams.

But its climactic 17-minute dance sequence has been described as a 'dream ballet' with its stylised Parisian settings inspired by paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and other artists.

In fact, the whole film can be seen as a magical dream of Paris - not as it exists - but as how the world would like it to be - a romantic trysting place of moonlit walks beside the Seine, jaunty boulevardiers, appealing gamines and quaint Quartier Latin cafés.

Very little of the film was shot in Paris, which was instead recreated in the MGM studios in California. And, as so often in the cinema's age of innocence, Paris, Hollywood, was much better than the real thing.

The film also mercifully spares viewers the corny, laboured plots and slushy sentimentality of so many musicals and offers instead a sparkling script, well-observed characters and vivid performances.

It deservedly won the 1951 Best Picture Oscar and took the Hollywood musical to new artistic heights.

Star/choreographer is Gene Kelly (1912-1996), whose athletic, masculine dancing abilities were then at a peak.

Kelly, ever the all-American go-getter, worked 18-hour days on this movie. Relentlessly ambitious, he wanted to expand the frontiers of the musical by dramatically integrating long dance sequences into the stories.

He had experimented with short ballet sequences in his 40s films while the British ballet film The Red Shoes (1948) hinted that audiences might be ready for something more adventurous.

Kelly also wanted to make the movie on location in Paris. He had made On the Town (1949) partly on location in New York, a decision responsible for the musical being hailed as fresh and groundbreaking.

But MGM producer Arthur Freed vetoed the idea. He told Kelly: 'Do it here in the studio - in the Paris of the Impressionists.'

Kelly plays opposite his 19-year-old French discovery Leslie Caron from the Ballet de Champs-Elysées. This was her movie debut and although she doesn't exactly shine in the acting department, she is a great little mover.

Light relief is provided by the Jewish American actor/pianist/songwriter/wit and well-known hypochondriac Oscar Levant, who delivers many of scenarist Alan Jay Lerner's most memorable lines.

Of himself Levant's character says: 'It's not a pretty face, I grant you, but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.'

Of Paris he says: 'It's a place where you don't run into old friends - although that's never been one of my problems.'

His best moment comes when - in a fantasy sequence that is more day-dream than dream - he performs Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F as conductor, pianist and all other members of the orchestra, shaking hands with himself at the end and leading the audience applause.

Mention should also be made of Nina Foch as the glamorous older woman who patronises the paintings of Kelly's character, ex-GI turned pavement artist Jerry Mulligan, and Georges Guetary as a French musical hall artist (a role originally meant for Maurice Chevalier).

The credits also include producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza) who were jointly responsible for many of the best MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s.

Minnelli, however, was less the auteur (author) of this film than Kelly and was working on a second picture while An American in Paris was being shot.

The musical score consists of popular songs and classical works by George Gershwin (1898 -1937). Although Kelly sings standards like S'Wonderful and Our Love is Here to Stay, it is Gershwin's 1928 tone poem, An American in Paris, which is the raison d'être for the movie.

This joyous if brash and slightly bombastic work is played in full in the finale - the longest continuous dance number ever in a Hollywood musical.

Kelly had to battle studio executives to include the ballet in the film. In the end head of production Dore Schary said: 'This picture is going to be great because of the ballet.' (He was right).

The classic sequence starts with the parting of the Kelly and Caron characters, their love affair apparently doomed.

As they ponder a lovelorn future, a discarded charcoal drawing comes to life, bursts into Technicolor and explodes into a spectacular musical number.

The six sequences linked by the romantic symbol of a red rose are inspired by paintings by artists including Manet, Renoir, Utrillo, Van Gogh, Rousseau, Dufy and Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh inspires the dance at the Place de l'Opera while Dufy's style is the basis for the sequence at the fountain in the Place de la Concorde.

One segment has our hero as 'Chocolat', an 1890s dancer often seen in Lautrec paintings. Clad in tights, Kelly cuts an amusing figure that may have raised eyebrows when the film was shown in some rural parts of America.

The whole sequence is also noteworthy for its dazzling art direction, highly mobile camera and dance styles including modern, tap, jazz, classical, and ballet.

The sequence ends with Kelly holding that red rose again in time for Caron to return to the arms of the man she really loves. This is all romantic make-believe but a suitably charming way to end the movie. They all lived happily ever after, of course.

The film was nominated for eight Oscars winning in six categories including Best Picture (Arthur Freed, producer), Best Story and Screenplay (Alan Jay Lerner), Best Colour Cinematography, Best Colour Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Musical Score, and Best Colour Costume Design.

Kelly was also awarded a special Oscar for achievements in the field of cinematic choreography.

Robert Trachtenberg, the maker of a recent documentary on Kelly for American PBS Television, described the star as follows: 'A creative genius fuelled by single-mindedness, a volatile temper and narcissism, his need for perfection was uncompromising.' This description hints at the reality behind the on-screen fun.

Kelly went on to make Singin' in the Rain (1952), a second classic in a row, after which his career and personal life seemed to hit the doldrums. In 1956, MGM released his Invitation to the Dance, which was all terpsichore - and a box-office dud.

The genuinely joyous An American in Paris is anything but a dud. Regardless of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Busby Berkeley, it is hard to find a Hollywood musical with such a light touch.