In my guise as a professional musician, I have been known to cause shock and consternation when I confess that the music of Mozart leaves me largely cold, and, perhaps even worse, that I have a similar reaction to at least some of (heaven forfend) Beethoven. Now I think I have at least an above average knowledge of these composers and their work, but emotionally speaking at least, I simply don't have the same visceral reaction that I have listening to, say, Haydn or Brahms. Strangely I have found myself in larger company amongst my film loving comrades when I admit, sometimes sheepishly, that I have never particularly warmed to An American in Paris, despite its (to my mind, anyway) somewhat bloated reputation and multiple Oscars. In fact, I've found quite a large number of people who share my lukewarm reaction to the film. Everyone appreciates its artistry, no doubt, even its then daring innovations, and yet many, like me, come to the quiet conclusion that, despite its lowbrow leanings amidst very highbrow aspirations, it is a decidedly intellectual affair with little emotional pull to really involve the viewer.
However, as strange and counter-intuitive as it may sound, this resplendent new restored BD heightens the artificiality of An American in Paris to a point where the patent absurdities of the plot (such as it is) become less of a detriment, and one can finally just sit there slightly agog at the beauty of the images, and of course the gorgeous Gershwin music (presented only in mono). Producer Arthur Freed had wanted to build a musical around Gershwin's music for some time, without doing a traditional biopic (which Warner's had attempted, none too successfully, a few years earlier with Rhapsody in Blue). Through a series of friendships centered on George's brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, the title An American in Paris was licensed to MGM, along with access to the Gershwin song library, and then up-and-coming librettist Alan Jay Lerner was brought on board to fashion some sort of story around the title and the music.
Lerner, an uncommonly literate and discerning writer, may have been waging a fool's battle with An American in Paris. Who could ultimately have cared about the exploits of post-World War II expatriates trying to "find themselves" in the City of Light, especially when the lead (Gene Kelly), is pretty obviously a none too talented painter, and all too talented dancer, which nobody ever seems to notice. And when his cynical, piano playing sidekick (longtime Gershwin comrade Oscar Levant), doesn't really provide much for audiences to love other than fantastic musicianship and some ascerbic asides. Co-stars Georges Guétary (replacing a sought after Maurice Chevalier) and Nina Foch seem like afterthoughts, with pretty paltry and underwritten roles (the making of documentary rightly points out that Foch's role especially is just left hanging, with no clear resolution of a putative relationship between either her and Kelly or even her and Guétary).
And so that leaves the weight of the film's success, audience-appeal wise anyway, on the petite shoulders of gamine Leslie Caron, in her film debut. And wonder of wonders, she pulls it off. Though she barely utters a word (her English skills were still nascent when the film was made, despite being the daughter of an American born mother), Caron is whatever heart and soul An American in Paris has, and her swan-like presence lifts the film, not only in the dance sequences, where Caron is simply spectacular, but, perhaps more surprisingly, in the "book scenes," where her understated elegance and innocence are a perfect foil for Kelly's more worldly savoir faire.
Director Vincente Minnelli famously started his long career as a designer, and his effort to meld the music of Gershwin with images based on works of some of the most famous painters of the late 19th century is visually stunning, capped by the justly famous near 20 minute ballet which closes the film. If the bulk of An American in Paris is, frankly, a yawn-worthy attempt to stitch together some wonderful musical segments, the finale is a remarkable artistic achievement that manages to impart some culture to a medium that is not exactly known for its intellectual and artistic fortitude. The Freed unit, to its credit, had been pushing the boundaries of the film musical for several years, and An American in Paris, while perhaps not completely successful, blew open the possibilities of the genre in unexpected ways that paved the way for another French-themed masterpiece seven years later, Gigi (also just released on BD).
The problem with some Freed-Minnelli films is that they seem like exercises in critical thought, with nary a beating heart within. The Pirate at least had the fiery bravado of Kelly and Garland sparring off of each other, but there's nothing like that to spark An American in Paris. What we're treated to instead is a wonderfully arranged series of vignettes built around Gershwin compositions both well-known (the title ballet and "Our Love is Here to Stay," for example) and rare ("A Waltz by Strauss"). Kelly's choregraphy and musical staging is flawless, his athleticism on full display, beautifully counterbalanced by Caron's more delicate and supple classical ballet. It's a formidable combination that unfortunately can't completely compensate for the flattened soufflé that is the underpinning of the film.
And yet if you simply let go and let the film sweep you along into its somewhat surreal ambience, ultimately the plot and character deficiencies don't weigh the film down as much as they once might have seemed to. Bolstered by the imaginative arrangements and orchestrations of Conrad Salinger and Saul Chaplin, the musical sequences fly high enough to lift the entire enterprise despite the flaws of Lerner's libretto. In this lustrous new presentation, with such eye popping colors and elegant production design seen in a glory probably not experienced even by 1951 audiences, An American in Paris ultimately arrives as a work of art in and of itself. It's a daring piece of filmmaking that integrated dance and music in a new and innovative way. If the book scenes are blah, with underwritten characters and dangling plot threads, so be it. It's very clear, An American in Paris is here to stay, and this new Blu-ray is a cause for celebration, showing a repertory company of unusually gifted artisans working at the peak of their craft. Like many works of art, it has its flaws, but its overall genius is such that they ultimately fade into the background.
So consider me a perhaps reluctant convert to the charms of An American in Paris, a conversion I lay squarely to the quality especially of the image on this new BD. Just don't expect any similar change when I listen to Mozart.