Tuesday, August 15, 2006

American Song and Dance

An American in Paris is not a great movie. Rather, it is a great musical. Perhaps the best pure musical ever made. And I admit I'm fudging the language a bit, because I would consider that other Gene Kelly movie (you know the one) to be the greatest movie musical. Period.

But this Kelly romp somehow manages to out-dance and out-sing that classic. The ballet finale of the film brings forth all of the romance and power, transforming a lukewarm, by the numbers romantic-cliché plot into a chill-worthy finish.

Still, it nearly loses its way to that dazzling climax. The story and dialogue are to the film as "story and dialogue" are to a porn film: Just there to set up what we really want to see. Instead of the 'ol rumpy pumpy of a skin flick, An American in Paris is an orgasmic feast of musical genius: The Gershwin songs, Gene Kelly's dancin' shoes, Leslie Caron's dancin' legs, Oscar Levant's fancy fingers on piano, and Georges Guetary's suave singing.

The flimsy plot follows Kelly's former GI, Jerry Mulligan in Paris after WWII. Mulligan, an eager painter, falls hard for Caron's shop girl, Lise. Naturally, there are complications. The melodrama is pretty standard. If it weren't for the music, I don't think I could endure scenes like the one where Lise pleads with Jerry that they should enjoy the time they have together, not worry about when they are apart. (He's getting "sponsored" by society gal Nina Foch; she's being prepped for marriage to Guetary.)

Despite Caron's amateurish performance (this was her first film, she would improve a great deal), there are moments to recommend the film that aren't set to music. Notably, some snappy dialogue here and there, (mostly provided by the priceless Levant). Kelly always manages to be charming, even when he's being a bit creepy, like when he first meets the shy Lise. Guetary and Foch are both good as love's also-rans. While the outcome is never truly in doubt, they are both likable and sympathetic. Hell, I think Guetary is 10 times sexier than Kelly (until Kelly dances).

Also of note is the Oscar-winning art and set direction. Making the most of the Paris setting and wild party scenes like the Arts Ball. The vibrant colors out-do Moulin Rouge! (and An American in Paris was released in 1951).

In the end, it's the music that wins the day (and in my humble opinion won the Oscar for Best Pic). The main narrative is peppered with classics including "Our Love Is Here To Stay," "I Got Rhythm," and "'S Wonderful."

The high-point though, already touched on above, is the "An American in Paris Ballet" at the end of the film. This 18-minute musical interlude, choreographed by Kelly, is bursting with color, imagination, beauty, energy and eroticism. The blandness of the Kelly/Caron romance, unable to flourish through dialogue, is made lush and ripe as they replay their courtship in dance. It contains one of the most romantic and beautifully sensual moments ever filmed, as they dance in shadows and fog on a fountain to the gorgeous Gershwin music. Heaven on earth.

Those who don't like musicals will probably resist the overall charms of the film. But they will miss out in seeing one of the finest examples of how the musical could transform the medium, bringing forth feeling that could not be expressed as deeply with simple words.

*This review originally ran on the web message board Moviola at ezboard.com.

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