Thursday, January 22, 2009

An American in Paris

Gene Kelly is best known for taking shore leave in New York City in “On the Town” and, of course, for dancing and splashing down a street with an umbrella, occasionally twirling around a lamppost. Those are the sort of iconic images that engrave a star in our memories.

“An American in Paris” (1951) doesn’t have such big moments to capture and hold our collective imaginations. It isn’t a film of big moments. It is the type of film that gradually accumulates many little moments. It’s a film that sneaks up on you.

Time has been very kind though to this tale of Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), a struggling American painter in Paris. Jerry falls in love with the tantalizingly aloof Lise (Leslie Caron) and has to fight off rich heiress Milo (Nina Foch) who “discovers” him on a Paris street trying to sell his paintings. And complications abound as with all love triangles.

“An American in Paris” looks better each year for two reasons: it is filled with many delightful little moments that never fail to bring a smile and it understands love and heartbreak better than any other musical I’ve seen, produced in Hollywood.

The delight I find while watching classic musicals comes from the joyful and inventive ways they find to develop their characters using throwaway moments such as Henri (Georges GuĂ©tary) trying to describe Lise and finding her a collection of contradictions. Also delicious are the way Jerry walks down a Paris street, checking out his competition, and how Milo answers, “Modesty” when Jerry asks what holds up her dress.

My favorite scene though is the song and dance between Jerry and Henri professing their love for a woman while Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) dribbles coffee down his shirt, painfully aware that both men love the same woman.

More than other Kelly musicals such as the comparatively whimsical “Singin’ in the Rain,” “An American in Paris” locates heartbreak at the center of Jerry’s search for love.

The sadness of Milo’s loneliness and the desperation of Adam’s attempts to write music – not to mention Jerry and Lise’s romantic difficulties – actually find their closest counterparts with Miss Lonely-Hearts, the songwriter, and L.B. and Lisa in Hitchcock’s black comedy “Rear Window.”

The film’s only weakness is Caron, in her film debut. She lacks charisma and seems awkward, although she has no shortage of beauty. Director Vincente Minneli had a challenge, to find an actress who could also handle a very challenging dancing role – and a truly formidable dancing partner.

After watching Caron during her lovely and graceful moments by the river and during the extended ballet – one of Hollywood musical’s finest 15 minutes or so – you’ll have no doubt that Minneli made the right choice and erred on the side of dancing ability.

Cinema 100 selected “An American in Paris” along with the British musical “The Red Shoes” (showing April 16) to offer a fun comparison and contrast.

Minneli clearly had Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterful ballet film in mind while making “An American in Paris” three years later: Both films have a keen understanding of an artist’s world, both make stunning user of Technicolor, and both climax with justly famous extended dance sequences.

And both have an appreciation for the pain that often accompanies love. Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, “An American in Paris” finds a happy resolution – at least for some of its characters. “The Red Shoes” – Powell and Pressburger could pass for Hitchcock’s lost brothers – finds a darker dĂ©nouement.

“An American in Paris” was made before the ratings board was established. It is appropriate viewing for all ages.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

2009 Winter/Spring Series

Jan. 29 - An American in Paris - USA - 1951 - 113 min - rated approved

Feb. 5 - Happy-Go-Lucky - UK - 2008 - 118 min - rated R

Feb. 12 - Trouble the Water - USA - 2008 - 90 min - Unrated

Feb. 19 - My Winnipeg - Canada - 2007 - 80 min - rated PG in Canada

Feb. 26 - The Sea Hawk - USA - 1940 - 109 min - rated approved

Mar. 5 - The Counterfeiters - Austria - 2007 - 98 min - rated R

Mar. 12 - Taxi to the Darkside - USA - 2007 - 106 min - rated R

Mar 26 - Man on Wire - USA - 2008 - 90 min - rated PG-13

Apr. 2 - Frozen River - USA - 2008 - 97 min - rated R

Apr. 16 - The Red Shoes - UK - 1948 - 133 min - Unrated

Apr. 23 - The Snow Walker - Canada - 2003 - 103 min - rated PG