A sad yet stunning movie musical unlike any other. The movie has its charms and its spectacular finale, but there is a bittersweet undercurrent that runs throughout the story of lovers meeting in the city of lights.
The film was released in 1951 and follows Jerry Mulligan played by Gene Kelly. Jerry is an ex-GI who fell in love with Paris and decided to stay after the war and study painting. He is a struggling artist when he meets a wealthy woman who wants to help his career advance among other things. He meets a charming young woman and falls in love with her. All this is really just a thin framework on which Gene Kelly can hang as many delightful musical numbers as possible.
That isn’t even an exaggeration. Arthur Freed, the famous musical impresario of MGM, wanted to make a movie out of George Gershwin’s symphony “An American Paris” which was a piece he wrote inspired by his time in Paris in the 20’s. Freed needed to buy the rights to the piece from the Gershwin family, and Ira Gershwin, George’s surviving brother, insisted on the condition that Freed had to use Gershwin music exclusively in the film. Which meant that Freed literally had a dozen songs that he needed to string together with a loose framework of a story.
This explains the films biggest drawback, the story is flimsy at best. There really is no plot. It’s just a collection of scenes or vignettes. There really is no through line or thematic tie. The characters don’t really have arcs or stories of their own.
But that is okay for the most part, because the movie is all about the music. And there are so many wonderful musical moments. George Levant, a world class pianist, has a virtuosic solo piano performance in the middle of the movie. Levant and Kelly have an incredible duet on the love song Tra-la-la. Kelly and a group of French children sing a charming rendition of I’ve Got Rhythm. Really every song on the soundtrack is a winner all culminating in the twenty minute ballet set to the symphony that inspired the whole thing.
This is the centerpiece of the film a truly stunning technicolor masterpiece. Gene Kelly and a team of production designers literally spent half a million dollars to create the most colorful and vibrant ballet ever filmed. It truly is a masterpiece and worth the price of admission by itself. Gene dances his way through an impressionistic Paris setting complete with teams of dancers wrapped in primary colors. He meets and pursues a woman. They move around and with one another in a stunning display of movement that conveys so much and captures everything. But what really captured my attention was the way the central couple dance with each other and the setting and the camera. The lighting dances with them to highlight certain moments. The colored lights create an emotional subtext underneath the dance. They move with and throughout the set. The camera follows them and interjects with them. It creates a push and pull with the audience and the performers that completely wraps us up in their story.
It was a revolutionary scene in its time. This was a type of filmmaking that movies hadn’t seen at the time. It was expressionistic. It was vividly colorful. It was elegant yet accessible. Gene Kelly brings his aggressive masculine style of dance to the ballet that anchors everything. Leslie Caron does things in this sequence as well as every dance in the movie that boggle the mind and seem to bend the limits of the human body. Every element worked together to create the grandest of spectacles. It is an amazing movie moment.
Yet for all its still and revolutionary technique, this film is not as well remembered as other Hollywood musicals. In Roger Ebert’s 1992 review of the film, he is almost disdainful of the film. He disparages it compared to Singin’ in the Rain. He gives it a positive review, but he seems to hate the movie or at least resent it.
In recent years it seems to have come under the fickle nature of many critical and commercial successes. People look back on what was popular and knock it down a peg or two for good measure. I think the film is brilliant and beautiful, but I do not think it’s as fun as most other musicals of its era.
Every element of this movie is tinged with melancholy and sadness. Not an overwhelming sadness, but an undercurrent that runs throughout the movie. Jerry’s relationship with his patron Milo, played by Nina Foch, for instance is a great example. She is infatuated with Jerry, but no matter what she does to win him over he will never love her, and the harder she tries, the more he pulls away. Lise the object of Jerry’s love, played by Leslie Caron, is engaged to an older man. He helped hide her during WWII while her parents were fighting in the resistance. That’s a tragic backstory to give that particular relationship, but it’s more sad when she begins seeing Jerry behind his back. She seems to respect and admire her fiancé, but the love isn’t there. Jerry is a failing painter who seems to be deeply cynical and angry at the world. His only joy seems to be loving Lise a woman who keeps him at a distance. When Jerry sings Love is Here to Stay to Lise on the banks of the Seine River, it’s slow and sad rather than swooning and romantic. In any other production it would be a grand moment, a sweeping declaration of love. In this film it’s a quiet and hopeless confession.
These story elements set the film apart from other musicals. It’s not a joyous wall to wall comedy like Singin’ in the Rain. Even another contemporary musical that has it’s own tinge of sadness, The Band Wagon, has a fun loving quality to it. This movie is completely unique in this way, and I kind of love it for it. This melancholy sadness reflects the time in which the film was made. It is a musical grappling with the consequences of the war and what the world looks like now. Gone are the simple mistaken identity plot lines of the best musical comedies. Here are love affairs and professional failures and existential ennui. It makes for fascinating viewing and an unforgettable film.
There’s one other element that I think a modern viewer with chafe against, and that is Jerry’s pursuit of Lise. He pursues her aggressively. She tells him no, and he continues pushing. She rejects him, and he shows up at her workplace. She blows him off and he pushes harder. Then all of a sudden she agrees to go out with him and a couple scenes later she is in love with him. In the year 2022 a man who doesn’t take no for an answer is not a romantic hero, he’s a creep. Kelly is very charming, and his aggressive pursuit of Lise shows a stark contrast with his pursuit by Milo, but it still rankles a little bit these days.
Overall, I love the movie. It made me feel complicated feelings. It left me with a sensation that has stuck to the walls of my head, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The story is not as strong as other movies. The musical numbers are incredible. The movie is a product of its time in so many ways. But I can’t help being drawn to it and thinking about putting it on again when I have a couple of hours to spend in this colorful and vibrant vision of Paris.
It is my cup of tea. A