An American in Paris (1951)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), an aspiring American painter living in Paris, meets a wealthy heiress named Milo (Nina Foch), who is impressed with his work and offers to help arrange an exhibition for him. Although he is filled with indignation when he realizes that this aggressive female, who has more money than he does, is romantically attracted to him, Jerry, nonetheless, agrees to accompany her to a jazz club. While entertaining his unwanted admirer there, the temperamental artist happens to see a young Parisian shopgirl, to whom he is immediately drawn. Even though this woman, Lise (Leslie Caron), is, at first, distrustful of Jerry, she and the handsome American painter quickly fall in love. Unfortunately, Milo's affections for Jerry and Lise's engagement to another man create a number of difficulties for the couple.

Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris is a fun, colorful, and consistently vibrant film that is almost certain to charm the viewer.


The story the director tells is usually nicely crafted, and his depictions of the romance that develops between Jerry and Lise are genuinely engaging. Minnelli's evocations of his characters' personalities are particularly helpful in drawing the viewer into their lives so that he is able to experience their various emotions. Throughout the film, the director thus provides the viewer with glimpses of Lise's youthful vivacity, of her desire to experience life, of the fears born from her inexperience, and of her awareness that she has commitments to others. She does not, consequently, emerge as a simple, goodhearted being, but as a person who, though she knows the difference between what is right and what is wrong, and is troubled when she does wrong, is unable to control her passions and, as a result, does betray and hurt others. Jerry too is nicely developed and given some complexity. The viewer is, for example, made aware of the prejudices that keep him from being interested in Milo and of those that cause him to be enthralled by the young and innocent Lise. Moreover, when he sees how the protagonist is moved by his overwhelming love of that girl, the moviegoer is carried away as well so that he is readily immersed in the troubles and the thrills of their relationship.


Whatever the film's numerous virtues, An American in Paris does include a few moments that are clumsy, burdened with sentimentality, or strive too hard to be funny. Happily, these are relatively few and do not greatly detract from the movie's quality. More often than not, the tale Minnelli tells has a slight harshness that gives it an ability to affect the viewer in a way it never could have had it been suffused with maudlin emotions and treacly adorableness. The director's treatment of Milo, for instance, is affecting because it is tinged with tragedy. Even after presenting the character as likeable and sympathetic, the director does not end her story happily. Instead, he concludes the film in such a way that the moviegoer, when he thinks of Milo, is allowed to savor a real sense of sadness.


The appeal of An American in Paris is not, however, primarily dependent on its story, but on its musical numbers. While a few of these are not perfectly realized, and one, in which Kelly sings and dances with a group of supposedly French children, is frankly cloying, the majority of the movie's routines are absolutely intoxicating. Many are set against deliciously colorful and elaborate sets and are filled with performers dressed in a variety of wildly vivid, frequently outrageous costumes. The extended ballet with which the movie climaxes is especially well realized. Several of the stylized sets and many of the ornate costumes used by the director in this sequence are inspired by late Nineteenth Century French paintings and are so genuinely imaginative that they are likely actually to astonish the viewer. What is more, the performances of the dancers, Kelly in particular, are just as bewitching as is the exquisite, florid world in which they are set.


Finally, I should note that while Kelly's skills as an actor may not be as great as are his talents as a dancer, he is, nonetheless, engaging throughout the movie. He gives his character an open, energetic, and optimistic charisma that is sure to endear him to the viewer. Leslie Caron also acquits herself well, both as an actress and as a dancer, and displays an easy grace that makes watching her a delight. She may not shine as brightly as does Kelly, but she is still likely to charm the viewer with both with her sweet innocence and her consistent elegance.

While it may fall short of greatness, An American in Paris is such a narratively involving and visually appealing movie that it is certainly well worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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