Study Guide

An American in Paris Introduction

An American in Paris Introduction


Release Year: 1951

Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Writer: Alan Jay Lerner

Stars: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant


A seventeen-minute tripped-out ballet sequence? A comic, one-man-band, Agent Smith-style dream set to a classical concerto?

An American in Paris
ain't your grandma's musical.

Sure, its characters have a habit of bursting into song at a moment's notice, and the soundtrack features the old-fashioned pop hits of the legendary Gershwin brothers, but nobody's trying to put on a show in a barn or save an orphanage. Instead, the plot of An American in Paris hinges on a love triangle more twisted than a pretzel.

Très French, no?

Shot with a budget of $2.7 million, An American in Paris danced into theaters on November 11, 1951. Critics praised its artistry and went gaga over its vibrant colors. That may sound like kind of a silly thing to get excited about, but back in 1951, color films were still the minority. An American in Paris wasn't just in color, it was in Technicolor. Paris practically popped off the screen and into moviegoers' popcorn buckets.

An American in Paris went on to rake in a cool $8 million and clean up on Oscar night. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and took home six: Best Music, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Writing, and the granddaddy of them all, Best Picture. It's also #9 on AFI's list of Greatest Movie Musical of All Time. (Gene Kelly's masterwork Singin' in the Rain, tops the list, which…come on…that's just not a fair fight.)

  

Kelly, the film's star and choreographer, was also given an Oscar for his special achievements in movie choreography. The award wasn't technically for his work on An American in Paris, but the fact that the Academy gave it to him on the same night his movie was gobbling up little gold men is hard to ignore. Somehow, it would be the only Oscar Kelly ever won.

An American in Paris cemented Kelly's place as a Hollywood icon and innovator, and it made a star out of his young co-star Leslie Caron, whom Kelly handpicked for the movie after seeing her dance on a Paris stage. What's more, the movie's artistry also forced film critics to finally show the musical genre some R-E-S-P-E-C-T. An American in Paris is a decidedly "grown-up" musical, with adult themes that helped make the European art world interesting for the average Joe and Jane moviegoer.

Don't get us wrong: there's no shortage of razzle-dazzle in An American in Paris, but its characters can get frustrated, they can be selfish, and, at times, they can be downright manipulative. In short, An American in Paris proves that music and melodrama aren't mutually exclusive. Just because a character can carry a tune doesn't mean they can't break hearts and take names.

So no, not your grandma's typical musical.

Good chance it's her favorite, though.

What is An American in Paris About and Why Should I Care?

We're going to give it to you straight: An American in Paris, which took home the 1951 Academy Award for Best Picture, is a thoroughly weird Best Picture winner. For starters, it's one of just a handful of Best Picture winners that didn't get any acting noms alongside it.

Think about that for a second: if precisely zero of the film's performances were good enough to even get a nomination on Oscar night, what's the Academy actually rewarding?

Simply put, many critics have deemed the film's victory on Oscar night controversial. Check out the other films it was up against: 

  • Decision Before Dawn
  • A Place in the Sun
  • Quo Vadis
  • A Streetcar Named Desire

Talk about stiff competition. And that's not even including the other knock-out movies released the same year—Alice in Wonderland, The African Queen, Strangers on a Train, Ace in the Hole...seriously, we could go on. But let's get back to the controversy.

Some think it was rewarded not for its substance, but for its decidedly European style and fancy musical pedigree. Others think the film won its Oscar solely for the dreamlike ballet sequence at the end. Film critic James Berardinelli straight-up calls it a flimsy pick:

It falls into the category of a weak Oscar winner. The movie is enjoyable enough to watch, but it represents a poor choice as the standard-bearer of the 1951 roster. (Source)

But here's the legacy of An American in Paris: it exposed a whole new audience to ballet, thanks to an athletic, movie-star dancer who integrated ballet with more modern stuff and challenged audience's stereotypes of male dancers. Whatever critics thought of the rest of the movie, the ballet sequence was considered a masterpiece. Here's what Eric Snider of Film.com had to say:

But if anyone could bring [ballet] to the masses, it was Gene Kelly, who'd spent the 1940s establishing himself as one of the most likable, hard-working, and creative dancers in Hollywood. […] Between this and the next year's Singin' in the Rain, Gene Kelly's status as a screen icon was assured. Moreover, his efforts here helped establish ballet as a viable art form (and a masculine one at that) for mainstream movie audiences. He did it by mixing the classical style of dancing with modern forms like tap. He made ballet look cool. Musicals would fade in popularity over the next decade and a half, but the dance-heavy ones that flourished benefited from Kelly and An American in Paris. The dancing gang members in West Side Story (1961) would have seemed more peculiar if this film hadn't helped audiences get used to the idea. In recent years, we've seen films like Save the Last Dance and Step Up that have successfully combined classical techniques with modern, popular styles. (Source).

Critic Emanuel Levy wrote that, after 1951, "the ballet became a standard staple in the genre. No prestigious musical could do without a dance" (source). That's some legacy.

So if you've ever obsessively watched West Side Story or cried at Billy Elliott, you've got An American in Paris to thank for that. Its director gambled that audiences would sit through and even enjoy a 17-minute ballet sequence if it was fresh, energetic, and gorgeous.

And it starred Gene Kelly.

We'd say that gamble paid off big time.

Trivia

Gene Kelly discovered Leslie Caron dancing ballet while he was on vacation in Paris. Caron spoke very little English when she made the movie. Fortunately, as IMDb puts it, she was fluent in dance. (Source)

If you were alive in 1988 and had a spare $15,000 lying around, you could've bought the Oscar that An American in Paris won for Best Picture. That's how much it sold for at auction. (Source)

Nina Fochs (Milo) came down with chicken pox during the filming of the movie. When she came back to work, makeup artists had their work cut out for them, as they struggled to cover her pockmarks. (Source)

The dance sequence cost about $450,000 and took one month to make in 1950. That's almost five million bucks in today's money. Still one month, though. (Source)

An American in Paris Resources

Websites

Greatest Films: An American in Paris
AMC's Tim Dirks provides an in-depth look at the 1951 Best Picture winner.

Turner Classic Movies: An American in Paris
Jonesin' for some behind the scenes info about An American in Paris? This is the place.

All Gene, All the Time
Here's a fan site for all you Kellyphiles.

Book or TV Adaptations

An American in Paris on Broadway
Jerry Mulligan's story never hit TV or your local library, but it did hit Broadway.

Articles and Interviews

The New York Daily News Film Review (October 5, 1951)
Way back in 1951, Kate Cameron thought the movie was "a joy to the eye, ear, and imagination of the beholder." No word on what it does for your elbows, though.

The New York Times Film Review (October 5, 1951)
Bosley Crowther's opening night review of the film. C'mon, his name is Bosley Crowther—you know you want to read this dude's opinion.

Roger Ebert's Review
America's most beloved film critic takes another look at An American in Paris just in time for its 1992 re-release in theaters and on laser disc. Yes, laser disc.

Emanuel Levy's Profile of An American in Paris (July 16, 2006)
Levy's article provides a wealth of information about how the movie went from page to stage.

Worst Best Picture?
The Nerdist's Witney Seibold turns her critical eye on one of the Academy Awards' most controversial Best Picture winners as part of her series examining every Best Picture winner ever.

Video

The An American in Paris Trailer
The film's preview promises to bring a lot of shiny new stuff to the silver screen: enchantment, thrills, beauty, you name it.

Kelly on Kelly
Gene Kelly talks about his career and how even he got too old to dance.

He Got Rhythm
Jerry schools some French kids in Gershwin.

"I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise"
Maybe it's the accent—or the glowing staircase—but Henri's one charming dude.

"Our Love is Here to Stay"
That Jerry really knows how to woo a gal.

Gershwin's "Concerto in F"
Adam plays a mean piano…and violin…and gong.

Images

An American in Paris Movie Poster
"What a joy to see M-G-M's Technicolor musical"…in poster form.

An American in Paris Lobby Card
Either Milo doesn't like Jerry's painting, or she's thinking about her grocery list.

A Still from the An American in Paris Ballet
Our toes hurt just looking at this.

The Director and His Leading Man
They're really impressed by that viewfinder.

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron On Set
It only looks like he's picking nits out of her hair like a chimpanzee.

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