Study Guide

An American in Paris Screenwriter

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Alan Jay Lerner

If you're a musical theater geek, we don't have to tell you who screenwriter and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner is. Along with his writing partner, Frederick Loewe, Lerner's responsible for just about all of the musicals your mom has the cast recording of in her vinyl collection. Brigadoon. My Fair Lady. Camelot. All Lerner and Loewe joints. Any musicals they didn't write were probably written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But we digress.

Lerner's script for An American in Paris may have won him his first Oscar, but let's be real: most viewers don't watch An American in Paris for its script. Its audience comes for the singing and dancing, for Gene Kelly, and for the cinematic ballet sequence to end all cinematic ballet sequences. Truth be told, most critics don't dig Lerner's script, either, and use words like "wafer-thin" to describe it (source). Ouch. 

We're not telling you all of this to take a cheap shot at Lerner. Rather, we wanted to give you a taste of Lerner's situation when it came to scribbling out the story of Jerry Mulligan and his adventures in France. Here's how it went down: MGM bought the rights to George Gershwin's jazz-classical suite "An American in Paris" in 1949, and then told Lerner to go write a movie around it (source). That's it. If you're one of those students who really prefers that your English teacher gives you a detailed prompt to write about, you can feel Lerner's pain. "Here's a song, A.J. Now go write 113 pages about it."

According to some sources, Lerner cranked out the script for An American in Paris in less than four months, wrapping it up in a 12-hour marathon writing stretch the night before his wedding (source). Other sources say that it took up to seven months to write. In either case, the finished film looked a lot like Lerner's first draft (source). MGM had a script. It was set in Paris. There was an American in it. Done and done!

Here's the thing: when it comes to An American in Paris, it's not about the writing. Ultimately, the movie is more about tone and mood than it is about character and plot. It's more about singing than scene-building. It's more about dancing than dialogue.

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