In the opening credits, The American in Paris ballet gets its own shout-out, right alongside Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and the other stars of the film. We must be in for one heck of a ballet, but first we jump into the movie proper with an assortment of postcard-ready scenes of Paris.
As we move from sight to sight, Jerry Mulligan tells us via voiceover that he's a soldier who stuck around Paris after Word War II because he wants to be a painter, and Paris is ground zero for artists.
We first spot Jerry in the flesh in his teeny-tiny apartment, which is littered with art supplies. We meet him as he wakes up to a knock on the door.
When we say his apartment is small, we mean it. Jerry is woken up by a knock at his door, and the head of his bed is mere inches from said door. Worst. Alarm clock. Ever.
In fact, Jerry's bed takes up almost the entire pad. So when Jerry rises, shines, and starts preparing breakfast, he raises his bed to the ceiling with a pulley. He keeps his dining table and dresser in a closet. This dude knows how to maximize a small space.
Jerry's voiceover continues as three little kids call to him from the street below. He tells us these tykes are his pals, specifically because he gives them American bubble gum. Guess that whole "Don't take candy from strangers" idea isn't really a thing in 1950s Paris.
Jerry tells us that he has a lot of friends, and then the voiceover shifts to Adam Cook, who says he's one of those aforementioned pals. Like Jerry, he's an American. He's also a concert pianist. If you're keeping score at home, our Americans in Paris count stands at two.
Adam tells us that he lives in the same building as Jerry, and he's in Paris on a fellowship. He's had eight fellowships, and he's starting to feel like the world's oldest child prodigy. Still, he doesn't want to get a real job. He had one once, and he was scared by the fact that he liked it.
Adam looks directly at the camera as he lights up a cigarette and says his isn't a pretty face, but "underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character."
Adam tells us he digs Paris because it's a place where you don't run into old friends, even though that's never really been a concern for him.
But he has made one friend, a singer named Henri Baurel whom he sometimes works for as an accompanist.
Then the voiceover switches to Henri. Unlike Jerry and Adam, Henri is French, and a bit of a celebrity. As he walks down the street, we see things from his first-person point of view; everybody says "hello" to him.
Henri stops at a café where the owners are super-stoked to see him. They talk excitedly in French.
Then Henri steps back out into the street and starts singing "Nice Work If You Get It" while Adam accompanies him. Turns out ol' Adam lives above the café.
(This will be on the test: all of the songs in An American in Paris are by George and Ira Gershwin, brothers who were two of the 20th century's most influential composers and songwriters. Classical, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, jazz and pop songs: they did it all. Come to think of it, go listen to George's "Rhapsody in Blue" (performed by Oscar Levant, who plays Adam) right now and meet us back here.)
OK. So anyway, Adam comes down to meet Henri, have a coffee, and catch up. Adam tells Henri that he's still plugging away at the same concert he's been working on forever.
Henri, meanwhile, is excited because he's in love with a young girl named Lise Bouvier. He's known her since she was a kid, when he hid her from the Nazis after she was orphaned. In other words, not your average "boy meets girl" story.
When Adam wants to know more about Henri's new lady, the scene switches to a montage of Lise dancing in a variety of outfits and settings. First she's a ballerina, then she's a vamp, then she's sweet and shy, then she's adventurous and modern, then she's a bookworm, then she's super-happy.
The screen ultimately itself splits into five parts, and we see all of Lise's personalities—the vamp, the bookworm, all of them—performing at once. All of these contrasting scenes suggest that Lise is a mysterious, complex chick. Well, that or she has a split personality disorder. We're willing to bet it's the former, though.