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An American in Paris: Spectaculaire!


The bright and breezy, Technicolor and toe-tapping ‘An American in Paris’ (1951) is one of the most imaginative musical confections turned out by Hollywood. In fact, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer delved into the past glories of the American songbook to create this musical.

The idea for the film came to producer, Arthur Freed when he attended a concert of George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’, which is best described as a tone poem as opposed to a collection of songs. Freed liked the title and from that he built a musical with Gershwin tunes after months of negotiations with George’s brother Ira Gershwin, estate trustees, and two different music publishers as George Gershwin had passed away in 1937. The legend goes that after Freed and Ira Gershwin reached an agreement during their weekly pool game, film rights to the concert were purchased for $158,750, and Ira received $56,250 as a consultant to write any necessary new songs used in the film.

Soon Vincente Minnelli was signed to direct and Alan Jay Lerner was brought in to write the screenplay. Although Lerner began his work in December 1949, he finally finished it in a 12-hour stretch in March 1950 on the night before his wedding.

Both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were under consideration for the part of Jerry Mulligan, but Kelly’s more balletic style of dancing gave him the edge.

Cyd Charisse, who was initially signed to play the lead actress, discovered that she was pregnant during pre-production of the film and was replaced by Leslie Caron. Caron was discovered by Kelly in the Ballet des Champs Elysées Company, as he felt that the movie needed a real French girl in the role of Lise, not just an American actress playing one. Caron however didn’t speak English when she landed her first major role. She had a vague understanding of the language due to having an American mother, but was not conversant. Luckily for her, the part didn’t have many lines and was comprised of mostly dancing, a skill that Caron was very fluent in. Kelly and Caron had a nearly 20-year age gap.

Oscar Levant, more of a pianist than an actor, was signed for the film because he was actually a friend of George Gershwin.

As far as the role of Milo Roberts was concerned, Minnelli wanted to sign Celeste Holm, just when he was asked to consider contract player Nina Foch. Minnelli was pleased with Foch’s reading, and she got the part. During filming, Foch came down with chicken pox. When she went back to work as soon as she could, a whole team of makeup artists had to work to cover her pockmarks.

Interestingly, the film’s most famous 17-minute avant-garde ballet sequence was conceived during Foch’s unavailability. It was Lerner, who came up with the idea for the ballet, and wrote it during her absence. The MGM officials however were not comfortable with the idea. Incidentally, the 1948 film, ‘The Red Shoes’ included a ballet, which roughly followed the Hans Christian Andersen story upon which it is based. This movie had led to a few other films that treated ballet seriously. It was only after Kelly made the MGM studio executives watch ‘The Red Shoes’ a few times that the ballet could be finally included in ‘An American in Paris’.

The ballet sequence, with sets and costumes referencing French painters including Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Rousseau, and Toulouse-Lautrec, is the climax of the film, and cost the studio approximately $450,000 to produce and a month to shoot. Production on the film was halted on September 15, 1950 as Minnelli left to direct another film, ‘Father’s Little Dividend’ (1951), the sequel to ‘Father of the Bride’ (1950). Upon completion of that film in late October, he returned to shoot the ballet sequence. Minnelli was also absent on the sets many-a-times, being tied up with his divorce from Judy Garland, leaving Kelly to take over the directing duties.

Interestingly, even after the MGM executives had cleared the ballet sequence, at one time it was almost cut because the shooting was behind schedule. However, the MGM studio head, Dore Schary stood by Freed, Minnelli and Kelly in withholding the release of the movie because he felt the movie wouldn’t be effective without it.

Furthermore, despite the objections of Kelly, who wanted to shoot on location in Paris, the movie was shot at the MGM Studios in California, on 44 sets built by master art director, E Preston Ames, who himself had studied in the French capital and knew the city well. It was reportedly difficult for the studio to secure travel arrangements or locations in France for shooting. Two shots in the picture are from Paris, but they don’t involve Kelly.

‘An American in Paris’ was produced at an estimated budget of $2.7 million. It earned $4.5 million in the US, while collecting $7 million worldwide.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won six including the Best Picture and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture categories. Kelly also received an Academy Honorary Award that year for “his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” It was his only Oscar. Furthermore, the film was entered into the 1952 Cannes Film Festival, and the festival opened with its screening.

A stage version of the musical was adapted by Ken Ludwig, and began previews at the Alley Theatre (Houston) on April 29, 2008, officially opening on May 18 and running through June 22. In 2014, another of its stage adaptation premiered in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet, with Robert Fairchild as Jerry Mulligan and Leanne Cope as Lise Bouvier (here renamed Lise Dassin and turned into an aspiring ballet dancer). The production ran from November 2014 to January 2015. The musical then transferred to Broadway, with previews at Palace Theatre beginning on March 13, 2015, before officially opening there on April 12.

In 2011, ‘An American in Paris’ was digitally restored by Warner Bros on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.

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