Warner Bros. // 1951 // 114 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 13th, 2009
Entertainment for the ages.
The story goes that MGM producer Arthur Freed wanted to make a musical with George Gershwin's music, so he asked his drinking buddy Ira Gershwin if he could use his deceased brother's songs. Ira agreed on the condition that only George's music be used in the final production. Freed got writer Alan Jay Lerner to write a story based on the Gershwin catalogue, with Vincente Minnelli to direct and famous hoofer Gene Kelly to star. Several Oscars later, the film entered cinematic history.
An American in Paris is the story of former G.I. Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly, Singin' in the Rain) who stays on in Paris after the war to be a painter. He eventually meets wealthy benefactress (Nina Foch) who may have designs on more than his paintings. However, Jerry falls in love with the French girl Lise (Leslie Caron, Gigi), who's in a loveless relationship with Henri (Georges Guétary).
As both the story of the production and the film's plot description suggest, An American in Paris does not have narrative coherence as its strong suit. The plot, such as it is, exists only to hang Gershwin's music on. The characters are only sketches, there are holes in the plot you could drive a truck through, and the whole thing never quite gets resolved despite the fantastic ballet sequence that ends the film. All this should add up to an unmitigated disaster, but although I don't think the film is quite as good as its pedigree would suggest, An American in Paris is buoyed by several positive elements.
If you're going to plot an entire film around a single artist's music, you could do infinitely worse than the work of George Gershwin. Songs like "S'Wonderful" and "I Got Rhythm" are catchy little ditties that really sing (pun intended) in the hands of performers like Gene Kelly and the acerbic Oscar Levant. The film also has room for Gershwin's more classically oriented music, including the ballet sequence that ends the film. If you're willing to treat the film as a variety show featuring Gershwin's music rather than a coherent narrative then it'll almost certainly be more satisfying.
I can find fault with the story all day, but Vincente Minnelli runs with it anyway, staging some wonderful moments along the way. As I said before, the parts don't quite hang together, but each is polished to a bright luster. The impressionistic dance that accompanies Henri's initial description of Lise is brilliant visual storytelling, including the rather risqué sequence involving Lise straddling a chair. Other sequences are equally brilliant, including a black-and-white masquerade and the film's final ballet sequence.
I could watch films in Technicolor regardless of their other merits, and Minnelli was wise to shoot An American in Paris using the process. Although I'm somewhat disappointed that the film avoided Paris locations, their backlot recreations "pop" in a way that Paris never could. The hyper-real visual scheme of the film makes the cotton candy thin plot easier to swallow. It also offers something pretty to look at during every scene because everything from costumes to sets and props jump off the screen into your living room.
Whether you enjoy the film or not, it's hard to argue with the merits of this Blu-ray disc. The Technicolor film, after an "Ultra-Resolution Digital Transfer," looks positively jaw-dropping. The film was obviously made decades ago, but the saturation, detail, and range on this transfer are spectacular. Even if you're not inclined to enjoy the music, this transfer offers something compelling to see in every scene. The film's audio doesn't fare quite as well due to the technological limitations of the time. The film's audio is produced in mono, and while it's clear, it doesn't have the presence that more recent recordings can muster.
These extras are ported over from the previous two-disc Special Edition released in 2008. The centerpiece of the collection is an audio commentary featuring Kelly's widow, who introduces clips of the various cast and crew from the archives. It's one of the odder patchwork commentaries I've heard, but it's full of information and there's always something happening on the track. We also get a making-of featurette that runs 45 minutes (in hi-def). We also get "Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer," which covers Kelly's remarkable career behind and in front of the camera. There is also a bevy of audio-only supplements, including deleted and alternate songs plus interviews with some of the cast. The disc rounds out with a Tex Avery Cartoon and a short on Paris.
As a coherent, narrative musical, An American in Paris hasn't aged quite as well as Kelly's next musical vehicle Singin' in the Rain (although it's fun to imagine an alternate universe where Alex DeLarge kicks a man while singing "I've Got Rhythm" in A Clockwork Orange). However, the film still makes an excellent showcase for the music of talented composer George Gershwin. In either case, fans of the film are sure to be pleased with this Blu-ray release of An American in Paris because of its spectacular audiovisual presentation and comprehensive extras. Upgrading is always a tough decision, and although I didn't see the 2008 DVD release, I'd suspect that fans who double dip will not be disappointed by the extra clarity hi-def affords.
An American in Paris is guilty of making only a little sense while presenting its wonderful musical moments.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish, Latin)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish, Castilian)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated