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Classic American tale spun with a French twist

Erin McGinn | Sunday, January 28, 2007

A bohemian painter falls in love with the fiancée of another man, leading to an incredible song-and-dance routine. “An American in Paris” stars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a sumptuous rendering of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.The plot is little less than dazzling. Kelly stars as the inspiration-starved painter Jerry Mulligan, who meets the gloriously rich Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) as he sets up his work for curbside exhibition. She chooses Kelly to be her latest boy toy. Milo does her best to convince him she loves him as an artist, but even to the somewhat na’ve Mulligan, the transparency is evident. Still, he likes being recognized as a painter and permits himself to be swept off his feet despite his initial objections.Roberts’ amorous plans are overturned upon the arrival of the beautiful dancer Lise Bouvier (Caron). She also pursues a relationship with Mulligan and they begin a romantic love affair that is inconvenienced only by their secret relationship. Bouvier is promised to Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), a friend of Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) who rooms in the same hostel and is friends with Mulligan. The rivalry between Baurel and Mulligan remains veiled for a large part of the film. Baurel even tries to convince Mulligan that he can capture the woman’s heart. Cook catches on early but refrains from interfering, though it obviously pains him to do so.As musicals of the era often did, director Vincente Minnelli spends long, laborious takes filming the dancing and singing of its stars. People expected to see Kelly dance and they got their wish in abundance. At least half of the film is spent with Kelly dancing to a musical number. The difference between this and other similar productions is that the plot is at least admirably interesting, thanks in part to the terrific performances of Caron, Foch and especially Kelly. The biggest spectacle in the film is probably the most worthwhile. Despite running for a lengthy 20 minutes, Kelly dances through a dreamlike reality of Paris rendered beautifully by art directors Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons. Using famed artist renderings of Parisian locations (such as those by Manet), Ames and Gibbons transport the audience to a surreal world.Although “An American in Paris” was far superior to the other musicals of its time, it isn’t as fully developed as Kelly’s next big project, “Singing in the Rain.” The two are constantly compared, and even though the argument can be made that “An American in Paris” is the weaker of the two, it still stands as a remarkable musical from an era that produced some of the world’s most fondly remembered films. “An American in Paris” received an impressive six Academy Awards, competing directly with two other popular films of the time (“A Streetcar Named Desire” and “A Place in the Sun”). There were no acting nominations, but the film swept up technical prizes left and right, as well as being the surprise winner for the Best Picture award. “An American in Paris” is a triumph of filmmaking. It is entertaining as well as cinematically remarkable, with its dream-sequence closing ballet acting as a showcase for what the movie-musical is able to achieve.