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An American in Paris

(1951) **** Unrated
113 min. MGM. Cast: Georges Guetary.

/content/films/3373/1.jpgThose who hate movie musicals (you know who you are) have very good reasons of personal taste. Its likely that An American in Paris—a classic of the genre—won't change those minds, but skeptics who give it a try may find themselves won over by the film's Technicolor artistry and sheer chutzpah. A somewhat ungainly mash-up of the traditional musical, a dance show, and an art film of the order of Michael Powell's The Red Shoes (released only a few years earlier), An American in Paris daringly mainstreamed a taste of European high culture to American movie audiences without entirely abandoning Yankee vaudeville shtick.

Essentially the baby of dance legend Gene Kelly (sponsored by producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli under the auspices of MGM), An American in Paris tells the story of ex-GI Jerry Mulligan, now a struggling painter in "this star called Paris." As Jerry notes in his opening narration, "Brother if you can't paint in Paris, you better give up and marry the boss' daughter" (dialogue honors go to screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner). In the film's lengthy opening scene, Jerry's friend and fellow American—unemployed concert pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant, playing a marginally sprightlier version of himself)—introduces Jerry to French music-hall star Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary). Henri's self-description? "Let's just say I am old enough to know what to do with my young feelings." The fast friends immediately team up for the number "By Strauss"; ah, the fantasy of high-spirited musical male bonding (all of the film's songs owe to composer George Gershwin and lyricist Ira Gershwin).

Baurel is high on his hearty relationship with the beautiful young Lise (eighteen-year-old Leslie Caron, in her American debut), introduced dancing in a variety of styles to "Embraceable You" during Baurel's reverential introduction. Jerry soon has a new woman in his life as well: posh patroness Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), whose interest in Jerry is not strictly professional. Overlapping relationships brew trouble when Jerry meets and falls for Lise, little suspecting that she's the one the moony Baurel intends to marry. Kelly, Lerner and Minnelli embroider the not-so-elaborate plot with a generous helping of song and dance: a memorable rendition of "I Got Rhythm" with a chorus of kids; the main love theme "Our Love Is Here to Stay," an opportunity for a pas de deux; Guétary's show number "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" and Levant's comic fantasy sequence "Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra."

As terrific as those numbers can be, it's all merely prelude to a tour de force seventeen-minute, film-ending dream ballet—complete with elaborate sets and costumes, tableaux vivant, and fog effects—set to George Gershwin's title piece. Designed after Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, the multi-part danceis an explosion of color and movement that displays all sides of Kelly's enormously versatile dancing talent, from his athletic hoofing to his near clown-like comic verve to his capacity for delicate balletic grace. Caron's not exactly chopped liver, but this is Kelly at the top of his game, demonstrating his inimitable lateral gliding and that gravity-defying spring in his steps.

The spectacle of French Impressionism meeting Tin Pan Alley resulted in an Academy Award sweep for Writing, Musical Score, Costume Design, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Picture (beating out even A Streetcar Named Desire), plus an honorary Oscar for Kelly's outstanding personal achievement. Special kudos also go to art director Preston Ames, Johnny Green and his 72-piece MGM Symphony Orchestra, and arrangers Saul Chaplin and Conrad Salinger. An American in Paris was a triumph for tireless dance advocate Kelly, the Freed Unit, and the American musical itself.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0

Street date: 3/31/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video has outdone itself yet again with the spectacular high-def release of catalog classic An American in Paris. The video transfer—a product of Warner's proprietary Ultra-Resolution process—yields truly amazing results. The film has never looked so sharp and clean as it does on Blu-ray, with eye-popping colors and astonishing detail. The only possible caveat is just an occasional touch of color bleeding, but those rare moments are the seemingly inevitable results of capturing the original Technicolor. Honestly, there's really nothing to complain about here. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio preserves the original soundtrack and comes through with pleasing clarity.

The bonus features introduced on a recent two-disc DVD set are all here, beginning with an audio commentary hosted by Patricia Ward Kelly and featuring rare, often previously unheard interviews with Gene Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli, producer Alan Freed, writer Alan Jay Lerner, musical directors Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green, art director Preston Ames, ballet costume designer Irene Sharaff, musician Michael Feinstein, and new observations by Leslie Caron and Nina Foch. The list demonstrates what a treasure trove this track can be, in describing the film’s development and casting, music and choreography, characters and actors, story and script, sets and art direction, and more.

The highly enjoyable documentary "’S Wonderful: The Making of An American In Paris" (42:26, HD) features archival materials, clips, and interviews with Caron, Minnelli (vintage), Kelly (vintage), Chaplin (vintage), Foch, Film Musical author Dr. Drew Casper, music historian/Gene Kelly’s friend Gene Lees, music and film historian Gary Giddins, MGM’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit author Hugh Fordin, MGM studio orchestra musician Uan Rasey, dancer Marian Horosko, cinematographer John Alton, and former child actors Andree and Claude Guy. In addition to recounting the film's making, the doc includes gems like an audio outtake of Kelly's favorite (but deleted) number "I've Got a Crush on You."

The “'Love Walked In' Outtake” (2:44, SD) features Henri singing to Lise at the bar, while seven "Audio Outtakes" (14:33, HD) include “Alternate Main Title,” “But Not For Me” (Guétary), “But Not For Me” (Levant piano solo), “Gershwin Prelude #3,” “I’ve Got a Crush On You,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “’S Wonderful.”Also included are three Radio Interviews (13:54 with "Play All" option, HD) with Johnny Green (4:55), Gene Kelly (4:46) and Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (4:13).

The PBS American Masters special "Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer" (1:24:48, SD) is a reasonably definitive documentary about the star. Interviewees include Kelly, Foch, Caron, Minnelli, Kelly’s daughter Kerry Kelly Novick, biographers Stephen Silverman and Clive Hirschhorn, dance historian Beth Genne, writers Betty Comden, Arthur Laurents and Adolph Green, film historian Jeanine Basinger, filmmaker Stanley Donen, composer Andre Previn, dance critic Deborah Jowitt, film critic Elvis Mitchell, dancer Fayard Nicholas, UCLA Professor of Film Studies Peter Wollen, choreographer Kenny Ortega, son Tim Kelly, and actors Debbie Reynolds, Betsy Blair, Cyd Charisse, Betty Garrett, and Donald O’Connor.

Next up are the 1938 short "Paris on Parade" (8:53, SD), a travelogue in the FitzPatrick TravelTalks series, and the 1951 Tex Avery cartoon "Symphony in Slang" (6:44, SD). The former covers the 1937 World Expo in Paris, and the host city; the latter is a nice contemporary, contextual complement to the feature.

Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (3:39, SD). This compact one-dsic Blu-ray special edition is s'awful nice, s'paradise, what you'll love to see for years to come.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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