Old Films, New DiscoveriesPosted: May 16, 2013
“What Netflix movie did we get this week?”
“An American in Paris.”
“Oh the Woody Allen movie. Cool.”
“No, not the Woody Allen movie. That’s Midnight in Paris. This is the musical with Gene Kelly.”
“The Singing in the rain guy?”
…And so began our journey into this nearly forgotten movie musical.
My mom did a good job of ensuring I accrued a respectable number of musical titles as a child, for whatever that’s worth. Weekly trips to the public library always returned the best of Rogers and Hammerstein scores and MGM films. Oklahoma, West Side Story, Sound of Music, The King and I, Singing in the Rain all had regular dates with my VCR. Like most egocentric children, I took great delight in bellowing “Shall We Dance” and “Do-Re-Mi” through the house as loud as humanly possible and fantasizing about the day I would be cast to play the female lead in a grand stage version of each. And before you go around feeling sorry for my poor family who had to endure these homemade song and dance numbers, let it be known that ole Gretchen didn’t do much to discourage this behavior. There’s even a recording of me somewhere screaming “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” into a microphone at the tender age of 4, which is hilarious now for reasons I didn’t understand at the time.
But I digress.
I had vague, vague memories of the 1951 musical An American in Paris being on the musical circuit that passed through our home, but hardly could recall what it was about or recite any of the lyrics from the film’s musical numbers, which is a shame considering its Gershwin score and the fact that it won some six Oscars (if you care about that sort of thing), including one for Best Picture. One thing I did remember is for a wide-release film, it was uncharacteristically loaded with ballet numbers—a quality I gave extra weight too as a once aspiring ballerina—but not much else. So, 20 years later, as I scrolled through endless selection of Netflix titles, I thought I should give An American in Paris another try. Only this time, I would be viewing it not so much as a young amateur ballerina, but as a young adult with a developing interest in art, design, and history.
An American in Paris follows the story of Jerry Mulligan, a World War II veteran, who falls in love with a French shop girl. But as is to be expected, no couple can fall in love in Paris with out an obstacle or two to get in the way of their journey to happily ever after. The object of Kelly’s affection is of course engaged to another man, while the lead character himself is being pursued by a wealthy American heiress who vies for his attention under the guise that she is a great patron of the arts with an interest in sponsoring a grand exhibition by the American solder turned Parisian painter.
Unsurprisingly, the dancing in American in Paris is top notch. Gene Kelley makes producing 24802934234 sounds at once via his tap shoes appear all too easy and 19-year-old Leslie Caron (in her film debut) performs challenging fouettés like she was born doing them. But, you come to expect dancing of the highest caliber when you’re dealing with Hollywood’s heavy hitters. The Gershwin score too is one to be admired. Most of the numbers begin as soft and pleasant ditties that slowly build into epic mind-melting compositions. But again, it’s Gershwin. You know you’re in for a sing-songy treat before it even begins.
Re-watching this as an oh-so-wise-and-worldly 26-year-old, it was not only the song and dance that tickled my fancy. The art direction played so powerful a role in this film, the scenery and background seem to be their own character (not so divergent from the way, say, Wes Anderson or Baz Luhrmanm strategically employ art, color and light as visual communicators in films today). Throughout the movie the viewer is treated to surreal and dreamy vignettes that feature Caron, Kelly and composer-actor Oscar Levant in scenes that provide an escape from the somewhat predictable, plot. In one scene, for example, as Levant and French actor Georges Guetary describe the characteristics they seek out in the perfect woman, the audience gets to see Caron provide visual interpretations of what it means to be “modern,” “classic,” intelligent,” etc. And Kelly, portraying an artist, appropriately dances in and out of famous French artworks like Chocolate Dancing by Toulouse-Lautrec. And the film culminates in a 16-minute (and allegedly $500,000) ballet, which takes place on a set that draws inspiration from famous works by Renoir, Van Gogh and other iconic artists. (Check out this great frame-by-frame comparison of the film to its artistic inspiration here.) The visual elements were stimulating, engaging, surreal…exactly what a musical should be.
I haphazardly clicked the “add to queue” button on the Netflix account to bring An American in Paris into my living room, but was pleased to rediscover a piece of Hollywood cinema that left a lasting impression and awoke in me a new appreciation for the way proper art direction helps shape a story. It has me itching to rewatch other forgotten movies of my childhood to see what else I may have missed, and to explore newer releases for the surprises that may unfold as a result of the latest and greatest technologies in visual storytelling.
Some of us aren’t fans of revisiting films—unless of course, it’s one of those mega classics like Star Wars, for instance, or The Big Lebowski. With the incalculable number of films out there, it doesn’t seem practical to some to rehash the old while forgoing the new. But taking a second look has done me a world of good, and I’m motivated now more than ever to take another peak at yesterday’s movies to discover something remarkable and rejuvinating.