“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.
It’s a Wednesday night and there is nothing too spectacular on the horizon. So why not treat yourself to a Broadway show? When Heath saw that that my favorite musical of all time, West Side Story, was coming to Austin he immediately went to the trusty internet to buy tickets. So when March 30 rolled around, away we went!
I love West Side Story; the dancing, the songs, the plot—a semi-modern spin on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (Haven’t heard of him? That’s OK, I hear he’s a one hit wonder.) Choreographer extraordinaire Jerome Robbins is responsible for the phenomenal dance scenes and composer Leonard Bernstein brought the music. Bless poor Heath, who probably didn’t anticipate me belting out “I Love to Be in America” and “I Feel Pretty” for the remainder of our post-play evening. I just can’t help myself. Something about that musical just gets a hold of me.
Despite it being my all time favorite musical of all times to the power of infinity, I had previously only seen community theater productions of the play. Don’t get me wrong, I love community theater, but it can’t compete with the grand scale of Broadway productions. The actors’ voices carried all the way through the theater, out the door, and across the campus, while the grandeur of the sets had my jaw hitting the floor. But, and maybe this is Broadway heresy, I prefer the movie version.
I feel a little like the geek who says they prefer the movie to the book, but there is something about that Hollwood-ized version of the play that I can’t shake. Maybe it’s merely because after watching it 24323648 times, the movie is what I’ve become accustomed to and internalized as “right.” What am I saying? Of course that’s the reason. But it also goes deeper than that. Here are my reasons why Movie > Play.
• Natalie Wood. Yes I know she’s not really Puerto Rican, and I know she doesn’t do her own singing in the movie. And yes, I know it’s not fair to expect anyone to compete with Natalie Wood on any level. I realize all these things. Nevertheless, she captures the perfect blend vivaciousness and naivety in the film that I’ve yet to see matched.
• Song order. When they made West Side Story the movie, they had to some rearranging of the song order to please the audience. In the play, the vulgar and humorous track “Officer Krupke” as well as the peppy and spirited “I Feel Pretty,” both occur after after (spoiler alert) certain characters’ deaths. Perhaps in Broadway logic this is done to keep the audience engaged and prevent them from hurling themselves off the balcony, but I had a hard time getting back into happy cheerful mode after a dramatic fight scene that leaves two lead characters slain. In the movie version when things get sad, they stay sad. And I prefer it that way.
• I love to be in America. In the movie this pro-American hymn is performed as a sort-of duel between the male and female Puerto Ricans. It is superb. The lyrics are funny, the dancing is incredible and the whole scene gets you up on your feet. In the play the song sets itself up to be more of a girl-on-girl cat fight that lacks the same intensity, emotion and humor as the movie version.
Movie or play, I still love the story, wiggle my feet in my chair in time with the choreography, and mouth the words to each song as if I were playing the roles of every character. And there it is. My extremely professional opinion and sought after review of a play that has never before been commented on and never will be hereafter.