“I came to Paris to study and to paint, because Utrillo did, and Lautrec did, and Roualt did. I loved what they created and I thought something would happen to me too. Well, it happened all right. Now, what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that’s enough for some, but it isn’t for me anymore, because the more beautiful everything is, the more it will hurt without you.”
Because of “An American in Paris” (1951), I’d always wanted to spend New Year’s in Paris. There’s this striking scene preceding the famous 17 minute ballet that takes place at the Art Student’s Ball. It’s the 31st of December, and almost midnight. There’s a costume ball and everyone is wearing elaborate black and white outfits. There’s the excitement and anticipation that is always felt on that eve. Our dashing leading man – a never more attractive Gene Kelly – is dressed as a Harlequin – and saddened by the fact that his love dreams have been dashed. He steps outside to the terrace, and that moment is always a coup de souffle for me. You see the City of Lights in all its splendor – beckoning – and the Eiffel Tower shining bright – a beacon of romantic longing and fulfillment in the horizon. And Leslie Caron walks in – a vision in white. Gosh I love the movies.
Did I just read that there’s a 17 minute ballet sequence? Mais oui! And if you’ve never seen it, you must. It’s as daring – boundary breaking – as it is absolutely gorgeous. Every time I see it I admire the audacity of director Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly to push MGM – the studio – to agree to their idea. Their ballet cost half a million dollars and took four weeks to shoot, and it’s experimental filmmaking and glorious. They use George Gershwin’s jazz-influenced orchestral piece by the same name as their inspiration. Gershwin had written the symphonic poem after living in the French capital. The composer said, to Musical America magazine, “my purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” It all plays like a fever dream that starts in one of the fountains in the Place de La Concorde. The screen explodes with color, movement and sound. A red rose becomes the symbol for the love that Kelly has for Caron. Dancers are dressed in reds, whites, and blues. There are scenes in a flower market – American GI’s tap dancing through streets – and then there’s a Moulin Rouge moment with Caron doing the Can Can and Kelly gyrating and undulating – a Tolouse Lautrec painting come alive. I sometimes can get lost admiring the extravagant painted sets. This is a feast for the senses. Filmmakers ranging from Scorsese to Chazelle has been influenced by and drawn to Minelli’s and Kelly’s feat.
The movie creates a Paris that we love. Keep in mind that the city had been occupied by the Nazis during World War II and audiences were still recuperating from that turmoil. “An American in Paris” restores its beauty, its essence and becomes a celebration as well of Americans who sacrificed their lives for its freedom. This musical commemorates the power of illusion and fantasy.
The plot is breezy. Explains the main character: “This is Paris, and I’m an American who lives here. My name: Jerry Mulligan, and I’m an ex G.I. In 1945, when the army told me to find my own job, I stayed on. And I’ll tell you why: I’m a painter, and all my life that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.” He’s best friends with a struggling composer Adam (Oscar Levant), who works sometimes with a French singer called Henri Baurel (Georges Gueraty). Unbeknownst to Jerry and Henri, they’re both in love with the same Parisian beauty – Lise Bouvier (Caron – in her film debut). There’s also a side plot involving a society heiress (Nina Foch) who likes to collect young promising artists and takes a liking to Jerry.
All of it is an excuse for musical numbers including songs from Gershwin’s canon and Kelly’s athleticism and choreography. Minelli’s ingenuity and panache for staging the interludes is magical. I adore the “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise” number sung by Gueraty – with its extraordinary pink steps that light up as he ascends – surrounded by chorus girls. Watching Kelly and Caron dancing on the bank of the Seine river to “Love is Here to Stay” that has the color palette of Van Gogh’s Starry Night is such a treat.
Caron’s gamine features and presence light up the screen. Kelly is sexy – exuberant and so in love with the genre. His energy is contagious.
By the way I did spend a New Year’s in Paris. ‘S Wonderful.
Lise: “Paris has ways of making people forget.”
Jerry: “Paris? No. Not this city. It’s too real and too beautiful to ever let you forget anything.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and WatchTCM and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, FandangoNOW, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Screenplay and Story by Alan Jay Lerner
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary and Nina Foch
Bringing “An American in Paris” to the Screen
The idea for “An American in Paris” came to producer Arthur Freed when he attended a concert of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which is best described as a tone poem as opposed to a collection of songs. Freed liked the title and from that he built a musical with Gershwin tunes after months of negotiations with brother Ira Gershwin, estate trustees, and two different music publishers. The concept of an extended, extravagant dance sequence was nothing new in the film musical genre and had been utilized in various forms in “Yolanda and the Thief” (1945) and “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946). But nothing on the scale of Freed’s grand finale in “An American in Paris” – presented in the styles of several great French painters – had ever been attempted before at MGM. The unexpected box office success of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s Technicolor dance fantasy, “The Red Shoes” (1948), indicated that audiences might respond quite enthusiastically to a 17-minute climactic ballet sequence. The MGM brass were hesitant at first to throw nearly a half a million dollars into filming one musical number, the 17-minute ballet. Fortunately, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (soon to be replaced by a new regime of studio management under Dore Schary) played a key role in green-lighting the production, regardless of its costs. (tcm.com)
About Screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner
Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics were marked by warmth and civilized urbanity, coupled with the highest order of craftsmanship. He was bom in New York on August 31, 1918 into a wealthy Manhattan family, the owners of Lerner Stores, Inc. He attended school at Bedales School in England and then Choate in Connecticut. During the summers of 1936 and 1937, he attended the Juilliard School of Music, and then graduated from Harvard College, where Leonard Bernstein was a contemporary. At Harvard he began his career in musical theater, writing for the Hasty Pudding shows. Early in his career, both Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein served as mentors. In 1942, he met composer Frederick Loewe at the Lambs Club in New York City, beginning one of the great collaborations of the American musical theater. From the start of their partnership, Lerner wrote the books of the shows as well as the lyrics. Their first shows together, The Life of the Party (1942) and What’s Up? (1943) were complete failures. Their next, The Day Before Spring (1945) did slightly better, running for five months, and included the song “You Haven’t Changed At All”. In 1947 they had their first great bit, Brigadoon, which included “The Heather on the Hill”, “From This Day On”, and the classic romantic ballad “Almost Like Being In Love”. In.1951 came Paint Your Wagon, which included such songs as “They Call The Wind Maria”, “I Talk To The Trees” and “Wandrin’ Star”. Then in 1956, My Fair Lady appeared, and theater history changed. Adapted by Lerner from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalian, if the musical loses much of Shaw’s ferocity and fire, it makes up for that with a warmth and sophistication that has made My Fair Lady one of the best-loved, as well as one of the greatest, of all musicals. Lerner produced a bouquet of classic lyrics for such songs as “Why Can’t The English?”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, “With A Little Bit Of Luck”, “I’m An Ordinary Man”, “Just You Wait”, “The Rain In Spain”, ” Could Have Danced All Night”, “On The Street Where You Live”, “You Did It”, “Show Me”, “Get Me To The Church On Time”, “A Hymn To Him” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”. The show ran for 2,717 performances in its original Broadway production (and even more in London) and has been revived on Broadway several times. The 1964 film version, with a screenplay by Lerner, won seven Oscars.
In 1958 Lerner wrote the screenplay and lyrics for the classic film musical Gigi (music again by Loewe, and directed by Vincente Minelli), which had a superb score including “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” and “I Remember It Well”, and which won 9 Academy Awards, including one for Best screenplay and one for the title song. Although they were to work together one last time on the unsuccessful 1974 film The Little Prince, their last successful collaboration came in 1960 with Camelot, a delightful score which included “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, “Camelot”, “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, “How to Handle a Woman”, and “If Ever I Would Leave You”. After the production of Camelot, Frederick Loewe retired from composing and Lerner began a series of new collaborations and projects. He won an Academy Award for his screenplay for An American in Paris (1951). Also in 1951,he teamed up with composer Burton Lane for the movie musical Royal Wedding, which included such songs as “You’re All the World t Me” and “Too Late Now”. He worked with Lane again in 1965 for the most successful of Lerner’s post-Loewe musicals, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. This show was notable for a gorgeous title song, and also “Come Back To Me”. Lerner and Lane teamed up one last time in 1979 for the musical Carmelina, which, although it was failure, included the beautiful “One Last Walk Around The Garden”. Earlier in his career, he worked with Kurt Weill on the 1948 musical Love Life (“Green Up Time”). After the death of Oscar Hammerstein ll, he attempted to work with Richard Rodgers, but they proved unable to work together. In 1969 he teamed up with Andre Previn to write Coco, which starred Katherine Hepburn as Coco Chanel. And in 1976 he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on Bernstein’s last musical., the unsuccessful 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is for the musicals with Loewe that he will be longest remembered. His finest lyrics are deservedly classics. Maury Yeston, the award-winning composer and lyricist of Nine and Titanic, has said of Lerner, “He was perhaps the best we’ve ever had.” Alan Jay Lerner had eight wives, the last of them actress Liz Robertson, who was with him when he died of lung cancer in New York City on June 14, 1986. (songhall.org)
The Man Behind the Music: George Gershwin
George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898, was the second son of Russian immigrants. As a boy, George was anything but studious, and it came as a wonderful surprise to his family that he had secretly been learning to play the piano. In 1914, Gershwin left high school to work as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger and within three years, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em; When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em,” was published. Though this initial effort created little interest, “Swanee” (lyrics by Irving Caesar) — turned into a smash hit by Al Jolson in 1919 — brought Gershwin his first real fame. In 1924, when George teamed up with his older brother Ira, “the Gershwins” became the dominant Broadway songwriters, creating infectious rhythm numbers and poignant ballads, fashioning the words to fit the melodies with a “glove-like” fidelity. This extraordinary combination created a succession of musical comedies, including “Lady, Be Good!” (1924), “Oh, Kay!” (1926), “Funny Face” (1927), Strike Up the Band” (1927 and 1930), “Girl Crazy” (1930), and “Of Thee I Sing” (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, Gershwin songs have also been used in numerous films, including “Shall We Dance” (1937), “A Damsel In Distress” (1937), and “An American in Paris” (1951). Later years produced the award-winning “new” stage musicals “My One and Only” (1983) and “Crazy For You” (1992), which ran for four years on Broadway. Starting with his early days as a song composer, Gershwin had ambitions to compose serious music. Asked by Paul Whiteman to write an original work for a concert of modern music to be presented at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924, George, who was hard at work on a musical comedy, “Sweet Little Devil,” barely completed his composition in time. Commencing with the first low trill of the solo clarinet and its spine-tingling run up the scale, “Rhapsody in Blue” caught the public’s fancy and opened a new era in American music.
In 1925, conductor Walter Damrosch commissioned Gershwin to compose a piano concerto for the New York Symphony Society. Many feel that the “Concerto in F” is Gershwin’s finest orchestral work. Others opt for his “An American in Paris” (1928) or his “Second Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra, which he introduced with himself as pianist with the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzsky in 1932. In 1926 Gershwin read “Porgy,” DuBose Heyward’s novel of the South Carolina Gullah culture, and immediately recognized it as a perfect vehicle for a “folk opera” using blues and jazz idioms. “Porgy and Bess” (co-written with Heyward and Ira) was Gershwin’s most ambitious undertaking, integrating unforgettable songs with dramatic incident. “Porgy and Bess” previewed in Boston on September 30, 1935 and opened its Broadway run on October 10. The opera had major revivals in 1942, 1952, 1976, and 1983 and has toured the world. It was made into a major motion picture by Samuel Goldwyn in 1959, while Trevor Nunn’s landmark Glyndebourne Opera production was taped for television in 1993. George Gershwin was at the height of his career in 1937. His symphonic works and three “Preludes” for piano were becoming part of the standard repertoire for concerts and recitals, and his show songs had brought him increasing fame and fortune. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of “The Goldwyn Follies,” that George Gershwin died of a brain tumor; he was not quite 39 years old. Countless people throughout the world, who knew Gershwin only through his work, were stunned by the news as if they had suffered a personal loss. Some years later, the writer John O’Hara summed up their feelings: “George Gershwin died July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” Gershwin’s works are performed today with greater frequency than they were during his brief lifetime. His songs and concert pieces continue to fill the pages of discographies and orchestra calendars. The Trustees of Columbia University recognized Gershwin’s influence — and made up for his not receiving a Pulitzer for
“Of Thee I Sing” in 1932 — when they awarded him a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1998, the centennial of his birth. (gershwin.com)
About Director Vincente Minnelli
… working hard and long at show business was something of a tradition in Mr. Minnelli’s own family. His Italian-born father, a musician, and an uncle operated the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater, which toured small towns in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana; his French-born mother acted in the plays. She gave birth to Vincente on Feb. 28, 1910, in Chicago and he, too, appeared in the family’s productions as a small boy. (Some accounts gave his year of birth as 1903.) Later, after graduating from high school in Delaware, Ohio, he went to work as an apprentice show-window-display designer at the Marshall Field department store in Chicago. There, he also attended the Art Institute of Chicago for a time and became a costume designer for the Balaban & Katz movie theater chain, which also put on stage shows. Then Mr. Minnelli moved to New York, where he did various kinds of theatrical design work. Before long he was asked by Grace Moore, the singer and actress, to do the settings and costumes for the 1932 production of the operetta ”DuBarry,” in which she played the title role. After going on to achieve success as a Broadway director, Mr. Minnelli was brought to Hollywood by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Arthur Freed, who was to produce all the musicals Mr. Minnelli directed for the studio. …Mr. Minnelli won an Academy Award for directing ”Gigi” in 1958. The prize was one of nine Oscars for the picture, the most any movie had won until then. Among the other Oscars for ”Gigi” was the one for best film of the year, which Mr. Minnelli’s 1951 movie ”An American in Paris” also received.
The director’s other notable film musicals included ”The Band Wagon” (1953), ”Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) and ”The Pirate” (1948). The latter two starred the tempestuous singer-actress Judy Garland, to whom he was married from 1945 to 1951. Their daughter, Liza, inherited Mr. Minnelli’s large dark eyes and Miss Garland’s stage talents and won an Academy Award herself, for her performance in ”Cabaret” (1972)…Besides musicals, Mr. Minnelli’s three dozen movies also included successful dramas, such as ”The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) and ”Lust for Life” (1956), and comedies that did not rely on music, such as ”Father of the Bride” (1950)…Mr. Minnelli fulfilled his longstanding ambition to direct Liza Minnelli when she starred in his 1976 film ”A Matter of Time.” In April 1986, Mr. Minnelli was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Government. Mr. Minnelli’s second marriage, to Georgette Magnani in 1954, ended in divorce in 1958. His third marriage, to Denise Gigante in 1960, also ended in divorce, in 1971. He is survived, in addition to his wife, Lee, and his daughter Liza, by Christiana Nina Minnelli, a daughter from his second marriage. (nytimes.com)