#231. An American in Paris (1951)

Embarrassing to mention this but up until recently I didn’t know that Gene Kelly was the star of Singin’ in the Rain, which I’ve also never actually seen, but since it’s only a few titles ahead of me on the List, and since this movie here, a Kelly vehicle called An American in Paris, comes just a few titles on the heels of our last Kelly movie, On the Town, which I didn’t even realize was a Gene Kelly thing because he’s standing there alongside fuckin Frank Sinatra), I’m thinking that maybe this picture and the earlier one are only on the List for the sake of building us up to Singin’ in the Rain. Like maybe it’s a more powerful movie if you go into it knowing something of the star’s earlier work. Like does it kinda contextualize a masterpiece if you have a sense for how the artist cultivated their skill.

That’s not to denounce either of these two early Gene Kelly movies, though, or like to suggest that they’re only worth watching for how they exist in relation to something greater. I like On the Town a bunch (and, thanks to my colleague Pavel’s explanation of how he’s never been able to sit through it, I totally understand how somebody could hate its almost abrasive perkiness).

I just finished An American in Paris this morning, though, in ideal romantic viewing conditions and I’m not a fan of it at all. it’s got its charms, Kelly’s athletic and charismatic, but I was checking every few minutes to see how far along it was toward the end. The songs didn’t catch me, the setpieces go on for too long–it’s a drag.

Before I elaborate on the circumstances of the viewing, which I really wanna get to for some reason, I’d like to point out real quick that this is the second of three major musicals featuring the same star, Gene Kelly, which prompts a flashback to where I was about a year ago, with another trio of musicals: Busby Berkley’s 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Let’s say there are two separate trilogies. With the Gene Kelly trilogy, as with the Berkley trilogy, I got particularly annoyed with the last act of the middle movie. American in Parishas a closing ballet, in this case, and then Footlight Parade, the middle volume of that Berkley trilogy, has got some nature-themed spectacle at the end that’s basically just pretty, and pales in comparison to the simpler charms of 42nd Street, its immediate predecessor.

Both of these meandering sophomore installments stem from the minds of dudes who clearly knew what they were doing, dudes we might even rightly call geniuses of their craft. But I think both setpieces represent moments of those artists being emboldened by their earlier success to step a little too far from the realm of narrative. Both movies feel like a celebration of the form, taking it as far as they can go–which definitely has a place, it’s a valuable piece of art, but I think it alienates audiences who don’t have a pre-existing interest in dance.

Like me. I’m not a fan of dance. Nor was my companion, Rosie, who’d slept over the night before I watched this (we were up until the wee hours watching 90 Day Fiance) and then this morning at 7, after a long talk the night before about how intensely I’m gonna be focusing on the Project and the fact that, if she wants to hang out with me here, she’s gonna have to endure the movies, I put on An American in Paris while the windows rattled with torrential rain from sub-tropical storm Alberto. It was crazy. At one point the rain hit a lull and I ran across the street to get us empanadas and coffee. We ate and drank in bed and watched this old musical while the storm carried on and it was nice. Then she fell asleep after the first hour and I sat up with my dog, Mango, and tried not to do the same. [Editor’s Note from the Future: This is so weird, reading how I described it at the time, so casual, none of that air of romantic tragedy I affixed to it a few months later in this piece.]

Had a rough time of American in Paris but managed to watch the whole thing and then follow it up with a nice introduction from John Lithgow, who compared and contrasted Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

The latter, who’s featured a few times on the List but wh’s already kind of a stale chip in my memory, was the more dapper and elegant of the pair, personable and harmless and fun, while Gene Kelly (who bore his own good stock of those last three qualities) is more like a kid, playful, wily and gleeful and athletic. His presence alone is probably something worth watching, if you’re already inclined toward the genre.

And another thing.

The premise of this movie is that Gene Kelly, the eponymous American, is a struggling young artist who lives in a garret and sells his paintings on a street corner. A wealthy older woman comes across his display and buys all the paintings at once. It shortly thereafter becomes clear that she’s bought these paintings because she wants to fuck him. Kelly’s prideful painter tries to return her money and take the paintings back–but she stops him, no hey wait, and says she really does believe in his talent and that she wants to set him up with her connections int he art world.

Meanwhile Kelly falls in love with a younger woman who’s about to be married. He keeps that affair a secret from his lusty benefactor, who in this period sets him up at a lush studio and promises him a fancy exhibition in three months—in prep for which he discovers untapped reserves of discipline and creativity. Works his ass off.

The rub is this: if he runs off with his love, he loses the career opportunity.

I realize that the sensibility behind such stories is that career opportunities come and go while true love is once-in-a-lifetime but, to be honest, I think that’s bullshit. Professional opportunities that stand to establish you in your field, grant you the connections that’ll propel you toward success, are way more rare than the likelihood of your meeting somebody who makes your heart swell and your stomach flutter.

There are more people than there are opportunities for a young artist.

It really is a beautiful scene. Just not the kinda thing I ever enjoy. Looking over stills, however, is somehow communicating an artistry I hadn’t noticed while slogging through the film.

I’d have expected the thirty-something Kelly to know better. He sacrifices the opportunity and goes for the girl. They perform some ballet together. Even the movie seems to suggest that this is a bittersweet outcome. Several people are going to be hurt by the young lovers’ decision to run off together, including the people with whom they were romantically involved.

This is a story of two dishonest people finding each other and thinking that each is the answer for the other.

Their relationship is doomed.

It’s a sad movie.

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