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An American in Paris

Well the good news is we don't have too many musicals left. And the better news is, we found one that doesn't involve Nazis, pedophiles, cockneys, gangs of New York, or 19th century London workhouses. Yep, it's the best picture of 1951, An American in Paris.

Gene Kelly plays Jerry, a WWII vet who stayed in Europe after the war to kick start a painting career. He befriends Adam, an American pianist, and Henri, a French singer and their friendship sparks a song and dance routine in a cafe. Eventually he does sell a painting to a rich American woman named Milo, who is interested in Jerry for more than just what's on his easel. But when they hit the town to introduce him to others in the art world, he runs into Lise, a young French woman who unbeknownst to him is Henri's girlfriend. She isn't too impressed with him at first, but he engages in an impressive stalking routine which wins her over. It pisses of Milo of course, but then she disappears for the next half hour so we quickly forget all about her. When she finally turns up again, she offers Jerry his own show. She is obviously still into him, but he pretends not to notice. Meanwhile, Henri proposes to Lise and she in turn breaks it off with Jerry. A distraught Jerry invites Milo to an art crowd party where they run into Lise and Henri, about to depart for America to tie the knot. Then there's a fifteen minutes dance sequence. Then Lise jumps out of Henri's car and runs up the stairs into Jerry's arms.

For a musical, An American in Paris is fairly good, but it's still a musical. Kelly is mostly known as a dancer, and all of the dance sequences are very good, but he also is no slouch when it comes to acting. Leslie Caron is also quite good in her film debut as Lise. A few years later she would show up in another, much worse, best picture winner. The only rough patch acting-wise is Oscar Levant, an actual piano player who plays Adam, though his role is too limited to really cause a problem.

Like with all musicals, we are supposed to ignore how good or bad the plot is and focus entirely on the music, which here is the work of George Gershwin. The movie title itself is taken from a symphonic piece Gershwin wrote in 1924 which serves as the soundtrack for the extended dance number at the end of the movie. Unlike other musicals, there aren't too many tunes with lyrics the audience is supposed to be singing as they leave the theater. Mostly we are supposed to admire the dance numbers, and Kelly has some mad skill when it comes to tap dancing.

But then an extended dance number falls into the same trap with me as the singing in more conventional musicals. There's a little something called suspension of disbelief, basically a lot of fiction depends entirely on the audience thinking it is plausible. This can usually be taken care of by some sort of explanation in the story itself. We can buy that Star Trek features interstellar travel faster than the speed of light and intelligent extraterrestrial life, because the plot is several centuries in the future. However with the great musicals the audience is expected to believe that a contemporary person in our society might suddenly break into song, joined often by those around them in a highly choreographed dance routine. I myself am a strict realist so I find these scenes absurd and quite distracting. That An American in Paris features some wonderful acting and some great music by Gershwin I can certainly appreciate, but we have seen already one best picture winner celebrating the life and work of Mozart, and two celebrating the Broadway revues of the '20's without suspension of disbelief ever being threatened.

That An American in Paris is a good movie, I'm not trying to question (I fully admit that it is the second best Oscar winner for best picture with "American" in the title), but it is not the best movie of 1951. That happened to also be the year Marlon Brando was thrust onto the scene in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Katharine Hepburn teamed up with Humphrey Bogart in African Queen, and Alfred Hitchcock gave us Strangers on a Train. African Queen would get my vote thanks to the superb acting with Bogart showing what range he really had. Oh, and they don't break into song while going inexplicably while going down the river.


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