On Academy Awards night, March 20, 1952, millions of movie fans huddled around their radios — the Oscars still weren’t a televised event — to find out if George Stevens’ tragedy A Place in the Sun or Elia Kazan’s seismic, sex-charged A Streetcar Named Desire would take Hollywood’s top prize. After Stevens picked up Best Director and Streetcar scored three of the four acting categories, Best Picture seemed like a two-horse race.
But the winner that night was Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, the sunny MGM musical starring Gene Kelly. Columnists were outraged by the choice (at least one called for a vote recount), but history has been a kinder judge. For its unabashed romanticism, kaleidoscopic imagery, and audacious, wordless finale, the movie has been a touchstone for artists, authors, filmmakers, choreographers, and dancers. The list includes Ray Bradbury, David Copperfield, Paula Abdul, John Barry, Madonna — not to mention the creator of this year’s celebrated, most nominated Oscar movie.
“An American in Paris is such a stunner,” says La La Land director Damien Chazelle. “That’s a movie that we just pillaged. It’s an awesome example of how daring some of those old musicals really were. It’s incredible that it ever got made, let alone that it won Best Picture.”
Singin’ in the Seine
It’s no coincidence that the first sound movie, 1927’s The Jazz Singer, was a musical. The first Best Picture movie with sound, 1929’s The Broadway Melody, was a musical too. Watching people sing and dance became the definition of popular entertainment on the big screen in the 1930s and ’40s.
There were Technicolor marvels like The Wizard of Oz (1939), but most musicals of the day were simply black-and-white filmed theater — some elaborately so, in the case of a maestro like Busby Berkeley. Yet with television spreading rapidly in American homes by 1950, Hollywood needed to dust the cobwebs off its old-fashioned signature genre.
Enter Arthur Freed. The MGM executive had produced musicals for Minnelli (1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis) and Kelly (1949’s On the Town), and he hired the former to direct and the latter to choreograph and star in An American in Paris. It was inspired by a scintillating orchestral piece composed by George Gershwin more than 20 years earlier. The famed composer died in 1937, but Freed persuaded George’s brother Ira to sell him the whole Gershwin catalog in the late 1940s.
Freed thought the title alone, and the postwar sentiment it evoked, would strike box office gold. He was right. Audiences flocked to watch the story of an ex-GI named Jerry (Kelly) who’s struggling as a painter in the French capital while falling for a sweet shopgirl (19-year-old Leslie Caron, in her film debut).
In the movie’s most romantic interlude, Kelly and Caron dance to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay” on a nighttime version of Paris’ River Seine. The set was created on MGM’s Hollywood backlot with a recreation of the river, with water only a few inches deep, and a 100-foot cyclorama (a large cloth stretched around the soundstage). In La La Land, Chazelle designed this shot as a homage to the Seine sequence.
In addition to “Our Love is Here to Stay,” nine more of the Gershwins’ tunes were matched to musical set pieces, including the standards “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” with George Gershwin’s instrumental “An American in Paris” reserved for the movie’s 17-minute finale.
The Music Men
Filmed entirely on 44 elaborate sets on MGM’s backlot (except for a few second-unit shots of Paris), the movie presented a fancified vision of the world that tapped into an audience craving for the illusory. “People were still grieving over World War II,” says playwright Craig Lucas, who wrote the book for the 2015 Tony-winning Broadway adaptation of the film. “So here was a Hollywood version of Paris that gave very little indication that it had just been occupied by Nazis. But it didn’t really matter. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron made people feel transported to someplace lovely and amazing.”
It was popular entertainment, yes, but Minnelli and Kelly had their hands on the steering wheel of a genre in the midst of radical change. “The pinnacle of the musical was reached in the early ’50s,” Martin Scorsese explained in his documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies. “Minnelli’s musicals celebrated the triumph of the imaginary over the real. Any aspect of reality, however trivial, could be transformed, stylized, and incorporated into a ballet.”
And in that light, An American in Paris’ Best Picture victory was truly a game changer. Prior to the awards in 1952, Kelly had lamented the shunning of his favored genre. “There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas,” he said. “It’s a form of snobbism.” (On the night before the ceremony, the Academy’s Board of Governors voted to give Kelly an Honorary Award for his cumulative work on the film — the only Oscar he’d ever receive.)
“Gene was just a sponge,” says his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who was married to Kelly for six years until his death in 1996 at age 83. “Everything was inspiration to him. Vaudeville, animation, Douglas Fairbanks. He spoke French, he spoke Italian, he spoke Yiddish, he read poetry and studied art. And he saturated An American in Paris with influences from the art world — Renoir, Rousseau, van Gogh, Raoul Dufy.”
An American in Paris ushered in two decades of exceptional movie musicals that challenged mainstream sensibilities and the artistic status quo. The list includes Kelly’s masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain (1952), A Star Is Born (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), Funny Face (1957), The Music Man (1962), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1968, costarring Kelly), not to mention Best Picture winners West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965).
Paris When It Sizzles
Minnelli and Kelly saved their masterstroke in An American in Paris for last. The film’s dazzling, drawn-out climax, synched to the rhythm of Gershwin’s symphonic poem, still astonishes. Dejected after his sweetheart abandons him for another man, Kelly turns inward and interprets his love affair as a dream ballet — a bright, alive rendezvous through the iconic artwork of van Gogh, Renoir, and others, depicting Paris.
He transforms into figures from famous paintings — including Toulouse-Lautrec’s Chocolat Dancing In Bar Darchille, which for Kelly was the initial spark that led to the whole sequence.
In the finale’s lustiest segment, Kelly and Caron dance in a ripe romantic embrace on a fountain. “That scene is the difference between the sexual and sensual,” says Derek Hough (NBC’s upcoming World of Dance, formerly of Dancing With the Stars). “It leaves more to the imagination, and we’re more than capable of filling in the blanks.” Adds Patricia Ward Kelly, “The sequence is pure lovemaking. Several countries figured it out and that piece was cut because it was considered too risqué.” (Officials in French Indochina banned the film for its “depiction of amoral friendly Franco-American relations.”)
Risqué might have been Kelly’s goal. Like many lovers of great art, he had an eye for the erotic. On the set, censorship officials were present with tape measures to check the length of female dancers’ décolletage and skirts. The movie’s vibrant, Oscar-winning costumes are credited to three designers, but it was Kelly who would step in with a pair of scissors when the censors weren’t looking to cut and cheat.
But he was an equal-opportunity objectifier. Originally aspiring to be a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kelly possessed the solid build of an athlete more than a dancer. “He was always fudging with his own outfits,” Kelly says, pointing out that he often hemmed his pants so that they were tighter around the thighs and hips. Today there are Tumblr pages devoted to his muscular derriere — something that cannot be said of Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby. “When I’m watching Gene Kelly,” says Hough, “it doesn’t feel like he’s in an older film. That charm and that athleticism feels like now.”
The full finale required four weeks and about a half-million dollars to pull off — plus the belief that people would go along with it. Irving Berlin passed Kelly on the MGM lot during filming and said, “Seventeen minutes? I hope you know what you’re doin’, kid.” Kelly and Minnelli even reconsidered putting it at the end out of fear that confused or frustrated audiences would head for the exits.
“That finale is completely experimental, avant-garde filmmaking,” Chazelle says. “Nothing but Gershwin, Gene Kelly, and painted sets. You look at that and you realize how daring the film was.” Indeed, the movie’s Best Picture win can be attributed to the boldness of that final production number. “My dad pushed MGM hard to include the ballet sequence,” says Oscar winner Liza Minnelli, who visited the set as a 4-year-old. “That movie pushed the boundaries of the American film musical. It’s rightly regarded as the pinnacle of Hollywood’s studio era.”
But in the past four decades, original movie musicals have slumped from the popular imagination. That seems to be changing. Are we craving more escapism via the genre that’s always done escapism best? Kelly and Minnelli offered audiences an invitation to a cinematic spectacle that also celebrated romantic dreamers. As Hollywood gears up for a new era — potentially — in the musical genre, moviegoers seem to be accepting the invitation.
Perhaps we have more in common with 1951 audiences than we think.