An American in Paris became the first Technicolor film to win best picture in 12 years (Gone with the Wind) and only the second color film ever to win. To put that in perspective, by 1951 there had been well over 500 color feature films made. Several had been nominated for best picture starting with A Star is Born in 1937. After the 24th Academy Awards the score is Black and White: 22. Color: 2.
The strength of this film is summed up in two words: Gene Kelly.
He was so amazing to watch the Academy gave him a special Oscar for “his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”
He was not, however, nominated for best actor which isn’t strange. He didn’t deserve to be, nonetheless he’s a one man singing, dancing wrecking crew.
Vincente Minnelli’s direction is visually deliberate, thoughtful and significant. Dance is an embodiment of mood, personality and setting. It’s expressive and eloquent.
So… that’s all that is well and good for a dance performance. Unfortunately this is a motion picture which requires other elements which this film is lacking. Namely: a story.
I know this is a beloved movie by hordes of people but any argument that it was the best picture of 1951 just doesn’t hold water. For crying out loud it was up against A Streetcar Named Desire.
Perhaps at the time it was the popularity of Gershwin’s tune “An American in Paris” that boosted the film’s response? Maybe the story, as flimsy as it was, was viewed as a prelude to the song? A kind of inspiration. “We knew the song but we didn’t know Jerry Mulligan and his romance with Lise that inspired it!” Sort of like Shakespeare in Love but just not as smartly executed.
When I think of it with that perspective I can understand a little more how it could have been considered the best picture of the year. A little. Very little*.
There are so many ways this film could have been better.
For one… if only Jerry’s neighbor and friend, composer Adam Cook (played by Oscar Levant) wrote the song because he was inspired by Jerry, an American who’s art, life and love converged there in Paris.
But alas, it’s a cobbled mix of music and dance numbers without much story holding it all together.
Now, those music and dance numbers are fun to watch. And like I said before, Gene Kelly is spectacular. But this just isn’t even remotely an Oscar-caliber film.
This was a really perplexing year. Ultimately American went 6 for 8 on Oscar night. Most of those were for the score and the visual presentation. Besides best picture, the screenplay win is the most puzzling.
I take that back. The most puzzling aspect of the 24th Academy Awards was the overall treatment of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Streetcar was the big film going into the night with 12 nominations. It won four, three of which were for acting (actress and both supporting categories).
Not only was it robbed of picture and director, but Humphrey Bogart’s best actor win for The African Queen over Brando in Streetcar is one of the all-time travesties in Oscars history.
It is thought that many believed there wouldn’t be too many more opportunities to recognize the legendary career of the 52-year old Bogart and gave him the Oscar over the 27-year old Brando. They were right on both counts. Bogart would die less than 5 years after this awards ceremony and Brando would go on to win two best actor trophies. Ironically, Bogart would be nominated for best actor again three years later for his superb work in The Caine Mutiny losing to Brand for On the Waterfront.
But all that aside, I was really disappointed with this film. It had a great opportunity to take the Gershwins’ music which has so much style and character and draw out of it a story that brings it to life. Instead An American in Paris is just a string of songs and colorful dance numbers shoehorned into a “plot” held together by chewing gun and chicken wire. It’s sort of fun to look at but it has no depth or meaning. How they picked this over Streetcar I’ll never know.
*Actually not at all.