An American in Paris is one of Hollywood’s most spectacular musicals ever produced. Featuring a score by American musical icon George Gershwin and dance performances by the talented Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, it tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, a struggling American painter in post-war Paris in love with Lise, a young French woman already engaged to a cabaret singer.
The legendary movie will be screened in the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall, accompanied live by the NAC Orchestra.
An American in Paris won the 1951 Oscar for Best Picture.
The unabashedly sunny Technicolor musical beat out the critically acclaimed tragedy A Place in the Sun and the film adaptation of Tennesse William’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire. Back then, the Oscars were broadcast on the radio, so no red carpet to watch on TV.
Technicolor was a big deal at the time.
The 1950s was a time of transition from black and white to colour film, with colour still a relative rarity in Hollywood in 1951. Nearly every review mentioned that An American in Paris was filmed in Technicolor, which was renowned for its highly saturated colour. An American in Paris was only the second colour film to win the Best Picture Oscar (after Gone with the Wind). It also won Oscars in several technical categories, highlighting its striking visual appeal.
Before it was a movie, An American in Paris was a composition by George Gershwin.
Gershwin’s jazz-infused orchestral piece titled An American in Paris was inspired by his own experiences in Paris in the 1920s, a time when many notable artists, such as Hemingway, Picasso and Fitzgerald were living and working there. The composition premiered in 1928 at Carnegie Hall in New York City and became one of Gershwin’s best-known pieces, performed by orchestras regularly throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The composition inspired the movie and its famous final dance sequence is set to it.
Gershwin died 14 years before the release of the movie.
Gershwin died tragically of a brain tumor in 1938 at the age of just 37. Hollywood producer Arthur Freed bought the rights to Gershwin’s An American in Paris composition from his brother, Ira Gershwin for $158,750, after seeing it performed in concert. Ira insisted that the piece be surrounded exclusively by Gershwin compositions and penned the now familiar movie lyrics to his brother’s standards such as “I Got Rhythm,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “S Wonderful.”
Gene Kelly was more than just the lead.
Gene Kelly not only played the lead role of Jerry, the soldier-turned-painter who calls Paris home after World War II—he also choreographed the film and helped with casting. Kelly earned an honorary Academy Award as an “appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” Kelly was one of the first superstar choreographers to incorporate what, at the time was considered “lowbrow, pop-culture” forms of dance such as tap and jitterbug into his routines.
Leslie Caron was only 17 years old and continues to work as an actor today.
Gene Kelly discovered co-star Leslie Caron after seeing her in Paris’s Ballet des Champs Elysées. The 17-year-old ballet dancer had been so weakened by wartime malnutrition that she could only work on alternate days and so the movie’s schedule adapted accordingly. At age 86 today, Caron continues to work as an actor, most recently as Countess Mavrodaki in the television series The Durrells.
The courtship scenes would be considered creepy by today’s standards.
The lead, Jerry, played by Gene Kelly, 39 years old at the time, pursues his love interest, Lise, played by teenager Leslie Caron, with a stalker’s doggedness, roping her into dancing with him, calling her the following day and showing up at her work unannounced. He even suggests she change her name to something more “American.” In 2017, you would tell her to run for the hills.
Still, An American in Paris is a treat.
Many have critiqued the film for its corny storyline and lack of chemistry between the main love interests (a good thing considering their age difference). Yet, no one can argue the film’s stunning dance sequences, incredible music and visual splendour. Oh, and Oscar Levant, who plays Jerry’s neighbour Adam, is just hilarious.
An American in Paris runs from Thursday November 16 through Saturday November 18 at 8pm at the NAC’s Southam Hall. Tickets range from $25 to $104. Anyone between the ages of 13-29 can buy a $15 Live Rush ticket the day of the show.