Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is an American WWII expatriate barely eking out a living as a painter in Paris with his composer friend and neighbour Adam (Oscar Levant). Adam is also friends with successful singer Henri (Georges Guetary), who is madly in love with his young girlfriend Lise (Leslie Caron). When attempting to sell his paintings on the street, Jerry is spotted by the wealthy and entrepreneurial Milo (Nina Foch) who plans to make Jerry a successful artist but, on an evening out, Jerry becomes infatuated at first sight with a girl at the next table, who turns out to be Lise, which doesn’t please Milo at all.
I put a lot of emphasis on story in film; to me a strong narrative is one of the most important aspects of a great movie. This is why come the closing credits, I despised An American In Paris. It ends in a manner so frustrating, so aggravating, that it left me genuinely annoyed at the time spent watching the rest of the film. And that’s the most egregious part, because up until the climax I was, for the most part, enjoying myself. So let’s rewind a little, discuss some reasons why I initially liked it, and get back to this ending later on.
The film, which was inspired by George Gershwin’s orchestral composition of the same name, and has gone on to itself inspire various stage adaptations I’ll be making a concerted effort to never see, begins by introducing us to who appear to be our three main focal points. First there’s Gene Kelly’s Jerry the penniless painter, then his neighbour, Adam the dour pianist, and finally upbeat and successful singer Henri, Adam’s long-time friend. We meet each of these three initially through their own narration, all of which is self-deprecating in a way, and interacts with the others’ narration as though they’re all omnipotently watching this film together, which was nice, well implemented and looked promising. Alas, Kelly is indeed the sole lead, and Adam and Henri are very much in supporting roles, though mostly key to the overall plot, if not the ultimate climax. Now I have no problems with Kelly as a lead, in fact I found him for the most part very engaging, as he has an effortless charm as a kind of charismatic clown – he’s even able to make tap-dancing with a group of kids watchable – I was just somewhat taken by the two other short-time narrators, and hoped to see more of them than we eventually do.
This sentiment goes especially for Oscar Levant’s Adam, the most unsuccessful of the three because he has neither a career nor a love in his life, and has difficulty even gaining the attention of the waiter in the cafe he lives above. Levant has the wriest sense of humour, specifically about his lot in life, and it gets used to great advantage at numerous points, particularly in the scene where he realises that his two friends are both in love with the same girl, but neither of them knows it yet. When Jerry announces the name of his new love to Adam, and then Henri shows up, we get a masterclass of nervous tics and shakes from Adam as the scene progresses, as he continually fiddles with his coffee, brandy and cigarettes in various and often disastrous combinations, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him and his antics.
However, the aforementioned scene did lead onto one of the film’s worst songs, ‘S Wonderful. Actually, saying that, there weren’t many decent musical numbers in the whole thing, with all the ones I can recall being either bad or just bland. Tra-La-La feels very cobbled together and unfinished, I Got Rhythm, sung by Jerry and a bunch of street kids, felt odd and too reminiscent of the worst moments from The Sound of Music for my liking, and even more bombastic pieces like By Strauss annoyed me purely for how little motivation it took for the characters to burst into song about nothing in particular. I get the feeling the street these guys live on is always full of people because there’s an impromptu show put on three time a day outside the corner cafe. The one musical sequence that worked very well, in my opinion, is an instrumental dance number by Lise that plays over a conversation between Adam and Henri as the latter tries to describe his new love to the former. Every character trait that is mentioned cuts to Lise dancing in a new costume and against a new brightly coloured backdrop that reflects the description. It’s an innovative idea that worked rather well, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t a fan of dancing in any form.
If we’re discussing dancing, I suppose it’s time to get into the climax. There’s spoilers from here, sort of, because as far as I’m concerned you can’t spoil the ending to a film that doesn’t have one (how two thirds of a script won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay I’ll never know, it’s like giving someone an Olympic medal for being in the lead in the 100m sprint but stopping 30m from the end). Jerry has fallen head over heels in love with Lise, and she has fallen for him in return, but has agreed to marry Henri and go with him to America. Jerry finds this out as she is about to leave, and after she has left it is decided that, for some reason, the audience watching this film should be punished for an undetermined crime, as we are forced to endure a seemingly endless but actually only twenty minute long wordless ballet number that proceeds through various backgrounds and locations reminiscent of paintings. It’s like Gene Kelly jumped into one of Bert’s chalk-paintings in Mary Poppins, but instead of penguins in boaters and sentient carousel horses there’s just a whole lot of prancing about. There is, as far as I can see, no discernible plot, structure or meaning to this dance, but I’d say that about any dance really. It’s a sequence that went on and on, on and on interminably, only to end with Lise running back into Jerry’s arms and the pair ending on a happy note, to which I called bullshit.
Throughout the entirety of the film, Lise has been the primary antagonist. She has been stringing along two perfectly decent guys, telling neither one about the other, and when the climax comes along she gets exactly what she wants with no comeuppance or consequences. We don’t find out what Henri thinks about all this, or how he let her go, we just see Jerry and Lise’s happiness together. Similarly, earlier Milo, the wealthy benefactor trying to make Jerry a star, forbids him from seeing Lise, forcing him to instead focus on his work for an upcoming exhibition. Jerry makes a point of saying you can’t rush inspiration and artistic motivation (“I’m not manufacturing paper cups!”) but it turns out you absolutely can, and he works all the time, barely seeing Lise, just painting all day. There’s no real closure to this story segment either, whereas I’d assumed it’d follow the path of Jerry’s art suffering from working at it all the time, but it improving when he’d spend time with the muse-like Lise. Nope, nothing of the sort. No struggles to overcome, just everything presumably going remarkably well in an entirely uninteresting way.
It’s such a shame, because elsewhere the film showed such great promise. Jerry’s apartment is a fantastic example of great production design and set-dressing. Adam has a musical dream sequence halfway through that adds nothing to the plot but is entertaining nonetheless. All three leads, plus the two female characters, are all extremely watchable. No I didn’t love everything about it early on, but there were enough positives to probably warrant a Choose Film designation, were it not for the bitter taste left in the mouth after one of the worst endings since Batman V Superman. This is an instance where perhaps knowing a little more about the film before going in would have benefited my overall experience, but as it is this is a film I downright hated.
Choose Life 4/10