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Dancing in France Dancing in France
by Asa Butcher
2009-04-29 09:00:52
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Information
Film
An American in Paris
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
1951, MGM

Today, as you are probably aware, is International Dance Day. Yesterday, as you are also probably aware, Ekaterina Maximova, a famous former prima ballerina with the Bolshoi ballet, died at the age of 70. In order to honour both I have decided that it is time to take a very deep breath, summon up every square inch of determination and return deep into Hollywood musical territory... and I mean deep!

We are rewinding way back into Hollywood musical past... no not Chicago, keep going past Cabaret, don't stop at West Side Story, ignore A Star is Born, start slowing up at Singin' in the Rain and finally stop in 1951 at Vincente Minnelli's Best Picture winner An American in Paris. Gut reactions anybody? Have you seen it or even heard of it? Is it better than any of the other musicals we skipped over on our journey back to 1951? Did it even deserve to beat A Streetcar Named Desire for the Best Picture statuette that year? Stay with me and some of your questions shall be answered...

Let's begin with the comparison to A Streetcar Named Desire and simply state that it doesn't hold a match to the awesome power contained in the film thanks to the intensity of Marlon Brando's performance. So how did An American in Paris win then? Gene Kelly is the driving force of the film with a number of incredibly choreographed set pieces that show off a huge range of his dancing abilities, but many critics believe it is the 17-minute dance number at the film's conclusion that swayed many Academy voters to opt for Minnelli's film over Elia Kazan's.

The end dance sequence took a month to film and cost half-a-million-dollars, is one of the highlights of the film and is almost worth sitting through the dozens of other moments the actors break into song and dance at every opportunity. As I hinted in my introduction, I am not a musical fan and even during An American in Paris my eyelids fell shut and the snoring began on more than one occasion. In my defence all I can say is that at least my determination kept me with the film until the very end.

Another aspect of the film that can't help but make you smile is that very little is actually filmed in Paris, with MGM keeping the shoot in their California studios albeit with some second unit photography that doesn't involve any of the actors. Gene Kelly objected this decision, but did manage to have something French in the form of its leading lady Leslie Caron, whom he discovered performing in a ballet while on holiday in Paris. Leslie Caron matches Gene Kelly step for step and is utterly sensational in her dance sequences, especially the set-pieces as her boyfriend Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary) describes her personality to Adam Cook (Oscar Levant).

Begrudgingly I must admit that often in musicals the dance numbers are crowbarred in to a jarring effect, but An American in Paris managed to slip them relatively unobtrusively, as if Gene Kelly had smothered them with lubricant. As I sit here thinking about the film it seems to me as though the film was more a dance film than a musical because Gene Kelly is certainly on his feet more than the other actors are singing, although considering that Kelly's inspiration was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes it isn't surprising.

An American in Paris is a great example of the skills of MGM's producer Arthur Freed, the vision of director Vincente Minnelli and the talents of Gene Kelly, but I would actually suggest you skip this one and watch Singin' in the Rain because it has far more humour and doesn't take itself half as seriously. However, if you are a student of dance and want to be blown away by a man at the top of profession then you cannot do any worse than putting this DVD on and paying close attention, but you will have to try to ignore the snoring coming from the sofa!


   
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Emanuel Paparella2009-04-29 11:23:57
As Nietzsche put it: "You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star" and indeed he did dance when he finished his book on The Birth of Tragedy. Perhaps more philosophers ought to do the same; imitate Gene Kelly and Nietzsche and King David to express their passion and freedom; they’d probably be more convincing.


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