Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 18, 2009)
As I've noted often, I don't usually care for musicals. Long ago I decided to review every DVD available for films that won the Best Picture Oscar. Unfortunately for me, that involved quite a few musicals. I’ve found a few pleasant surprises, but not many that made me rethink my dislike of the genre.
Since I've always had a soft spot for Gene Kelly, 1951's An American In Paris presented one of the potentially most interesting of these films. Singin’ In the Rain offers one of the few musicals I really enjoy, and I've liked his charm and energy for years.
Paris starts unusually, as we're introduced to three of the main characters in a very odd manner. The camera begins with Kelly's Jerry
Mulligan and follows him through Paris as his voice-over discusses the specifics of his life. When we reach Jerry's friend Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), the film switches to his point of view, and we learn about him until the situation leads to his pal Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary).
Once Henri relates his information, that's where the device ceases, though we do learn of the story's fourth important character - Henri's girlfriend and Jerry's future paramour Lise (Leslie Caron) - through another irregular device. Adam questions Henri about the girl, and we see many different visages of her through some semi-fantasy dance sketches.
Only Jerry's wealthy art patron and would-be lover Milo (Nina Foch) receives a traditional introduction, and that's where the story starts to go downhill. The creativity of the opening sequence added some nice vitality and excitement to the film; even when the participants launched into song, I stayed interested, whereas I usually get itchy once the first tune begins.
Unfortunately, once Milo gets involved in the tale, it quickly de-evolves into a fairly standard love triangle, or perhaps quadrangle, though Milo's not all that much of a factor. Essentially Lise dates both Henri and Jerry, both of whom know each other but aren't aware of their shared romantic partner. Adam discovers this late in the game, which briefly adds some spice, but not much.
Really, only one factor sets the rest of Paris apart from the pack: the famous dance segment that occurs near the end of the film. We find a 17-minute fantasy scene that is sure to delight fans of the genre. Personally, I couldn't stand it, but I recognize my bias in this matter, so I won't slam the piece. At least it provides something unusual in an otherwise-blah film.
I think that most of Paris is well-executed. Kelly maintains his usual boyish exuberance, and Levant offers some curmudgeonly entertainment. However, Guétary seems very bland and uncharismatic. That may be appropriate, since the audience is meant to side with Jerry, but it doesn't make his time on screen very interesting.
As for Caron, I thought she looked cute in Gigi but she doesn't strike me as attractive at all here. She sports an exceedingly uncomplimentary pixie-like haircut that only serves to accentuate her large mouth, all of which served to give her a serious case of “horse face”. Perhaps this is just another of my biases, but I have trouble accepting all of this conflict over such an unappealing girl. (Oddly, though it was made seven years after Paris, Caron plays a younger character in Gigi. The years served her well, as she lost all of the bony gawkiness that made her so unattractive in Paris. I didn't like Gigi, but at least I believed that folks would find her character attractive.)
Ultimately, I think An American In Paris had some promise to provide some pleasures to even a dedicated musical-hater like myself, but the fun doesn't last. Despite a generally good cast and some interesting moments, an ordinary plot and an unattractive leading lady hamper the film. Only the ever-present charm of Gene Kelly got me to the end of this one.
The DVD Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C+/ Bonus D-
An American In Paris appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This was a lackluster transfer that showed its age.
As with many aspects of the picture, sharpness varied throughout the film. Most of the time, it seemed clear and well-defined, but a fair number of scenes appeared a bit hazy and indistinct. I noticed some jagged edges during the film, but moiré effects seemed absent. Mild to moderate edge haloes were present much of the time.
Print flaws were a concern. Some parts of the picture were rife with scratches, speckles, grain and other defects like thin vertical lines or “cigarette burns”. Some parts of the flick looked fairly clean, but the source flaws were a problem during too much of the film. In general, the movie suffered from a rough “digital” look.
Colors were fairly good though not great. I thought flesh tones were a bit on the brown side. Nonetheless, the hues were usually more than acceptable, as they demonstrated good life. Blacks seemed deep and dense without too much heaviness. Shadow detail worked similarly well, as dimly-lit shots were appropriately clear and thick. The image boasted enough positives to sneak by with a “C-“, but this remained a problematic transfer.
The monaural audio of An American In Paris appeared average for its era. Speech was fine. The lines showed age-related thinness, but they were always perfectly intelligible and without edginess. Effects became a minor aspect of the track, and they resembled the dialogue. Those elements lacked much depth but they were without notable problems.
Music was acceptable for its age but not better than that. The songs and score tended to be a bit harsh and shrill. There wasn’t much range to the music, as those elements appeared somewhat too bright and without great clarity. The music remained decent based on what I’d expect from a movie from 1951, but it didn’t surpass my expectations. Some light hiss cropped up through the flick, though not to a substantial degree; the noise became most apparent during songs. At no point did the audio excel, but it still seemed worthy of a “C+” given its vintage.
An American In Paris contains almost no extras. We find a theatrical trailer and that's it. What're ya gonna do?
Skip An American In Paris, if you listen to my advice. Clearly the film will offer more appeal to fans of musicals, but I still think it’s a fairly ordinary piece for the most part. It rests its legacy on one long and creative dance number, but other than that sequence, a clever opening, and Gene Kelly, the movie does little to differentiate itself from a slew of other musicals. The DVD provides flawed picture, average sound and virtually no extras. This one's best left for serious musical buffs or those who just have to see all the Best Picture winners.
To rate this film visit the Special Edition review of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS