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To Dance an Exclamation Point

The case for An American in Paris as Gene Kelly’s best

By David Lehman | September 25, 2021
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, 1951 (Everett Collection)
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, 1951 (Everett Collection)

The best stanza of Carl Sandburg’s “Lines Written for Gene Kelly to Dance To” proposes a parallel between the languages of dance and speech: “Can you dance a question mark? / Can you dance an exclamation point? / Can you dance a couple of commas? / And bring it to a finish with a period?” Fred Astaire, my other favorite dancer, can climb the wall and dance on the ceiling, but if anyone can dance an exclamation point, it’s Gene Kelly.

Of Kelly’s four outstanding midcentury movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the best-loved. In Hollywood history, the title number is second in popularity only to “Over the Rainbow,” and for sheer joy it’s hard to top “Good Mornin’” with Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor. In Singin’ in the Rain, the late Clive James felt he encountered “the absolute concentration of an entire popular culture at its most powerful.” As for Kelly, James said, “it took the whole of America, including all its modern history, to create one of him.”

In It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), the most underrated of the quartet, Kelly dances down the street in roller skates, Dan Dailey does a nifty tipsy song and dance, and the two of them and Michael Kidd—Army buddies who reunite 10 years after the end of World War II—dance on trash can lids in one number, and, later on, sing of their plight (as civilians of different classes and backgrounds, who don’t like one another) to the tune of the Blue Danube waltz. Add a Dolores Grey showstopper (“Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks”) and the dancing feet of Cyd Charisse, plus lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and well, if it’s a lesser masterpiece, it’s a masterpiece nevertheless.

John Updike believes that On the Town (1949) was the freshest and had the most energy of the group. Kelly himself felt that “we”—the unit assembled by MGM genius producer (and lyricist) Arthur Freed—may have “made better movies,” but On the Town “was the apex of our talent.” Purists may register reservations if only because some of Leonard Bernstein’s sublime songs (“Some Other Time,” “Lucky to Be Me”) were dropped from the Broadway version and replaced with lesser, albeit still good, tunes by Roger Edens. Still, the film is giddy with infectious delight from the moment Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin, playing three sailors on 24-hour shore leave, get off their ship, take in the sights of New York City, and pair off with Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, and Ann Miller, respectively. In the exhilarating opening sequence, shot on location in or near Chinatown, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty and other such landmarks, the fellows sing their hymn of praise to “New York, New York, a wonderful town.”[1]

While I love all four movies, I would press the case for An American in Paris (1951) as Kelly’s best. He plays a painter named Jerry Mulligan, a GI who stayed in Paris after the war because, he says, if you can’t paint in Paris, brother, you might as well go home and marry the boss’s daughter. Jerry is pursued by Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy American expat, who looks smashing in a dress she is “almost wearing” and in a brown suit with elegant earrings. She wants to sponsor Jerry; she rents him a studio and arranges a one-man show. But Jerry’s heart belongs to Lise (Leslie Caron), who is engaged to acclaimed music-hall singer Henri Burel (George Guettary).

Like Victor Lazlo in Casablanca, Burel may have the greater claim on the lady, because he protected her during the war after her parents, active in the Resistance, were deported by the Nazis. But being a man of honor, and not having a world war to fight, he lets true love take its course. The movie ends with a masquerade party, which segues into a full-scale ballet presentation of An American in Paris, arguably George Gershwin’s second greatest work for piano and orchestra. Vincente Minnelli directed the film, which won the Academy Award for best picture. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the Oscar-winning script.

Why do I defy the consensus in casting my ballot for An American in Paris?

1. The music. Splendid as the soundtrack of Singin’ in the Rain is (music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed), it is not equal to the songs George Gershwin wrote with his brother Ira’s lyrics. In addition to whole songs and much splendid incidental music, we get two orchestral works, the title piece as a ballet and the Concerto in F as rendered on the piano (and, by camera hocus-pocus, all the other instruments) by Gershwin’s friend Oscar Levant, who plays Jerry’s composer pal Adam.

2. The ballet, all 17 glorious minutes of it, a masterly example of narrative by dance. Performed by Kelly, Caron, and crowds of costumed dancers, choreographed by Kelly, and filmed by John Alton, it beats even what Kelly and Vera-Ellen did with Richard Rodgers’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue in the movie Words and Music (1948).

3. Franco-American relations. The scene in which Kelly teaches English to the French kids by way of “I Got Rhythm”—and dances in imitation of a choo-choo train, Hopalong Cassidy, an aero-plane, and Charlie Chaplin—may mark the highest point between the two countries after the liberation of Paris in 1944.

4. Leslie Caron. Of Kelly’s dance partners, Caron rates with Cyd Charisse and Vera-Ellen, and our introduction to her many moods, by way of various tempi and costumes for “Embraceable You,” surpasses even its predecessor: the great ode to Vera-Ellen as “Miss Turnstiles” in On the Town.

5. George Guettary’s swanky rendition of “l’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and his duet with Kelly on “ ‘Swonderful,” in which, by the sort of irony that romantic musicals are made from, both lads have the same gal in mind when they express their jubilation in knowing that “she should care for me.”

6. Less misogyny. Though poor Nina Foch, the rich American art patron, is left holding the bag in An American in Paris, she is spared the gratuitous nastiness that Jean Hagen suffers in Singin’ in the Rain as the silent-screen star with the irremediably awful speaking voice, whose public humiliation marks the movie’s climax.

7. Not until Kelly wooed Caron with “Our Love is Here to Stay” did people realize what a great song this is. It was the last song that George and Ira wrote together before the former’s untimely death in 1937.

8. The wake-up dance. In his tiny garret, Kelly makes a dance out of his morning routine. With grace and ease he stretches, closes his Murphy bed, opens drawers and shutters. If you are indifferent to modern dance, the sequence will convert you on the spot.

9. Personal history. I saw An American in Paris as a graduate student in England who traveled to Paris frequently. After seeing it, I listened to the orchestral music—with Rhapsody in Blue on the flip side—every chance I could get, and it was in my head as I crossed Parisian boulevards.

The irresistible smile of the most athletic of dancers brightens Gene Kelly’s face as he completes his roller-skate number in It’s Always Fair Weather. When he wins Leslie Caron’s hand in An American in Paris, he triumphs as an artist whose particular medium is not the canvas on which Jerry Mulligan paints but the streets of Paris, as created in a Hollywood studio, where even a walk can become an exclamatory dance.

[1] In the Broadway show it had been “New York, New York, a hell of a town.”

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