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With: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guetary, Nina Foch
Written by: Alan Jay Lerner, Ira Gershwin
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 114
Date: 08/25/1951

An American in Paris (1951)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Singing By the Seine

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

An American in Paris (1951) won an Oscar for Best Picture and was chosen for the American Film Institute's Top 100 American Films of All Time (#68). But despite these accolades, it's a movie that will forever be in the shadow of Singin' in the Rain (1952). Of the many films Gene Kelly made in his career, it's these two that are the best remembered and most beloved. But always Singin', #1 and American, #2.

Several comparisons have already been made of the two films, most intelligently by Andrew Sarris. If you break the films down into components, Singin' in the Rain comes out on top. Debbie Reynolds is much warmer and funnier than the awkward Leslie Caron (although I find her performance, her first in a feature film, to be charming). Donald O'Connor is much, much funnier than the glum composer Oscar Levant or the crooning Frenchman Georges Guetary. And the story about the changeover of silent to sound films is unquestionably better written then the simple plot about a love triangle in Paris.

The songs are trickier to compare. Certainly, "Make 'Em Laugh", "Good Morning", and "Singin' in the Rain" are wonderful, bouncy songs, but the Gershwin tunes, "S'Wonderful", "Stairway to Paradise", and "I've Got Rhythm" have an extra something special. If I was a musicologist I could explain it better. The Singin' in the Rain songs make me happy, but the An American in Paris songs make me feel good.

Then we get down to the directors. Singin' in the Rain was directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly together. Kelly choreographed the musical numbers and Donen did the rest. Kelly actually did the same job on An American in Paris but didn't get directorial credit for it. So eliminating the Gene Kelly factor, what do we have? Donen is a very fine director. (I've recently read that he plans to make a new movie, which I'm very excited about.) His work on Singin' in the Rain is impeccable. He also turned in other great movies like Funny Face (1957), Charade (1963), and Two for the Road (1967). He has an eye for clarity and brevity. He knows when to begin a scene and when to end it. No small feat.

But Vincente Minnelli is a great director, just a notch above Donen. Minnelli was a groundbreaking director of musicals with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948), An American in Paris, and The Band Wagon (1953). He used color and songs in ways they hadn't been used before. He used space and time imaginatively. Best of all, though, he allowed himself to cut loose for the long ballet sequences that end all his movies. The ballet in An American in Paris may be his best work. It blows away the ballet in Singin' in the Rain, as well as any other sequence in that movie.

The An American in Paris ballet is a work of delirious filmmaking, jumping and dissolving from space to space, swirling around an area, dancers entering and leaving the frame in surprising ways. It astonishes me every time I see it. I suspect that the ballet is so good that the Academy awarded the movie six Oscars because of it. Certainly A Place in the Sun, the other top contender, had nothing as spectacular.

Part of the credit goes to revolutionary cinematographer John Alton, who began on Anthony Mann's low-budget crime movies, like T-Men and Raw Deal (both 1948). Alton invented a single-lighting system that allowed the starkest contrast possible. Those movies appear in either black or white, never shades of gray. The shadows are pure black. When Alton made the jump to Technicolor, he took his skills with him.

I have to admit to a personal bias as well. Though I've never been to Paris, it seems to me the most romantic setting in the world. I gobble up movies set in Paris. (Stanley Donen later set his own Charade in Paris, and it's one of my favorites as well.) Singin' in the Rain is set in Hollywood. Hollywood movies as a rule are cynical and wickedly funny, but Paris movies make you stop thinking. You just swoon.

My proposal is this: Let An American in Paris be the equal of Singin' in the Rain. Considering all the factors involved, they come out in a tie. The odd thing in this situation is that An American in Paris is the Oscar winner for Best Picture, and yet it's the underdog of the two. It's really not the type of movie that wins Best Picture. (If it were in Cinemascope and went on for another hour, maybe.) But time has shown that Singin' in the Rain is the more lovable of the two. And I'd like time to remember An American in Paris at its side.

Warner Home Video's 1999 stripped-down DVD comes only with a trailer, but the color transfer is gorgeous. 2008: Warner has released a new, spruced-up double-disc edition. I had been impressed with the old disc, but this one is immeasurably better. The colors are still bold, but they're much, much sharper. Disc one comes with a mega-commentary track, a cartoon, a short and a trailer. Disc two comes with a new documentary, an "American Masters" profile on Gene Kelly, and outtakes.

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