Jerry Mulligan has a dream, and it involves Paris and a paintbrush.
He’s an ex-GI who, after World War II, became an expatriate and left familiarity and comfort behind for what he hoped would be a new life filled with the beauty and excitement of a Parisian lifestyle. When his work is discovered by mysterious heiress Milo Roberts, played by Nina Foch, Jerry thinks he’s well on his way to making it big, but he may encounter more than he bargained for.
Musical powerhouse and MGM poster boy Gene Kelly, made famous by “Singin’ in the Rain,” plays the lovably naïve Jerry. His boyish charm mixed with undeniable talent and unassuming stage presence made Jerry more than a misguided young man struggling to find his way in a foreign city.
The quietly talented Oscar Levant lent his piano-playing prowess to the role of Adam Cook, a close friend of Jerry’s and an equally uncertain American trying to reach success through his art. In a particularly memorable line, Levant voices over, “I’m a concert pianist. That’s a pretentious way of saying I’m unemployed at the moment.” Cook is a bit more familiar with life in France, having been a longtime associate of debonair French singer Henri Baurel, played by Georges Guétary.
Cook ultimately fades into the background to let Kelly and Guétary shine, but his sheepish demeanor and ivory-tickling skills are charming and deserved a bit more screen time.
This is all very well, but what’s a movie plot without a little creative conflict? Enter the lovely Lise Bouvier, played by Leslie Caron, who instantly catches Jerry’s eye. While Milo practically throws herself at Jerry, proving she’s interested in more than just his paintings, Jerry is hooked on Lise, who is keeping her engagement to Henri quiet.
I’ll avoid giving away the rather predictable ending, but suffice to say it is reached artfully and with plenty of song and dance.
While it relies on a few old tricks to move the story along, “An American in Paris” is not the vanilla romantic musical you might have in mind. Its twists and turns punctuated by the unforgettable talent of Kelly and others solidified this classic and earned it the respect it deserves.
What makes this musical great is not simply the pretty Parisian scenes or the romantic storyline, but the musical numbers themselves. You may have heard the catchy “I Got Rhythm” or the classic “S’Wonderful” somewhere along the line, but watching them performed on film brings them to life like never before. The wondrous whistling of Guétary and the fancy tap footwork of Kelly add an element that can’t be replicated or communicated via audio.
“An American in Paris” won six Academy Awards in 1952, including best picture, musical score and cinematography. In 1993, it was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Graduating college students may identify with Jerry and Adam’s struggle to follow their passion despite the odds, and the toe-tapping tunes will linger in your ears long after the runtime is up.