Thursday, January 21, 2010

Revisiting Paris

I had the pleasure of seeing An American In Paris (1951) with a paying audience last night as part of the Big Screen Classics program at the Cedar Lane Cinema in Teaneck. And I went with three good friends who are film buffs. And it's been about a year since I visited Paris for the first time. Good times.

Naturally, I've seen this movie approximately 16.72 skadjillion times, but it has been a while since I've sat and watched in its entirety, and probably over 30 years since I've sat with an audience watching it. This is what I noticed this time around.
  • The thing really plays with an audience. There were children in the audience--real kid type kids, like 7-12 years old. And they loved most of it.
  • There was a real effort to use less commonly known Gershwin numbers, such as "By Strauss" and "Tra-La-La." The film is a personal take on Gershwin, not an attempt to please the crowd with the big popular hits. This is a film that includes not only a 17-minute ballet but most of the 3rd movement of Gershwin's Concerto in F. It cannot be accused of pandering.
  • The music department pulled out all the stops. There are some very tasty jazz-influenced arrangements for small groups, probably by Skip Martin, while Johnny Green's conducting of the American In Paris ballet is superb. Anyone know who the on-screen saxophonist is in the underground bistro scene?
  • Minnelli is a whiz at staging numbers in confined spaces. Yes, I know Gene Kelly and Carol Haney were the choreographers, but Minnelli pulls off the same trick in The Bandwagon. You would expect cinema to lean toward the vast, the grandiose, given its wider potential pallette of spatial effects, compared to the stage. But as Minnelli and, in his own way, Hitchcock, have proved, film does tiny as well (or better) as it does gigantic.
  • The plot with Nina Foch is still boring and a little distasteful. Her character feels like a predator.
  • Speaking of predators, with Gene Kelly in late youth or early middle age and Leslie Caron, the contrast gets creepier all the time. Maybe I'm extra-sensitive as a high school teacher. Ick.
  • "By Strauss" is a better number than I remember. But why is the first all-out musical number in a Parisian film about Viennese music?
  • Most amazing sets--the interior of Kelly's garret; the exterior of Kelly's garret--the walls are beautifully grimy--and the quai by the Seine, in which it is impossible to determine where construction ends and the flat painted material begins.
  • John Alton, who shot only the ballet in this film, but is best known for his hard-edged black-and-white work in films noir such as T-Men and Raw Deal should have done many more Technicolor musicals. (He never did another, according to the Internet Movie Database, but his entry there doesn't include American In Paris.) His work as a strength and a plasticity that somehow complements the papier-mache artificiality of the genre. And the color is both strong and diffuse at the same time, avoiding the candy-box look of, say, the Fox musicals.
  • For all its Hollywood-ness, it's more Parisian than I knew before I saw Paris.

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