An American in Paris: Two-Disc Special Edition
Directed By: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, Nina Foch
|Studio: Warner Brothers|
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 114 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Japanese, Thai
Release Date: September 16, 2008
In An American in Paris, Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, the titular American ex- GI in postwar Paris who stayed on after being discharged to pursue painting. After perfecting the art of being a starving artist, Jerry unexpectedly benefits from the patronage of wealthy divorcee Milo Roberts (Foch). Milo has romantic as well as professional designs on Jerry, but Jerry, while grateful, is smitten by young perfume shop employee Lise Bouvier (Caron, in her film debut). Matters are further complicated by Lise's romantic attachment to French music hall singer Henri Baurel (Guétary) with whom Jerry shares a mutual friend, American concert pianist Adam Cook (Levant).
Looking at the film's running time and the minimal plot synopsized above might mislead one to question the film as a value proposition for audiences. An American in Paris is one of those films that is to be appreciated not for what it is about so much as how it is about it. The relatively slight narrative is interrupted for inventively staged production numbers big and small based around songs culled from the library of tunes by George and Ira Gershwin. Gene Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli are at their most inventive when staging these numbers, and the film is a near perfect blend of Kelly's populist dance philosophy with Minnelli's fine art sensibilities. The film climaxes with perhaps the ultimate production number of the classic MGM studio era, a ballet that plays for the entirety of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" with multiple segments based around the visual style of paintings by Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Toulouse Lautrec that are also keyed to the memories and psychology of Kelly's character at the film's climactic moment.
While Michael Powell had managed to incorporate an extended ballet segment into The Red Shoes a couple of years previously, nothing like this had been attempted in mainstream Hollywood studio films. Additionally, Kelly and Minnelli's staging of the ballet expands on Powell's creative mix of ballet with cinematic techniques by mixing in modern dance and popular jazz with the classical ballet elements.
With the whole Gershwin catalog at their disposal, the filmmakers resisted the temptation to make a composer biopic as MGM had recently done with Rodgers and Hart in "Words and Music", and Kalmar and Ruby in "Three Little Words". This was partly because George Gershwin had already received such treatment in the Warner Bros. film Rhapsody in Blue and partly because they had something quite different in mind. This allowed them to eschew the normal hit parade approach and go deeper into the Gershwin catalog to pull out fairly obscure songs such as "By Strauss", "Tra La La", and "Our Love is Here to Stay" to mix in with the better known standards. The latter emerged from relative obscurity and became a standard largely because of its effective use as a love theme in this film. The unconventional approach is also reflected in Alan Lerner's script, which has hints of darkness and complexity in characterizations such as Foch's barely veiled romantically predatory patron and does not feel obliged to arrange neat happy endings for the supporting cast by the film's conclusion.
For this 4:3 color transfer, Warner has employed their Ultra-Resolution process to digitally align and combine the color records of the original three-strip Technicolor negatives. The result is a video presentation with few noticeable flaws. Color and density are solid and unwavering. Light, natural looking film grain is noticeable and fairly well rendered by the video compression. I noticed high contrast edge halos at only two points in the film. One was a stock shot of Paris and the other was during the "Embraceable You" montage of Leslie Caron in various settings to illustrate her character's personality during the part where she is wearing a black outfit against a yellow background. These instances appear to be film source related. The most convincing evidence for this is an optical shot at the end of the "Embraceable You" segment where it shows a split screen of Caron in all of her various outfits. The black on yellow still has the thin haloing, proportionately reduced in size, but there is no evidence of edge ringing in any of the other images.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is more than serviceable. Noise reduction is applied with a light touch resulting in a track with very good fidelity and light background hiss without any significant audio processing artifacts.
This two-disc special edition improves greatly on previous DVD releases of the film in the extras department, with a full complement of special features related to the film as well as a few vintage shorts spread across the two double layered DVDs. All extras are presented in 4:3 color video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio unless indicated otherwise.
Beginning with disc one, the first and most significant extra is a Commentary by Patricia Ward-Kelly with producer Arthur Freed, Gene Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli, screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner, co-musical director Saul Chaplin, Leslie Caron, Nina Foch, musician Michael Feinstein, co-musical director and head of MGM music department Johnny Green, art director Preston Ames, and costume designer Irene Sharaff. This outstanding commentary amounts to an oral history of the film with first hand behind the scenes accounts from several of the key contributors. Ward-Kelly introduces the track and then provides connecting comments between interview excerpts from the various participants. Comments from Caron and Foch are newly recorded, and the rest are from archival sources. Recording quality varies greatly as many of the interviews were likely conducted as research without intention of releasing the tapes commercially. Michael Feinstein's presence on the track comes about due to the Saul Chaplin comments being taken from a recorded conversation between the two men.
Next up is Paris on Parade (8:52), a 1938 color short photographed by Jack Cardiff from the James Fitzpatrick "Traveltalks" series looking at the 1937 Paris exhibition. It focuses more on the exhibits of the various nations than on Paris itself, but there is a section on the illuminated fountains designed by the French.
Symphony in Slang (6:45) is a 1951 Technicolor Tex Avery cartoon consisting almost entirely of a series of sight gags based on literal translations of slang and idiom terms as a recently deceased hipster relates his life story to Saint Peter and dictionary master Noah Webster.
Concluding the extras on the first disc is the film's lengthy Theatrical Trailer (3:38 )
All of the video-based extras on the second disc are presented with available Japanese and Thai subtitles
Kicking off the disc two extras is Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (84:43). This is an outstanding 2002 career profile from the PBS American Masters series directed by Robert Trachtenberg which is presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. It provides a very comprehensive, refreshingly even-handed overview of Kelly's professional career with plenty of film clips and archival footage such as a rare soundless clip of Kelly performing in Pal Joey on Broadway. On-camera interview participants include a wide array of scholars, friends, family, and colleagues including: daughter Kerry Kelly Novick, Biographer Clive Hirschhorn, Dance Historian Beth Genné, Actress/ex-wife Betsy Blair, Writer Adolph Green, Film Historian Jeanine Basinger, actress Nina Foch, Stanley Donen biographer Stephen Silverman, composer Andre Previn, writer Betty Comden, writer Arthur Laurents, actress Leslie Caron, actress Cyd Charisse, dance critic Deborah Jowitt, film critic Elvis Mitchell, dancer Fayard Nicholas, actress Betty Garrett, UCLA Professor of Film Studies Peter Wollen, actress Debbie Reynolds, choreographer Kenny Ortega, and son Tim Kelly. Additionally, there are archival interview clips with Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, Donald O'Connor, and Stanley Donen. Donen actually appears twice, once in what is clearly an older interview and once in one that looks more recently recorded. This documentary would be worthy of purchase for fans of Gene Kelly as a separate release, and in fact, it was released on its own DVD six years ago. It is presented with outstanding video and audio quality, with most of the archival film clips being from recent high-quality video masters.
Next up is the newly produced "making of" featurette 'S Wonderful: Creating "An American in Paris" (42:23). It is presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. This is a somewhat more comprehensive than usual mini-documentary mixing standard "talking head" retrospective interviews with film clips and behind the scenes pictures and footage. My favorite segment is a section by section breakdown of the climactic ballet. Interview participants include music historian/Gene Kelly friend Gene Lees, music and film Historian Gary Giddins, author and widow of Gene Kelly Patricia Ward Kelly, author/historian Hugh Fordin, author/historian Dr. Drew Casper, Nina Foch, Leslie Caron, former child actors Andrée and Claude Guy, former MGM orchestra musician Uan Rasey (As an amateur trumpet player, I have to admit to being pretty geeked out to see Rasey who is something of an unsung legend.), and dancer Marian Horosko. Archival interview clips also include comments from director Minnelli, co-musical director Saul Chaplin, and cinematographer John Alton.
Love Walked In Outtake (2:43) Is an outtake musical number featuring Georges Guétary and Oscar Levant. The audio/video quality on this extra is comparable to that of the restored film – a nice touch.
A collection of Audio Outtakes (14:33 w/"Play All") includes:
- Alternate Main Title
- But Not for Me Guétary
- But not for Me Levant Piano Solo
- Gershwin Prelude #3
- I've Go a Crush on You (Kelly vocal)
- Nice Work if You Can Get It (Guétary vocal)
- 'S Wonderful (Kelly vocal)
Finally, a collection of three promotional Radio Interviews (13:54 w/"Play All") includes a segment with musical director Johnny Green, a segment with Gene Kelly, and a segment with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The first two are to promote the film and record album and are one-sided interviews recorded so that local hosts could fill in the questions themselves. The last one is a Dick Simmons-hosted promotional radio segment where Kelly introduces Caron to the listeners. As with the audio outtakes, they are selectable individually or via a "Play All" option, but fast forwarding and rewinding functions are locked out.
The two dual-layered DVD-9 discs are packaged in an Amaray-style hard plastic case with a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs. The hard case is in turn inserted into a cardboard slipcover that reproduces identical text and graphics to those of the hard case with no embossments or foil enhancements. The cover image of Kelly and Caron against the colors of the French flag is not as graphically elegant as the classic promotional image from the previous DVD releases, but it is not bad and will help to distinguish it from its predecessor on the shelves of stores and DVD collectors. Extra kudos to the Warner Bros. Home Video marketing folks for not giving this edition a dopey name like "'S Wonderful Two-Disc Special Edition". Such terrible and corny references to song titles and movie moments should be kept out of DVD titles and remain squarely in the domain of hack online reviewers as my very next sentence will illustrate.
Warner Home Video has gone the extra mile to present a two-disc special edition of An American in Paris that 'S Wonderful by almost any standard. Audio/Video quality is about as good as one could hope for if not a little better, and the full complement of extras, including an outstanding oral history commentary and a comprehensive documentary on Gene Kelly are well worth the time it takes to view them.