An American in Paris (Blu-ray)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Studio: Warner Bros.
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:11080pVC-1 codec
Running Time: 114 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English, French, Spanish, German, others
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, many others
MSRP: $ 28.99
Release Date: March 31, 2009
Review Date: March 30, 2009
For over a decade, the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM had been turning out sophisticated quality musicals: some more traditional (Easter Parade) than others (The Pirate) but all brimming with talent, inventiveness, style, and charm. In 1950, the most towering talents on the lot: producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli, actor-choreographer Gene Kelly, music directors Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin, and librettist Alan Jay Lerner collaborated on what would be the Freed Unit’s most transcendent achievement to that time, An American in Paris. An on-the-surface traditional musical with an erudite twist on the standard boy-meets and loses-girl love story, the film’s avant-garde underpinnings would come to the surface by ending the movie with an almost twenty-minute ballet set to the title’s tone poem, a symphonic favorite by composer George Gershwin. It was a risky stunt, but with the enthusiasm of its talented producer-director combo and the mammoth MGM studio craftsmen at their behest, the gamble more than paid off.
Ex-GI Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) has remained in Paris after World War II in an attempt to get his painting career off the ground. Two women glide into his orbit: a fetching perfume shop salesgirl Lise (Leslie Caron) with whom he falls in love and the worldly heiress Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) who wants to be his patroness (with some additional benefits on the side). Jerry’s love affair is complicated by Lise’s involvement with cabaret entertainer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary). The complications of the two love triangles crisscrossing one another culminates in something of a psychological breakdown as Jerry finds he can’t win Lise but he can’t live without her either.
Alan Jay Lerner’s script (which won an Oscar, one of six the film received including Best Picture of 1951) is actually less formulaic than it initially appears. The character of Jerry is a point in two love triangles in the same film. In the first, both he and Henri are vying for the love of Lise. In the second, however, he’s the focal point of two women who love him: Lise and Milo. In addition to these complications, Lerner has added another major character, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a concert pianist who’s never given a concert and a man who’s individually friends to both Jerry and Henri. The film’s running time is extended by Lerner’s being forced to involve Adam in stories in which he’s actually not a major player; instead, things are found for Oscar Levant to do owing to his long, close friendship with producer Arthur Freed. Despite his towering talent as a virtuoso pianist, his participation is the film’s weak link. He’s simply not necessary to the story.
With the use of George Gershwin’s long and highly regarded concert piece “An American in Paris,” the George and Ira Gershwin song catalog became the basis for the remainder of the film’s musical score. Music directors Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green chose four songs for their charm appeal alone: “By Strauss,” “Tra-la-la-la,” “S’Wonderful,” and “I Got Rhythm,” the latter a showcase for Gene Kelly’s tapping and his easy rapport with some neighborhood children. “Our Love Is Here to Stay” is the film’s love ballad, filmed evocatively by Minnelli as Kelly and Leslie Caron dance and fall in love on the banks of the Seine (though actually a studio set; only the opening establishing shots were filmed on location. The rest is Hollywood studio magic.) Leslie Caron’s introduction to American audiences is in a dance montage to “Embraceable You,” something of a kissing cousin to Vera-Ellen’s “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” in On the Town. Georges Guetary gets a showcase of his own with a Follies Bergères-style rendition of ”I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” while Oscar Levant’s moment in the spotlight is an egotistical fantasy turn to “Concerto in F,” in which he manages to be every member of the orchestra, the conductor, and the audience.
But the film’s principal claim to fame is its denouement, the eighteen minute “An American in Paris Ballet.” Designed to mirror the styles of the French Impressionists as Gene Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan psychologically wrestles with his feelings of love and loss, Jerry and his object of desire Lise express their feelings through a marvelously inventive series of dances (choreography by Kelly who won a special Oscar for his work) with the production design mirroring works by Raoul Dufy, Augusté Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Rousseau, Vincent Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Kelly had tried something very similar at the conclusion of On the Town as his character pines for the girl-who-got-away. Here, though, with a company of expert dancers including the classically trained Caron, an astounding production (with a budget to match; the ballet alone cost half a million dollars), and seamless direction by Minnelli who transitions between sections of the ballet so beautifully that it often seems like a long, single take until you realize all of the costume changes of the principals, the ballet really is a showstopper. After it, the film concludes quickly, and why shouldn’t it? Anything else would have been indeed anticlimactic.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec. With sharpness exemplary and colors so richly saturated (just on the edge of blooming without crossing the line), it’s hard to find any flaws in this video transfer. True, blacks might have been a shade darker, but the foggy studio-constructed banks of the Seine are no problem at all for the encode, and the nicks, dirt, and debris from previous video incarnations are all gone for good. For reference quality eye candy, you’d be hard pressed to ever find anything to match the glorious colors and startling dimensionality of the climactic ballet sequence. I noticed details there (such as paint stripes on the floor of the fountain during the dance there) that I had never seen before even though I’ve watched this musical many dozens of times.
The studio stumbles, unfortunately, with this mediocre Dolby Digital 1.0 (192 kbps) audio track. There is low level hiss to be heard during quieter moments between numbers, and all of the orchestral passages don’t quite soar as they should. A lossless audio track might have helped to open up the constricted ambiance of the sound quality a bit. Since only a few multidirectional sound stems survive (Levant‘s “Concerto in F“ is one), the studio has elected to present the entire soundtrack in mono for this release. That’s their prerogative, but a more generous bitrate for the Blu-ray’s sound design would have been appreciated.
Gene Kelly's widow Patricia Ward Kelly moderates an edited collection of recollections used as the disc’s audio commentary. All of the principals involved in the project are heard: Freed, Minnelli, Kelly, Foch, Caron, Chaplin, among them, and their collected comments make for an entertaining and illuminating primer on the making of this classic.
“S’wonderful: The Making of An American in Paris” is a 42 ½-minute documentary recounting the genesis of the film with contributors to the movie repeating many of the anecdotes heard in the commentary but also with new contributions by Dr. Drew Casper (who has written a book on Vincente Minnelli’s musicals), Hugh Fordin (who wrote a book on the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM), and others. It’s presented in 1080p.
“American Masters: Anatomy of a Dancer,” the best of the disc’s bonuses, is a marvelous 84 ¾-minute PBS documentary written, produced, and directed by Robert Trachtenberg on the life and career of Gene Kelly recounting both the highs and lows of his career. It’s presented in 480i.
One musical video outtake is presented, Georges Guetary’s “Love Walked In,” which runs for 2 ¾ minutes in 480i.
Seven audio outtakes may be listened to, either individually or in one 14 ½ minute grouping.
Three radio interviews organized by the MGM publicity department may be selected. Taking part are music director Johnny Green, star Gene Kelly, and co-stars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
“Paris on Parade” is a 1938 entry in the popular “James FitzPatrick’s Traveltalk” series. This tour of Paris is presented in 480i and lasts 8 ¾ minutes.
“Symphony in Slang” is a hilarious Tex Avery cartoon from 1951 in which the entire dialogue is made up of familiar expressions taken literally. It’s in 480i and lasts for 6 ¾ minutes.
The original theatrical trailer, in rather poor condition but serving as a massive illustration of the effectiveness of the Ultra-Resolution remastering that has been applied to the main feature, runs for 3 ½ minutes in 480i.
One of the high points of the MGM musical, An American in Paris makes a welcome entry into the annals of high definition in this marvelous looking Blu-ray release with a host of bonuses that make the package a must-see and for many a must-own.