Saturday, 17 February 2007

New Column 17/2/07 A Stairway To Paradise

Well its time for an essential musical with a difference. “No songs?” You ask. No, don’t be ridiculous, this time it will be a movie musical from the golden age of MGM. “An American In Paris”.

With a ravishing score taken from the back catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin, the central performance of MGM wunderkind Gene Kelly and the direction of the legendary Vincente Minnelli, “An American In Paris” had all the ingredients to make a classic movie.

The initial idea for the movie was borne from a conversation between legendary producer Arthur Freed and lyricist Ira Gershwin. Following on from previous movies featuring the work of just one composer Freed was desirous of doing the same for the Gershwins, using their epic orchestral work “An American In Paris” as its central point. Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist of “My Fair Lady”) came aboard to write a script to link the songs together, and Vincente Minnelli with his background in art direction was an inspired choice to occupy the directors chair. Any regular readers of this column will know that personally I find the city of Paris and the world of art inextricably linked, and it seems that Minnelli and Kelly had the same thoughts as they began work on this picture. It was no accident that Gene Kelly’s role was as an aspiring artist, as paintings play a big part in this picture. From the opening scenes set in Montmartre to the ambitious ballet that closes the film you are taken on a Technicolor journey through the works of Degas, Lautrec and more.

Anyway let’s start with the cast. Gene Kelly as star/choreographer was of course faultless in the role of Jerry Mulligan and performed with great charm, and naturally he danced up a storm! The movies big discovery was Leslie Caron, plucked from the ranks of David Lichine’s Ballet company to make her film debut as the gamine (try and find a quote about Leslie Caron where they don’t describe her thus!) ballerina Lise. In supporting roles are pianist/entertainer Oscar Levant as Adam Cook and real life star of the Folies Bergere Georges Guetary as entertainer Henri Baurel whose preposterously over the top vocal of “I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise” is one of the films lingering memories.

The plot is simple, dealing with a boy meets girl, boy loses girl etc story, but essentially it is there to show case a series of classic songs and performances. Kelly’s “Tra La La” in Adam’s apartment , and his “I Got Rhythm” performed on the streets of Paris with local children are both original and effective. “Our Love Is Here To Stay” , because of this film , a song that will be forever connected to Paris for me as Kelly sings it to Caron as they wander along the banks of the Seine. This is such an iconic scene that when Woody Allen came to make his own musical “Everybody Says I Love You”, some forty odd years later, it includes an homage to this number. The art direction of the movie is beautiful and even though the film was largely made on the MGM back lot you are able to suspend disbelief and feel as if the whole movie was filmed in the city of lights. From the scenes around Montmartre to the theatricality of the Folies Bergere and the parks and avenues of the city, it seems that all of Paris is there to enjoy. As was the fashion at the time, both on film and at the theatre, the picture features a ballet. This spectacular conclusion to the film features the title tune “An American In Paris” and takes us to the requisite happy ending. Every scene in the ballet is based on a different artist whose work is evoked both in the scenic design, the palette of colours used and even the choreography, all adding up to a visually stunning finale. There are some elements of the film that are very much of it’s time but overall I would say that this really is a timeless movie. Even though studio heads were a little wary of certain elements of the production, particularly the ambitious closing sequence, it went on to become one of the years biggest hits, becoming one of the years most successful pictures and went on to win a total of six Oscars including Best Picture and a special Academy Award for the achievements of Gene Kelly.

Even though “Singin’ In The Rain” (made a year later) is often thought of as being Gene Kelly’s finest hour it is “An American In Paris” that is usually regarded as his masterwork. A meeting of minds that saw a group of collaborators at the top of their game the movie is rightly considered to be one of the all time greats. Sadly within a few short years the glory days of the MGM musical would be over. Judy Garland had already filmed her last movie for the studio and Fred Astaire would not be far behind her. Gene Kelly would film his swan song for the studio “Les Girls” in 1958. However the magical combination of Leslie Caron, Vincente Minnelli ,Alan Jay Lerner and the city of Paris would again feature in what is generally considered to be the last great MGM musical, Lerner and Loewe’s “Gigi” based on the stories of Collette. In 1958 “Gigi” once again uses influences from the world of art and is possibly one of the most sumptuous and beautiful films ever made and well worth a look Once again the production team went away heavily laden with Oscars , nine in total on this occasion, yet again including best picture.

So many people have recorded the works of George and Ira Gershwin that you really are spoilt for choice. Michael Feinstein has released a number of worthy collections, and Ella Fitzgerald’s three disc songbook is a good primer, but you will see the music of Gershwin on recordings by all sorts of artists. There is a fantastic double remastered cd of “An American In Paris” which features all of the movies soundtrack plus some cut songs, and a great single disc of “Gigi” is also available.
As I was growing up the MGM movies were a staple of Sunday afternoon and bank holiday TV viewing. Sadly these days, with the exception of “Singin’ In The Rain” and “The Wizard Of Oz” these films rarely get a terrestrial showing although they can be found on TNT quite often. Slowly but surely they are all appearing on DVD however, often with some fascinating “extras” , but for a real treat why not seek out “That’s Entertainment” which is a pot pourri of the very best clips from these pictures featuring legendary performances from the likes of Garland, Astaire, Rogers, Miller, Keel and of course Gene Kelly. Otherwise there is “The Bandwagon”, “Meet Me In St Louis”, “Easter Parade”, “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” ….well the list goes on!

P.S. as we are on Paris (kind of!) I have been informed by Fanny Dulin that she has seen a trailer for “Fauteuils D’Orchestre” one of the movies I recommended that I had bought in France, so it looks like its heading to our screens soon!

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