Tag Archives: France

24. An American in Paris (1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli


Alex – 7.2   Elliot – 7.5  IMDB 7.2    Rotten Tomatoes 8.0

Alex’s Commentary:

An American in Paris is a musical that shares similar features with many musicals. Often, plot takes a back seat in a film or stage production as it is merely a device to present music and dance. The plot of American in Paris, shows a struggling American artist (Gene Kelly)  falling in love with a woman (Leslie Caron) who was to be married to another man (Georges Guétary).  This premise is ultimately weak. Not that I don’t believe in love at first sight, but it would seem as though artist Jerry Mulligan proposes to Lise Bouvier after knowing her for less than a week or two. sd american in parisAN_AMERICAN_IN_PARIS-0There are also unanswered questions such as what happened to the heiress/art patron, Milo Roberts (played by Nina Foch), after Jerry leaves her at the big soiree to run off with Lise.  Additionally, the film doesn’t show the conversation that occurred in the cab ride between Lise and Henri Baurel to make them return to the party with Henri’s apparent blessing. Of course, with a running time of close to two hours, I didn’t really care that much!  Our previous three Best Picture musicals, The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, and Going My Way, had much better stories (or at least the last two). It should be noted that Alan Jay Lerner did win an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, so some people must not share my feelings regarding the shortcomings of the story.

With that being said, please don’t be mistake my critiques for a dissuasion for viewing this film. If you are a fan of elaborate production dance numbers, this movie offers a dance extravaganza that I would suspect had not previously been seen on film. I love tap dance numbers and An American in Paris showcases Pittsburgher Gene Kelly at his finest. The movie’s backdrop, Paris just after WWII, is beautiful and interesting particularly as portrayed through an American 1950’s perspective. cinema-hollywoodien-sexpose-lhotel-ville-pari-L-ZMsZoSThe film was produced in MGM Technicolor which director Vincente Minnelli uses to its fullest with lush Paris street scenes, sidewalk cafes, and a climatic epic colorful dream sequence dance number. This particular dance number, that feels like it could be fifteen minutes or longer in length, combines tap numbers with ballet, modern dance and traditional Broadway show mega-ensemble vignettes.  This film also won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Set Decoration – Color, Best Costume Design and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. I agree that all of these awards are well deserved.

Most of the songs were written by George and Ira Gershwin in the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t clear to me why these songs were chosen for the film as I do not believe they have anything to do with Paris of the late 1940’s. In fact, “‘S Wonderful, S’ Marvelous” first appeared in the 1927 Broadway musical Funny Face. The songs are immediately recognizable, which may have contributed to the film’s success.

French born Leslie Caron makes her film debut in An American in Paris. Probably better known for her future roles in Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958), I did not realize she was such accomplished dancer an-american-in-paris-leslie-caron-1951_a-G-9920143-8363144and obviously classically trained. She was also unbelievably flexible!! I would be remiss not to mention Oscar Levant as an unemployed piano player/composer. Another fellow Pittsburgher, he has some incredible piano numbers and some memorable one-liners. Oscar was a good friend of George Gershwin and after Gershwin’s death, Levant was considered the preeminent interpreter of Gershwin’s works.

The movie has a line which I found very funny. When Jerry Mulligan is visiting Milo Roberts in her apartment, she appears in a cocktail dress with an exposed shoulder. Jerry asked Milo, “What’s keeping that dress up?” and she replies, “My modesty.” Love that line!

Although the movie does drag at times and feels overly long, I would still recommend it for any viewer who enjoys musicals and Gershwin songs.

Elliot’s Commentary:

With An American in Paris, we take our journey back to the land of the musical.   Previously, we have viewed three other musicals: The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, and Going My Way.  These films all have their own unique traits, but none of them had the cohesion and vision that An American in Paris showed.  Additionally, while I do enjoy the grandeur of a Ziegfeld or Busby Berekely production, I appreciate Vincente Minnelli’s direction to establish the setting of this picture in a different environment and provide viewers with a more modern approach to the musical.   sd american in parisAN_AMERICAN_IN_PARIS-6Minnelli is a legend in the movie musical community, and his work on film classics like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)  and the soon to be reviewed 1958 Best Picture, Gigi, have cemented his place in film history.  His meticulously planned out scenes reflect his past working in the theater as a set designer and costume artist during the great depression.  While his direction and work have made quite an impression on the film community, his personal life also intersected with some of the most dynamic stars in Hollywood History.  Minelli’s first marriage to an actress he met on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland, resulted in the birth of his oldest daughter, legend in her own right, Liza Minnelli.  While Judy Garland was snubbed twice from her two Oscar nominations, she received an Academy Juvenile Award for her performance in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.  Judy and Vincente’s daughter, Liza Minelli, followed her parents into the movie musical genre and received an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Cabaret in 1972.  However, unlike Vincente, neither Judy nor Liza ever appeared in a film that garnered the award for Best Picture.

While Vincente was a true auteur in his own right, his stylistic choices are a bit over the top by today’s standards.   The mesmerizing use of technicolor in the costumes and scenes presented in vivid light are so bright, many scenes take on a dreamlike quality.   This is the second film to win best picture that was presented in its entirety in technicolor, the first being Gone With The Wind.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s only a limited number of films were produced using the technicolor technique due to the cost of the production.  3strip_camera_prismWithout getting too scientific, the Digital Intermediate Guide describes the technicolor technique as “Two strips of 35 mm black and white film negative, one sensitive to blue light and the other to red light, ran together through an aperture behind a magenta filter, which allowed blue and red light to pass through. A third film strip of black and white film negative ran through a separate aperture, behind a green filter.” This expensive process made production houses prioritize the use of Technicolor for large, big budget productions that would bolster their ROI’s through the use of this technique. Due to the box office success of movie musicals, these larger productions were often prioritized for the use of Technicolor.  84ce8d447d7c950cc78adac8ff6347fbVincente Minnelli’s success with Meet Me in St. Louis helped him secure the authorization for the use of Technicolor for the production of An American in Paris.  Additionally, based on Minnelli’s stylistic choices, the film would not have been as visually spectacular if the technique was not utilized.

While Minnelli’s spectacular mise-en-scene solidified the visuals in the film, the success of An American in Paris was also driven by the 1928 George Gershwin piece of the same name.  Gershwin died 1937, 14 years before the success of An American in Paris, however his achievements in orchestral composition are some of the most influential in the 20th century.  Between An American in Paris (1928), Rhapsody in Blue (1924), and Porgy and Bess (1935), Gershwin made a remarkable imprint on the musical landscape of America.  If not for his tragic death in 1938, who knows how many other timeless classics would be included in this brief summary of his talents?  Before reviewing the film, I listened to the entirety of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” to provide context for my watching experience.  As the score shifts between each musical stanza, 850 1there is a clear narrative structure in the composition that is exciting and interesting even to my untrained ear. George was not the only Gershwin who lent his with musical talents to Hollywood for this film, George’s brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics for all of the songs included in An American in Paris.  He also collaborated with his brother to create the lyrics for the opera, Porgy and Bess.  Together, the Gershwin brothers produced the perfect musical score to provide the backdrop for Minnelli’s Hollywood production.

An American in Paris stars Gene Kelly with a performance that helped solidify his place in film history.    Gene Kelly was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA and attended the University of Pittsburgh (Where my father and I received our graduate education).   While An American in Paris enlists the help of Kelly as a triple threat (Dancing, Singing, and Acting), his GeneKellyPlaqueAtPitt_cropreal talent shines through his dancing ability.   Kelly not only danced in An American in Paris, but as was the case in all his movie musicals, he choreographed all his dance numbers and assisted on many of the other numbers throughout the film.  Gene Kelly was also fluent in French and his linguistic skills are reflected throughout the film.

The movie centers on the story of painter, Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), and his friend concert pianist, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) as they navigate post-war Paris.   The film does a good job navigating between scenes taking place on the streets and restaurants in Paris as well as larger sound stage productions.   med_1430775945_00060Kelly’s character, Jerry Mulligan, is a hero to many of the kid’s in his neighborhood in Paris, making friends by bribing them with bubble gum.  His first solo number in the movie, “I Got Rhythm” is one of the big hits of the film and my personal favorite.   His singing is sweet and effortless, but the tap number he breaks into halfway through the song is really what takes the viewers breath away.

French Singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary) and his girlfriend and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) become interwoven in the plot as Adam Cook introduces Jerry to Henri at a coffee shop.  They have a great number where Henri describes his new girlfriend Lise to Adam.  Although Lise doesn’t appear in the scene in actuality, they show a cut-away with a very stylized monochromatic dance number in a variety of different scenes and different colors corresponding to the attributes being described.  Leslie Caron is an incredibly graceful dancer and the scene showcases her tremendous talents.  Jerry and Lise’s paths cross later in the picture without the context of Henri’s presence to distract, and there emerges a love-triangle between Lise, Henri, and Jerry.   While the love triangle is unfolding, there is a great interstitial number starring the pianist Adam Cook.   850 3Minnelli takes an interesting stylistic choice to show the actor playing Adam Cook, Oscar Levant, play every member of an entire symphony for a momentous instrumental number.   The visually stunning scene coupled with its bombastic score is one of the strongest moments of the film.

As with most typical comedies with love triangles, there is a certain dramatic irony conveyed in the film.   As the two men, Henri and Jerry give each other advice about how to handle relationship difficulties with the same woman.   The conflict is quickly deflated after Lise reveals to Jerry that she is engaged to be married to Henri.   This revelation forces Jerry into the arms of a wealthy benefactor who has been bankrolling his art career, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch).  While this distraction did not improve Jerry’s general disposition, the sadness and mania conveyed in a French-colored (Red, White, and Blue) Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Utrilloabstract set with an intentionally disorienting dance number, reemphasizes the strength of this film.   The sensational finale with an almost uninterrupted 17-minute dance number is incredible.  The set design takes us from painting to painting, with each successive scene taking the audience from loss, to hope, to happiness as the story is resolved abstractly in bright colorful mood-indicative lighting.   While we do have a joyful embrace as Jerry and Lise end up together, it almost seems superfluous after the phenomenal dance number that is one of the most spectacular that I have ever seen in film.

An American in Paris is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is stylistically distinct and significant with true flashes of brilliance through song and dance.   Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are sensational in this picture and Minnelli is able to frame scenes in a visually-stunning fashion that creates a true delight for the senses.   The plot is a bit pedestrian and not terribly interesting or well-developed, but with many musicals that is an aspect that can be overlooked since ultimately, they are merely a vehicle by which to orient the musical numbers.   While there was only one true song that dazzled me lyrically (“I’ve Got Rhythm”), the musical score and dancing in this film were truly captivating and beautiful.  an-american-in-paris I can’t help but be charmed by watching Gene Kelly tap dance, and the closing number combining men tap-dancing with women led by Leslie Caron dancing on point is truly amazing.  It’s hard to compare the cerebral and psychological All About Eve which won last year, with this film which thrives on its visual stimulation.   Honestly, I would have preferred A Streetcar Named Desire as this year’s Oscar winner but that is not to say that this film was without merit.  In fact, the argument that An American in Paris did more for film makes sense due to the innovation in set-design, cinematography, choreography, and production that this film conveyed.   It has been my favorite of the four musicals that we have seen thus far, but in general I prefer the more lyrical Rodgers and Hammerstein style of musical.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director:   William Dieterle

Alex – 8.0   Elliot – 8.1  IMDB 7.3      Rotten Tomatoes 7.0

Alex’s Commentary:

The Life of Emile Zola was a pleasant surprise. I was unfamiliar with this film’s protagonist, Emile Zola, as well as actor, Paul Muni, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Zola. The movie traces the life of the prominent French writer from his early years as a staving writer sharing a Parisian flat with his childhood friend Paul Cezanne, to becoming a popular and financially successful literary figure.  The film ultimately discloses the course of events leading to his intense criticism, vindication, and untimely death in 1902,

Although I felt the movie progressed rather slowly for its first hour, the second hour was thoroughly engrossing. Once the story of Alfred Dreyfus was woven into the plot, the power of the film and its message became evident. 77080-004-A39A3982Dreyfus was the Jewish artillery officer in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. After his innocence was made known to the French military leaders, they decided to remain silent lest the French people lose faith in the military. The accusation of Dreyfus was based in antisemitism, as were efforts to maintain his sentence of life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Interestingly, the only indication that Dreyfus’ religion led to his indictment was a military officer pointing to the word Jew on the Captain’s military record. No mention of Jews or Judaism is ever spoken. The movie presented the best courtroom scenes we have seen thus far and Paul Muni, as well as his defense attorney, present rousing orations. Joseph Schildkraut won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the wrongly accused Captain Alfred Dreyfus

For viewers interested in early filmic interpretations and presentations of courtroom drama, exploration and exploitation of mob mentality, and the military authority’s corruption and manipulation of the chain of command, this film is up your alley. Although I question the historical accuracy of some of the events depicted, the story is nevertheless entertaining.

Elliot’s Commentary:

The Life of Emile Zola is our second biopic that we have viewed thus far, and a significantly stronger representative of the genre than The Great ZiegfeldI do have a confession to make in regards to Emile Zola, I had never heard about the author until I saw this film.  After watching the film, I did do a small amount of research about the author to supplement my knowledge as well as to assess the accuracy of historical information in the film’s portrayal.  As with all films in Hollywood based upon historical events, there has to be a certain amount of manipulation of a story to make it fit into the recognized tropes of the narrative experience.  This manipulation at times can affect the credibility of a film as a work of non-fiction; however, The Life of Emile Zola does not portray any glaring historical inaccuracies that would affect the film’s overarching message.

The film can be divided into two into two main segments: the life of Emile Zola prior to the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus Affair as told through the point of view of Emile Zola.  For those of you who have never been to Hebrew School, studied Anti-Semitism, or studied late 19th century/early 20th century French history, the Dreyfus Affair is one of the most preeminent court cases in French history.  The Dreyfus Affair details the trial and conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason against France. emile_zola_photo1 The Jewish captain was indicted with no evidence of these charges by the French Military courts and banished to Devil’s Island in French Guyana. Despite a vocal minority maintaining his innocence, the French government and press demonized the convicted man and unabashedly ridiculed his lack of allegiance to the country of France.  Even when soldiers of the French army came forward to testify that they had evidence that Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and that Major Esterhazy was the real spy, the French government acted in an abhorrent manner.  They jailed the soldiers and officers who came forward and formally pardoned Esterhazy, rather than dealing with the backlash of admitting that they had incorrectly charged Dreyfus.

The Life of Emile Zola paints the picture of the man who would impact the trial, and ultimately ensure that justice would prevail over the bureaucracy and corruption of the French judicial system.  The film starts with Emile Zola (Paul Muni), living with childhood friend, Paul Cezanne, in a meager Bohemian artist apartment in Paris.  Through the lens of Zola’s bohemian idealism, the film portrays the protagonist rallying against the system with brutally honest commentary on the military’s actions in their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  It also depicts him as an advocate for social justice, championing under-represented groups like French prostitutes in his uncensored portrayal of the life of a street-walker entitled, Nana. Through a rather epic montage sequence, the film catalogues Zola’s countless successes as viewers see the protagonist transform from struggling idealistic writer, to a wealthy and prolific established author.  The film’s first act was a bit too prolonged for essentially a prologue to the main course of action, and I was left feeling very underwhelmed with how the story was progressing.  My feelings however were ameliorated by the reemergence of Paul Cezanne, as he visits the fatter, richer, and more complacent version of his former childhood friend.  Cezanne accuses Zola of becoming a member of the class that he had once had criticized, and castigates Zola for having no backbone.

So begins the second half of the film, the point in which this film begins to become worthy of the accolades of the Academy as well as earn the distinction of inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. This is the point in the film that the case of Alfred Dreyfus is introduced into the story arch.  The third-person omniscient narrative technique utilized by the film’s story shows the injustice of Dreyfus’ accusation, conviction, and sentencing, in order to enrage the audience.  MV5BMjAyMDgxNjg5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjE1MzQyNw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1243,1000_AL_However, it is quite bothersome the way that the film downplays the significance of anti-Semitism in its portrayal of the Dreyfus case. The film does not ever overtly describe Dreyfus as a Jew, but rather shows the military officers pointing to Dreyfus’ name on a sheet of paper with Jew listed next to his rank and nationality.  This mention is done so subtly that a distracted viewer could easily miss this all-important fact.  The under-emphasized reference of anti-Semitism is very fitting of a Post-Production code Hollywood, which does not wish to overstep its highly regulated constrains.  Also, in an era where national celebrities like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were outspoken anti-Semites, hate-mongering was still very much en vogue.

Emile’s attitudes towards the Dreyfus case change drastically when Dreyfus’ wife appears at Zola’s door to plead her case.  At this point in the film, Alfred Dreyfus has already been banished on Devil’s Island for years and Zola is Mrs. Dreyfus’ last hope.  Originally he is very cold to her, but as she leaves his residence she also leaves a folder of evidence that proves without a doubt her husband is innocent.  There is a great shot of Zola contemplating opening up the folder, an item he perceives as a metaphorical Pandora’s Box.  As he his vacillating between the actions of opening the folder or ignoring it, he notices a portrait of himself painted by his former roommate, Paul Cezanne, and Paul’s critical words replay in his head.  The words trigger an impulse that seemed long-suppressed by his wealth and fame, and his muckraking spirit overtakes his desire for peace and comfort.  Determined to prove himself as a harbinger of justice once more, Emile Zola pens an op-ed that appears on the front page of a major newspaper in France entitled “J’accuse”.  In the article, he accuses the French military of having knowledge of Dreyfus’ innocence and participating in an elaborate cover-up.  His actions were performed with the sole purpose of bringing the Dreyfus case back to court through a Libel trial.   This trial would allow him to present evidence that would exonerate Alfred Dreyfus in the public sphere, but if his efforts proved unsuccessful, he would be sentenced to jail time.

The second half of the film is enthralling, poignant, and a fantastic portion of filmmaking.  If the first half could have achieved the same amount of exposition with a greater focus on brevity, I would have rated the film much higher.  Overall, I found the film thought-provoking and a great example of 1930’s filmmaking.  In particular, the trial scene showcased the talent of the actors and the emotionally manipulative power that the film evokes.  I highly recommend this powerful and thought-provoking film, because it showcases a horrible example of hatred and bigotry that is all too often forgotten.

Side note: While this blog is not a politically influenced blog, there are certain universal rights for all human beings that we believe in.  While the Dreyfus case occurred some time ago, there are still many innocent people who are incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit in our own country.  Please check out this website and donate if you can: http://www.innocenceproject.org/

The Innocence Project’s Mission Statement from their Website:

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 289 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.innocence-project

The Innocence Project’s full-time staff attorneys and Cardozo clinic students provide direct representation or critical assistance in most of these cases. The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects. Now an independent nonprofit organization closely affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project’s mission is nothing less than to free the staggering numbers of innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,