Updated: Mar 24
Directed by: #VincenteMinnelli
Written by: #AlanJayLerner
BFI are currently showcasing classic musicals that highlight ground-breaking film. Last week, they brought audiences to the attention of ‘An American in Paris.’ Starring the infamous choreographer and actor Gene Kelly, this 1951 film tells the story of American ex-GI Jerry Mulligan who falls in love in Paris after The Second World War. Introducing the screening was Kelly’s wife, Patricia Ward-Kelly, who remarked as she closed her speech that “Gene was proud of this one.”
'An American in Paris' goes further than simply describing a love story. Director Vincent Minnelli uses everything from the camerawork to costumes to present a colourful and kaleidoscopic narrative that oozes musical innovation. He always wanted light in his films to be a cinematic homage to artwork and aesthetics that he loved, which is what makes the picture so incredible and forward-thinking for its time. Each scene is shot in vibrant technicolor and is lengthy so as to follow the actors every movement and the costumes are simultaneously tasteful and eccentric for the era, creating a collision of beautiful colour.
Most importantly, however, the choreography is the narrative. 'An American in Paris’ is one of the classics films that revolutionised dance on film, as Gene Kelly, along with Minnelli, ensure dancing is what tells the story. The physicality of the film is what tells audiences that this is a romance, as each movement is perfected by Kelly and Leslie Caron to convey real passion. This is not to discredit the witticisms of the dialogue, as without Alan Kay Lerner’s bold script, movement would not be permitted to come to life. A striking resonance is that Lerner highlights his female characters as strong and forward-thinking individuals who know their own importance more than the men do. Radical for its time in movement and word, ‘An American in Paris’ is ground-breaking film at its finest and addresses the importance of continuing to showcase classic film.
BFI has done a fantastic job in presenting the history of great film, not only to remember, but to also show how contemporary film is inspired by the greats. For instance, the seventeen-minute ballet scene in ‘An American in Paris’ uses Gershwin’s beloved orchestral track of the same title. This was not only an incredibly radical choice to include at the end of a Hollywood film, but is almost completely paralleled by the epilogue scene in Damien Chazelle’s 2016 film ‘La La Land.’ Chazelle was very inspired by Minnelli and Kelly’s work in ‘An American in Paris,’ along with other classics such as ‘Singing in the Rain’ and ‘Meet me in St. Louis’ and emulated this in the dance sequences, colour, storyline, performances and even the film poster of ‘La La Land,’ as an homage to ‘Old Hollywood.’ Likewise, ‘An American in Paris’ itself is a homage to classics before it, an example being their use of George and Ira Gershwin’s music to inspire the story and the dancing within it.
Speaking at BFISouthbank last week, Patricia Ward-Kelly discussed her work in keeping her late husband’s legacy alive. Screenings of films such as his bring original and ground-breaking film to younger audiences, showing how stories on screen were consistently radical in innovation and technique. They have inspired a new wave of ‘homage’ films that allow more and more young people to show an interest in the original classics, perhaps to seek escapism or to learn more about where film today has stemmed from. The film has the ability to transport us to another time that looks more simple and desirable is fascinating.