What a glorious pocket of musical history Gene Kelly provided. If he wasn’t singing in the rain then he was fluttering away in the background of a Jacques Demy film. His first trip to Paris, though, comes in the form of An American in Paris. Its title is rather literal. Kelly professes his love for the City of Light through his work often, but this provides his debut on these streets, as a painter looking to mark his reputation. He is the lonely expatriate looking for sparks of love and profit in one of the most fascinating cities on the globe. Inevitably, he gets the girl, pursues his career and makes a real home for himself with all the twangs and twinges of Great Americana.
That is necessary to the flow of the plot, but the implication is a rather shoddy one. Nobody was expecting a mighty story to come from the mouth of Kelly or collaborating director Vincente Minnelli, but neither quite catch the charm of Paris. They instead opt to remove the frivolities of the great city for the modern American man, who places himself at the core of all that is good and removes himself from any of the downsides or after-effects that may come from his placement. This may be more a fault of Minnelli, whose work on Gigi also offers troublingly poor depictions of Paris, its people, and those that travel there to make a living for themselves.
Considering that is the aim of Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), he spends more time pratting about and tapping his shoes than he does putting in any elbow grease to his paintings. It is astounding that he has managed to capture the attention of so many women through his artwork considering he does little more than the necessities. As flawed a character as Mulligan is, Kelly does his best with the material on offer. No amount of rewriting or editing could make him any more likeable, and An American in Paris is happy to coast off of the symmetry in dance and the talents Kelly had in such a department. He is the confident, borderline cocky Yank who has brought not just his machismo but his culture too, to the streets of Paris and its people. He is salvation in the form of dance, and the people of Paris should be thankful he has shown up at such a time. I’m not convinced of this, and the direction Minnelli provides for Kelly is hardly heart-warming or engaging.
While there are inevitable stumbling moments to counteract the charming displays Kelly and company make, An American in Paris is a fine and forgettable piece. There are no songs that stick out as particularly groundbreaking, nor are they as seismic or influential as the work Kelly would piece together with Singin’ in the Rain just one year later. An American in Paris is shaky, slippery and doesn’t quite know what it should be doing, or, crucially, when it should be following certain narrative threads or characters. A real hodgepodge convention of good ideas with bad timing, which is ironic since timing is the one thing Kelly can offer every film he appears in. It was part of his shtick.