American in Paris, An: Minnelli’s Oscar-Winning Musical–Part 1

An American in Paris: Making of the Oscar-Winning Musical


Part One of Five Articles

Three years passed between The Pirate and Vincente Minnelli’s next musical, An American in Paris.   In those years, producer Arthur Freed made On the Town, whose exuberant tone didn’t suit Minnelli’s temperament.

Two of the Arthur Freed Unit’s musicals, The Barkleys of Broadway and Annie Get Your Gun, were planned specifically for Judy, though she didn’t make either of them.   Metro’s other musicals, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, a Gene Kelly-Frank Sinatra vehicle, and Esther Williams’ Pagan Love Song, were perceived by Minnelli to be routine, and he was relieved that Freed didn’t put pressure on him to make any of those.

In the midst of power shifting from Louis B. Mayer to Dore Schary, the studio green-lighted a George Gershwin musical.  M.G.M. thought that An American in Paris was a good project for Minnelli and Kelly, if Freed kept a tight watch on the set and didn’t let the duo get too carried away and waste time as they did on The Pirate.

The project began in late 1949, when Minnelli first discussed with Freed a musical based on Gershwin’s work.  Freed had a vague notion for a musical about an expatriate Yank living in Paris, with only one certain concept: the film was to conclude with a smash finale, a full-length ballet to be danced to Gershwin’s suite “An American in Paris.”   The Irving Berlin medley, Easter Parade, was a big hit, and the unexpected success of the British import, The Red Shoes, further proved there may be a large public for dance-oriented musicals.

Ira Gershwin was easily persuaded to provide new lyrics and revise old ones, as needed.   Freed wanted Alan Jay Lerner, then Broadway’s brightest talent, to shape the narrative.   Unlike Bette Comden and Adolph Green, whose forte was satire, as demonstrated in the back-to-back musicals, Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, Lerner showed taste for higher-brow material, like Love Life, with music by Kurt Weill, or Brigadoon, with choreography by Agnes De Mille.  Lerner’s specialty would become adapting classy literary works, such as George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which became the stage and film version My Fair Lady and Collette’s “Gigi,” which would become Minnelli’s most commercially successful musical.

A Francophile, Minnelli identified completely with his hero, Jerry, an American painter in Paris.   Arguably, no Hollywood director was as knowledgeable of French art and letters as Minnelli.   His work often sought to evoke the light and color of his admired French painters.  A project like American in Paris also had a sentimental value, a personal reminder of Minnelli’s friendship with the Gershwins, and a tribute to George, who’s been dead for over a decade, with no film memorial to treasure his tradition.

Minnelli had the requisite taste and knowledge to execute a ballet that would become a kaleidoscopic collage, sort of a brief history of French painting.   In the end, it would run 17 minutes and cost half a million dollars, a staggering amount, basically the entire budget of a modest film.

For the story, Lerner devised two romances. One between Jerry, an artist studying in Paris under the G.I. Bill, and his patron, Milo Roberts, an older expatriate heiress interested in Jerry, both personally and professionally.   The second romance is between Jerry and a young Parisienne, Lise Bourvier.  Initially, Jerry is unaware that Lise is the fiancee of his close friend, music hall star Henri Baurel; Henri had sheltered the orphaned Lise during the War.

Frankly, Minnelli thought that the story was uninspired, but there were other compensations, prime among which were Kelly’s acrobatic dancing, Gershwin’s melodic music, and the picturesque Parisian setting.

Jerry’s caustic pal, pianist-composer Adam Cook, was tailored for Gershwin’s crony and Minnelli’s buddy, Oscar Levant.   Levant played a “Dave Diamond type,” a perpetual expatriate composer living in Europe on the largesse of foundation fellowships.   “We thought of no one but Levant for Jerry’s sidekick,” Minnneli later said, “including him in the film lent the enterprise a legitimacy, though he would have blanched if I’d told him that.”

For the part of the older woman, Milo, Minnelli tested Ann Sargeant and Mercedes McCambridge (fresh from her Supporting Actress Oscar win for “All the King’s Men”), but he didn’t like either of then and in the end settled on second banana, Nina Foch.

Henri Baurel was conceived as a comeback role for Maurice Chevalier after long absence from the screen.   However, the French star was dropped from consideration due to MGM’s fear of controversy about his alleged collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation. Instead, Georges Guetray, a vet of French musicals, was chosen.   Minnelli’s initial doubts about Guetray were dispelled after watching his emotional rendition of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”