American in Paris: Oscar-Winning Musical–Part 2

The main casting problem for director Vincente Minnelli was finding the right actress to play Lise, the love interest of Gene Kelly, who had to be young and naive.

Casting Leslie Caron

Kelly remembered meeting a 17-year-old ballerina named Leslie Caron, whom he had seen in a ballet.   Kelly was then sent to Paris to conduct a test of Caron.   When Kelly came back, the decision was positive, despite Caron’s lack of acting experience.

Caron was immediately offered a long-term contract that catapulted her to stardom, with films in the future like Lili and Minnelli’s own 1958 musical, Gigi, in which she would play the lead.

My biography of Minnelli

Curiously, no one paid attention to the fact that Caron was a decent dancer but she could not sing.   Thus, instead of performing with a borrowed voice, as was the custom, Minnelli decided to keep her silent during the musical interludes.  He handled Caron’s scenes so sensitively that, when the movie was released, few film critics noticed Caron’s lack of singing.  American in Paris became MGM’s and the era’s only major musical to feature an all-male score.

Preston Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, was to design the sets.  Metro’s designers often found working with Minnelli frustrating, because he was full of paradoxes, pressing yet inarticulate, demanding but unclear or specific.  However, from their very first collaboration, Ames and Minnelli got along well.   In the future, Ames contributed to every musical Minnelli made at MGM.   Adrienne Fazan, whose sensibility was also in synch with Minnelli’s, was hired as editor.

Clash with Lenser Gilkes

American In Paris, however, marked Minnelli’s first clash with a cinematographer.   His wish for visual nuance and detailed mise-en-scene didn’t suit Alfred Gilkes’ expediency.   No matter what the emotional texture of a scene, Gilkes tended to flood it with light, an aspect of film production Minnelli was particularly good at.

Minnelli asked to replace Gilkes with John Alton, who had just shot for him the more stylized black-and-white Father of the Bride.   More of a film noir specialist, Alton had not worked with color cinematography.   But for Minnelli, it was an asset because Alton wasn’t confined by preconceptions of what’s possible (or impossible) to achieve in Technicolor.

John Green, then head of MGM’s music department, assembled the score before delegating much of the more routine work to orchestrator Saul Chaplin.  Minnelli spent weeks with Freed, Kelly, Ira Gershwin, and Chaplin, looking for those songs that would best fit Kelly’s choreography and Lerner’s script. Some songs carried special resonance.  “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” used as a romantic duet for Kelly and Caron, was Gershwin’s very last song, left incomplete by his death. And the mock Viennese, “By Strauss,” had been written for Minnelli’s last Broadway revue.

Deleted Songs

Oscar Levant’s piano rendition of “Liza,” and a second duet for Kelly and Caron to “Somebody Loves Me,” were never shot.

Other songs were recorded and photographed but cut out after the first preview.  “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” one of Kelly’s favorites, was deleted, as well as two of Guetary’s songs.