In late 1947, MGM songwriter-producer Arthur Freed attended a live concert at the Hollywood Bowl. He sat mesmerised as the orchestra played George Gershwin’s symphonic composition An American in Paris. During the performance Freed ruminated that the title of the piece would make a great title for a movie musical. He had no idea of a storyline but was certain of three things: the movie would be about an American in Paris, it would be called An American in Paris, and the Gershwin orchestral suite would form part of the story.
George Gershwin was one of the most significant and popular American composers of the 20th century. Throughout the 1920/30s, along with his older brother and lyricist Ira (who fashioned the words to fit George’s melodies), he had composed dozens of popular songs for stage and screen that swiftly became standards. George also composed jazz-influenced orchestral compositions such as Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and the classic American opera Porgy and Bess. He was just 38 years old when he tragically died of a malignant brain tumour in 1937. But his legacy lived on with his beautiful concert suites and wonderfully melodious songs still regularly performed today.
Freed played pool with Ira Gershwin every Saturday evening and shortly after attending that concert asked him if he would sell him the title, An American in Paris, for a movie musical. Ira replied, “Yes, but on the condition that, if the picture is made, you only use Gershwin music”. Freed replied, “I wouldn’t use anything else and moreover, I want to take George’s composition for a ballet – uncut – to finish the movie”
Now came the question of who was going to write the story. Ira Gershwin was keen on lyricist Alan Jay Lerner but Freed was apprehensive in approaching him, as Lerner liked to write his own songs to accompany his storylines – such as his musical Brigadoon, which had just opened on Broadway. But Ira insisted that Freed ask Lerner and he was pleasantly surprised when Lerner agreed. Furthermore, Lerner had an idea for the story after reading an article in Life magazine about a number of ex-servicemen who had gone to Paris to study painting on the G.I. Bill of Rights.
Freed now reported to MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer that he wanted to make a motion picture called An American in Paris. Mayer asked, “Where did you get a title like that?” Freed said, “It’s Gershwin”. Mayer said, “Make it”.
Over the next three years, Freed discussed and thrashed out ideas for his embryonic project with his chosen director Vincente Minnelli, leading man Gene Kelly and Alan Jay Lerner. Kelly was tasked with selecting the songs from the entire Gershwin catalogue to arrive at a selection appropriate for the film. He came up with a tentative list of a dozen songs including Our Love Is Here to Stay, which was significant as it was the last song George Gershwin wrote before his death. These were now incorporated into Lerner’s script.
When it came to casting the production – and in particular the female lead, Lise – they tested MGM contracted actress/dancers Sally Forrest, Vera Ellen and Cyd Charisse, but Freed insisted on a bona fide French girl. He had noticed a photograph of an unusual girl on the cover of the magazine Paris Match. He told Kelly to fly to Paris to test two girls: the girl on the magazine cover, Leslie Caron, and Odile Versois, an established English-speaking French actress.
Kelly made both tests and air-expressed them to MGM. Minnelli and Freed ran them and their decision was unanimous – the nineteen-year-old Leslie Caron arrived in Hollywood soon after, accompanied by her mother. But when Freed met them, he thought he had made a mistake as the young Caron looked awkward with an urchin haircut, was untidily dressed, and spoke hardly any English. However, when she danced with Gene Kelly, he immediately knew that he and Minnelli had made the right choice.
Kelly was keen to do the whole film in Paris but Freed, with his keen eye on the total budget, decided that Paris would be fabricated on the Metro lot. Minnelli’s art director, Preston Ames, was now faced with the enormous task of constructing French streets alongside the Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame and Montmartre. He achieved this by painting the famous buildings onto a 100-foot cyclorama to merge with the constructions in the foreground, whilst the second unit was dispatched to Paris to shoot the establishing aerial shots.
Lerner’s screenplay revolves around the carefree ex-G.I. Gerry Mulligan (Kelly), who has stayed on in Paris after the war to study painting.
He lives in a tiny room in Montmartre and his best friend is his neighbour, aspiring concert pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant). Through Adam, Jerry strikes up a friendship with successful music-hall singer Henri Baurel (George Guetary) and offers his congratulations when Baurel tells him of his forthcoming marriage. Jerry’s fortunes pick up when he meets a rich, attractive American woman, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who attempts to buy his love by purchasing his paintings and promoting his artistic career. The honest Jerry prefers not to be a kept man and although grateful for Milo’s support, it does not ignite a romance.
Meanwhile, he meets a young Parisian girl, Lise Bourvier (Leslie Caron), who works in a parfumerie and falls hopelessly in love with her, although she initially rebuffs him. He learns later she is the girl engaged to Henri Baurel. After attending the Beaux Arts Ball as do Lise, Henri, Adam and Milo, Jerry senses Lise now feels the same way about him. Later as they stroll along the banks of the Seine in the moonlight, they suddenly dance themselves into each other’s arms and into love. Henri finally realises the situation and releases Lise from their engagement for a happy conclusion.
The story is indeed slight but serves as a reasonable link between the many musical numbers based on the wonderful Gershwin songs and the incredible choreography and dancing skills of the charismatic Gene Kelly. His and the young Caron’s 17-minute avant-garde ballet sequence of An American in Paris is the most impressive finale of its kind ever used in a Hollywood musical, and was intended to legitimise the movie musical as both a serious and popular art form. Consequently, this ground-breaking cinematic experiment served as a landmark in the careers of both Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly. Kelly’s next film was Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and in fact the stories of both movies are curiously similar: Kelly must break his relationship of convenience with a predatory older blonde in order to romance a young innocent brunette, and in both is counselled by his best friend.
Although Singin’ in the Rain is probably the most popular with movie fans, An American in Paris is still celebrated today as one of the finest examples of the golden era of MGM musicals of the 1940s/50s. It received eight Academy Award nominations and won six including Best Picture. This was the first time a musical had won the award since 1936 when The Great Ziegfield was so honoured, and only the second colour film to win the prestigious award – the first being Gone With the Wind (1939).
One year later in March 1953, the French consul general bestowed on producer Arthur Freed the coveted Legion d’honneur for his contribution to making French culture and art better known to the American and International public through his production of An American in Paris.