Friday, April 10, 2009

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS - Blu-Ray (MGM 1951) Warner Home Video

A musical of immense visual lushness and formidable craftsmanship, Vincente Minnelli’s An American In Paris (1951) should be required viewing today; an iconic vision of film as absolute art. Originally, it was the brainchild of MGM producer Arthur Freed who had long desired to make a film immortalizing the song catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin – particularly George’s ‘American in Paris Ballet’.
By 1951, Freed had logged a decade’s worth of solid musical masterpieces and minor gems at MGM. Indeed, Freed was Louis B. Mayer’s golden boy – a man of great personal integrity and chic good taste in all things. In fact, it's not an overstatement to say that almost single-handedly Arthur Freed ushered in the golden era of the MGM musical.

At MGM, this musical’s pedigree had seemed so secure throughout the 1940s. However, at war’s end audience’s tastes began to change toward grittier melodramas, thrillers and more realism in general. L.B. Mayer, a man who adored musicals as much as Freed, was unceremoniously deposed as MGM’s mogul in 1950. His successor, Dore Schary did not share in Mayer and Freed’s zeal for musical entertainment, particularly since the post war era had seen an escalation in production costs, while theater attendance was steadily declining with the advent of television. Hence, musicals – the costliest of all genres to produce – were increasingly becoming a gamble at the box office.

Undaunted, Arthur Freed employed the very best under contract at the studio for this film, including Vincente Minnelli to direct, Gene Kelly to star, Alan Jay Lerner to write the story, Johnny Green to conduct the MGM orchestra and Irene Sharaff to design the costumes. In retrospect, An American In Paris had everything going for it. Still, Kelly lamented the fact that MGM had no authentic ‘French’ girl under contract to play the part of Lise Bouvier. After a quiet search, Kelly ‘discovered’ unknown, Leslie Caron – performing as the ‘cat’ girl in a Parisian show. But Caron wanted nothing to do with the movies. However, Caron’s mother – an avid filmgoer - encouraged her daughter to reconsider.

The story concerns American painter, Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly). An ex-G.I., Jerry is a starving artist enjoying his relative obscurity in Montmartre – that Bohemian playground for artistic inspiration – until wealthy playgirl Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) takes a serious interest in both Jerry and his art. But Jerry is not so easily fooled. He also doesn’t fancy himself a boy toy for the idle rich.Although Jerry is not a fortune hunter, he is savvy enough to recognize what getting involved with Milo could do for both his career and his social standing. Instead, he begins to fall for young Parisian gamin, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) after a chance meeting at a local watering hole.

Meanwhile, Jerry’s best friend, pianist Adam Cook (played to comedic perfection by Oscar Levant) advises Jerry against any romance. Art is important, Adam reasons. Women are just a diversion.The wrinkle in the plot occurs when Adam learns that Lise is engaged to marry his friend, Henri Burell (George Guetary) – a great star of the Follies Bergeres. Though Lise desperately loves Jerry, she feels a sense of duty toward Henri. After all, he did raise her during the war after her own parents were killed. But how long can Lise deny her heart?

Lerner’s screenplay is brilliantly conceived – stylish, quick paced and dramatic with humor mixed in. The Gershwin score is among the finest repurposed for any musical with such indelible hits as Embraceable You, S’wonderful, I Got Rhythm and the immortal American in Paris Ballet seamlessly blended in. Apart from the opening sequence which sets up our expectations for gay Paris with vintage travelogue stock footage, the entire movie was photographed on the MGM back lot in Culver City.

Reportedly, when Irving Berlin learned that Arthur Freed, Kelly and Minnelli were planning to end their story with a 20 minute ballet and no dialogue afterward, he curiously commented, “I guess you fellas know what you’re doing.” Indeed they did. An American In Paris became the first musical to win a Best Picture Academy Award since The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

Viewing An American In Paris today, one remains captivated by its flawless execution; its brilliant choreography, energetic milieu of merriment and song and intoxicating blend of personalities in synergetic compliment to one another. Arthur Freed, who had advanced the musical from its stage bound presence throughout the 1940s once again took a quantum step forward with the craftsmanship exuded on An American in Paris; a loving tribute to the city of light, the Gershwins, romance in general and Hollywood musicals in particular.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray disc is a direct import from their 2-disc Ultra Resolution DVD transfer. The results are a magnificently restored example of vintage Technicolor that sparkles with crisp brilliance. It should be pointed out however that for those already owning the 2 disc edition, there is little reason to upgrade to the Blu-Ray. Apart from being marginally sharper (a result of Blu-Ray’s superior compression capabilities) the quality of this transfer is on par with the existing 2 disc edition.

Color fidelity is utterly impressive. Reds are blood red. Whites are stark though never blooming. The meticulous re-registration of the original three strip elements has produced an image with so much fine detail and clarity throughout it is a staggering marvel to recall that the film is well over 50 years old. If only this restoration process could somehow become standardized and economical enough to be employed on a litany of other Technicolor titles in the Warner catalogue.

The audio has been restored as well, though nothing can mask the somewhat strident nature of this vintage recording – lacking in bass tonality. Extras include a rather lackluster documentary (actually a featurette) on the making of the film with interviews from Nina Foch and Leslie Caron, as well as vintage stuff from Minnelli and other creative members of the cast.

Warner has also seen fit to re-release Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (previously released as its own single in a Kelly box set) – an altogether more fitting tribute to Kelly’s talents. Finally, this disc contains outtakes and one surviving clip of George Guetary singing the poignant and melodic ‘Love Walked In.’ There is also some unrelated short subjects and a theatrical trailer.The film and the transfer are indeed, ‘S’wonderful!’ and ‘S’marvelous!’ The extras are nice to have, but one wishes that Warner would go back to the days when they used to release classic movies with isolated scoring session tracks – especially for their musicals. Bottom line: highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Blu-Ray - 5+
Standard DVD 5


1 comment:

David M. said...

This is in my all-time Top Ten movies of any kind. I used to play the original DVD (the disc is worth keeping just for its excellent booklet) on my desk at work, sometimes all day long. The underscore almost never stops, so even without the visuals it's like listening to the best Gershwin compilation ever. I'd also recommend listening to "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise" on the French language audio track to hear how great Georges Guetary is in his native tongue.