Thursday, October 20, 2022

Dancing the Fifties Away: "An American in Paris" and "The Band Wagon"

The Fifties, like the Thirties, went crazy for musicals. In the 1930s, audiences enthralled by the coming of sound flocked to the movie screen to watch their favorite performers sing and dance. In the early 1950s, the advent of television made film producers eager to exploit the color and sound that the TV sets of the day couldn’t emulate. All the major Hollywood studios sought to make musicals, but MGM (under the auspices of producer Arthur Freed) was king.

 Not many movie musicals have won the Best Picture Oscar. The big era for musical blockbusters was, surprisingly, the Sixties, the decade of West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! But in 1951 an ambitious MGM musical carried off the top prize. It was made by showbiz royalty, with Vincente Minnelli directing from an Alan Jay Lerner screenplay. But of course the real star of the show was someone long dead: George Gershwin, the composer of both towering orchestral pieces and popular songs. Gershwin had died of a brain tumor in 1937, at the tragically early age of 38. An American in Paris was a glorious way to re-introduce his music to the multitudes and let it live on.

 Of course An American in Paris is about just that—a young American artist (played, of course, by the always jaunty Gene Kelly) falling in love both with Parisian life and with a beautiful young Parisienne (dancer Leslie Caron making her film debut).  Kelly’s interactions with his pals and with the young and old residents of his quartier allow for a lot of spritely musical numbers. I particularly like “I Got Rhythm,” performed with a passel of French children trying to master English. And of course there are the wonderful Gershwin love ballads, like “’S Wonderful” and “Our Love is Here to Stay,” for which brother Ira supplied the lyrics. But the real treat comes at the end (unless you happen to be allergic to dream ballets), when Kelly, Caron, and company dance their hearts out to the jazz-inflected Gershwin orchestral piece that gives the film its name. At one point in this long, climactic number, the dancers and poseurs of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre seem to spring vividly to life which reduced me to tears when first I watched it. (Yes, I was an artsy kid.) 

The plot of An American in Paris is admittedly sentimental. There’s lost love, found love, age-inappropriate love, and gloriously appropriate love. Still, inevitably, the female lead is a great deal younger than her male counterpart.  Caron, about 20 years old in the film and in life, connects with Kelly (a youthful 40-plus) after severing romantic ties with the guardian who’s older still.

 Another Arthur Freed musical of the early 1950s actually has some fun pointing out the age discrepancy between its romantic duo. When he made The Band Wagon (1953), Fred Astaire was about 54, and long past the era when he and Ginger Rogers wee America’s dancing sweethearts The movie posits that he’s a has-been Hollywood star, who’s returning to New York because the silver screen is no longer a welcoming place for him. (When he steps off the train at Grand Central, the press swarms, but it turns out they’re there to photograph Ava Gardner glamorously exiting the next car.) When he’s cast in a Broadway show, the young woman chosen to star opposite him—a prima ballerina played by Cyd Charisse—seems obviously both too young and too tall. Their first meeting is a disaster . . . so it’s inevitable that they’ll fall in love.



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