Gene Kelly redefined the American film musical by creating male protagonists who epitomized masculinity while singing and dancing. Unlike his peer Fred Astaire, Kelly was disinterested in portraying upper-class, effeminate men and actually said that he “didn’t want to move or act like a rich man, [he] wanted to dance in a pair of jeans, [he] wanted to dance like the man in the streets” (PBS Special).
Kelly’s unique talent for making the most complex dance sequences appear effortless and commonplace is apparent in Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 musical hit, An American in Paris. Moreover, Kelly’s skill, ideas, and artistic judgement were crucial to the successful planning and production of this film.
Kelly’s many contributions to the creation of An American in Paris cannot be overlooked. Indeed, he first recommended the story “about an ex-GI and aspiring painter who decides to remain in Paris after the war” to producer Arthur Freed and insisted that Vincente Minnelli be hired to direct the picture (Fordin 306). Additionally, Kelly worked in a variety of capacities to ensure that An American in Paris would be the work of art he anticipated and desired. For example, Kelly advised cinematographers John Alton and Alfred Gilks to subordinate fancy filmmaking technique to the choreography.
He did not believe in glossing over live performance deficiencies with eye-catching photography. Rather, he insisted that the camera be an unbiased spectator, like a human eye watching the dance number for the first time. Kelly also worked closely with Minelli, Sharaff, and Chaplin, influencing them with his perspectives as an actor and choreographer (Fordin 331).
Although Kelly’s directorial and cinematic expertise during the pre-production and rehearsal periods for An American in Paris certainly benefited this project, his greatest contributions to the film were as a choreographer and performer. His choreography for An American in Paris is a phenomenon. The seventeen-minute ballet is in a class by itself, distinguished as the longest, unbroken dance sequence in the history of Hollywood film.
Moreover, Kelly’s attention to detail coupled with his expressive physical manifestation of heartbreak work together to establish the acrimonious, bittersweet world of Jerry Mulligan’s imagination. He painstakingly reviewed the costumes and set pieces being used in the ballet number to create choreography that would complement the other production elements and effectively relay Jerry feelings and dreams to the movie’s spectators (Fordin 322).
Indeed, Kelly passionately declared that his goal for the number was “to make a ballet, not just merely a dance, not a series of beautiful, moving tableaux, but an emotional whole” Fordin 331). Kelly’s diligence in choreographing An American in Paris paid off. In 1951 the Academy awarded Kelly’s outstanding work on this film by presenting him with a special Oscar for “extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for brilliant achievement in the art of choreography” (PBS Special).
Kelly’s performance in An American in Paris is praiseworthy as well, especially in light of co-star Leslie Caron’s acting deficiencies. Although Kelly is certainly not a mushy, over the top romantic, he does manage to convince viewers that his relationship with Caron is of paramount importance to him. His jubilation in the number “S’Wonderful” and his puppy dog sad face after Caron informs him of her impending marriage effectively convey the emotional rollercoaster ride his character is experiencing.
It is also important to note Kelly’s aptitude for creating a playful, fun loving character who isn’t particularly concerned with what others think of him. For example, in the song “By Strauss”, Kelly demonstrates his comical side by draping a cloth over his head and acting effeminately. This instance is especially significant because it demonstrates Kelly’s comfort level with his masculinity. He is clearly just having a good time with the number whereas, if Fred Astaire were to don the same female act, the audience would be more likely to feel awkward and wonder if he really does desire Ginger Rogers.
As an actor, Kelly also has the ability to make the common man seem clever, kind, and sexy. He uses this talent in An American in Paris to make the character Jerry Mulligan attractive despite his lack of commercial success as a painter. For example, in the number “I Got Rhythm”, Kelly exhibits amiability, warmth, and a willingness to care for the children who look up to him.
Although he is returning to his apartment after running errands, Kelly drops his bags to teach his young fans some English and entertain them with a rousing dance demonstration. Due to the kindness and passion Kelly exudes in this number and others, he manages to make it believable that Caron ultimately prefers his company to that of Georges Guétary’s character, a tremendously successful cabaret singer.
Thus, Kelly’s contributions as a choreographer, actor, and artistic advisor to An American in Paris made possible the success of this film. His artistry is evident in every aspect of this musical, from the camera movement to the performances.
UPDATE: This article previously misidentified Kelly’s character in An American in Paris as John Mulligan. It has been corrected, and changed to Jerry Mulligan.