The Best Picture Project: [An American in Paris, 1951]

First, a big shout out to Ruth at FlixChatter for putting this blogging event together. With a few days left until “the big night,” she has enlisted a few bloggers to take a look back at decades past and select one Best Picture winner from the decade we chose.

And the winner is …

As the title of this blog post suggests, the decade I have selected is the 1950’s and the year I will focus on is 1951 – the year in which Vincente Minelli’s musical An American in Paris took home the Oscar™ for Best Picture.

An American in Paris is a musical film set to the works of George and Ira Gershwin and tells the story of American G.I. Jerry (Gene Kelly) who has decided to remain in Paris following the Second World War. He makes a meager living selling his artistic wares on the streets, until one day he meets a wealthy patroness (Nina Foch) who takes him under her wing, although it is quite obvious that she is interested in more than buying his artwork. No sooner does he begin to adjust to his new situation that he meets and falls in love with ebullient Parisian Lise (Leslie Caron), who has a set of romantic complications of her own. And as with any of these stories, the course to true love never runs smoothly.

Take it or leave it, one thing is certain – Minelli sure knew how to direct a musical. And when combined with Gene Kelly’s masterful choreography (he choreographed all the dance sequences in the film), you end up with some lovely numbers, including a climatic, 16-minute ballet. This dance sequence, which probes Jerry’s momentary flight of fancy, needs to be seen to be understood as the thing of beauty it is and is well worth the price of admission.

For all the singing and dancing, let us not forget to give credit to the supporting players. Special notice goes to comedian/pianist Oscar Levant, who plays struggling composer Adam, a close associate of Kelly’s Jerry. His dry wit and deadpan delivery offer an interesting counterbalance to the bright spectacle that surrounds him.

The Competition

I know that 1939 is often known as the Golden Year for H-wood, but surely 1951 cannot be too far behind.

An American in Paris beat out the following competition in the Best Picture sweepstakes:

  • The Elia Kazan production of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Marlon Brando gave his breakthrough film performance as Stanley Kowalski.
  • Quo Vadis, the swords and sandals Roman epic
  • Decision by Dawn, a WWII drama directed by Anatole Litvak
  • A Place in the Sun, the sweeping tragic drama directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.

As if this list of nominees was not impressive enough, a closer look at the year that was 1951 reveals several films are proven are classics in their own right (and equally worthy of the highest plaudits). Among them are:

  • Detective Story
  • Show Boat
  • Ace in the Hole
  • The Lavender Hill Mob
  • The African Queen
  • Strangers on a Train
  • Scrooge
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Thing from Another Planet

Did the Academy get it right?

Of course this is a purely subjective question but let’s take a look more closely at what made An American in Paris rise above the other films to take home the awards ceremony’s top prize. According to American Movie Classics’ blog, filmsite.org, the musical’s victory was a bit of a surprise in a year when it was matched up against dramatic heavyweights A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. Both films were heavily favored to receive the Best Picture gong. In the end, the prevailing theory is that when it came to voting time, the two films cancelled each other out, allowing the dark horse An American in Paris to pull off the upset.

As much as I enjoyed the musical whimsy of An American in Paris, my money would have definitely been on Streetcar or A Place in the Sun. Even now, 60 years after the ceremony, I see why Academy voters were split, although Streetcar might get the slight edge.

 

So there you have it. Have you seen An American in Paris? What did you think about it?

Comments

  1. This is one of the all-time great musicals. And it was certainly worthy of its award. You’re right, of course, that this year was rich for cinema, and because of that people will argue endlessly as to what should have won that year. Wonderful perspective on a classic, Iba. Thanks.
    le0pard13 recently posted..The Best Picture Project: The Godfather (1972)My Profile

    • It was a tough call, mainly because there is such a contrast to the light entertainment of An American in Paris with the raw emotion of Streetcar. And as you saw the cinematic bench was rather deep that year. So to pick one was a bit unfair ;)

  2. Lovely review! I quite like musicals so I really need to see this one soon. I quite like the story, I have a feeling I’d really enjoy it. Oh and I LOVE that you include the trivia about which other films were nominated that year.

    Btw, did you know that Gregory almost starred in Quo Vadis? Check this out: http://flixchatter.tumblr.com/post/14840459221/mudwerks-gregory-peck-quo-vadis-by-greenman
    ruth recently posted..The Oscar Best Picture Project and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) ReviewMy Profile

    • Thanks Ruth!

      That is why I chose this year in film to look at. I mean it was a fantastic year; nearly almost every film I listed is a classic in its own right. There were so many bits of detail that I wanted to include, but I ran out of gas at the end. Like for instance I wanted to dig more into what was happening in Hollywood a bit more – like the fact (may need to double check) that this was the first year in which the Best Picture award was given to the PRODUCERS instead of the STUDIO which released the film. This is a bellwether for things to come and is an indicator of the gradual dismantling of the studio system and its power over all.

      RE: Quo Vadis – that I did not know – you learn something new everyday ;)

  3. Great review. This is actually one of the few films from this era that I’ve been lucky enough to see, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Interesting discussion too of the vote splitting that happened with the dramas. Looks like some things never change, huh?

    Thanks also for doing the 20’3 and 30’s segments for the Blog-a-thon. I actually kind of wish that they would go back to having two best picture nominees, especially if one focused on “Unique and Artistic Quality of Production”.
    NeverTooEarlyMP recently posted..85th Oscar Supporting Actor Updates (2012-2013 Awards Season) (2/22/12)My Profile

  4. Excellent article. I am gutted i didn’t get an invite to the party :-(

    heheh No worries it is brilliant to watch

  5. Coincidentally I rewatched AN AMERICAN IN PARIS last Sunday and while I love the ballet at the end and always enjoy watching Gene Kelly – I did find some of the film cringe-worthy. But I think that maybe because of that glorious ballet at the end, I would still give it the Oscar.

    I’ve always said and I still say that Leslie Caron was too young for ANY of the men in that cast. She had not yet matured enough to handle such a role, but maybe I’m in the minority. Still, she was a heckuva dancer.

    Lots of good films that year, that’s for sure.

    I remember always watching the Oscars on TV – in black and white. I do remember being ecstatic when Marlon Brando won for Best Actor in ON THE WATERFRONT in 1954. But I always thought his performance in STREETCAR, a bit of a parody.
    Yvette recently posted..The Oscar isn’t the only award being handed out this week…My Profile

    • Caron did look about 12 years old but I guess the problem was choosing an alternative breakout star.

      RE: Brando – We watched the “Streetcar” in English honors after reading the play (I think). I was mesmerized by the rawness of the performance. But I will give you props for pointing out what would be increasingly become unreliable and ‘less than genius’ performances by Brando as he got older. It seems that as time marches on, there is some revisionism regarding his elevated status in film acting history.
      iluvcinema recently posted..Hitchcock and His MusicMy Profile

  6. I am a little bit surprised it got best picture, especially when it was in the same category as A Streetcar named Desire, one of my all-time favorite movies. I do like it, though, and it’s a very good musical!
    Diana aka Aziza recently posted..Saturday Night LiveMy Profile

    • Hey Diana

      I just think that 1951 was a tough year to select one ‘best’, especially when taken in hindsight. I mean top to bottom that list of films is quite amazing!

  7. Great article, Iba! Lots of good info here. I guess I never realized just how crowded the field was in 1951. I definitely think American in Paris is a great film. I think A Place in the Sun really is too. I also think there should be Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical, like the Golden Globes does it. Two excellent pictures…two Oscars. Although that year, even splitting them up might not have helped…Decision by Dawn, Streetcar, The African Queen…wow.

    PS: thanks for your 20s/30s info as well…much appreciated :)
    Paula recently posted..The Best Picture Project: THE APARTMENT (1960)My Profile

    • Thanks Paula and you are welcome!

      I am not too much into silent cinema but I work my way around it, so discovering the 1920s information was interesting. I really like the 1930s for cinema so that bit was fun. I think Hollywood and the studio system really hit its stride once they broke the sound barrier.

  8. I love this film. and Gene Kelly is always a solid hit for me!

    A great pick for The Best Picture Project!
    The Focused Filmographer recently posted..It’s “Time to Vote Tuesday!” 88My Profile

Speak Your Mind

*

CommentLuv badge