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?

I feel so ignorant

I cannot believe I call myself a classic movie fan and did not realize how celebrated the career of Leslie Caron was. I had heard of her in films like Gigi and Father Goose. I also knew that she was a former ballet dancer, but that was about it. Thank goodness for TCM’s month long tribute to her. Tonight I am DVR-ing The L Shaped Room. I will post my reaction here when I watch it in its entirety. Stay Tuned …..

Leslie Caron