I’ll admit I felt a little cheeky snagging An American in Paris for Serendipitous Anachronism‘s “France on Film” blogathon, despite what might seem like an obvious choice given the title. That’s because, as you may already know, An American in Paris‘ actual depiction of France is, in reality, limited to a few shots of stock footage scattered throughout the film. The majority of the movie was shot on moderately convincing soundstages and backlots at MGM, which are about as far away from bohemian Montmartre as you can get. And yet, by employing some inventive art direction, the film sets out to capture the spirit of Paris, rather than its exact photographic duplicate, effectively drawing upon the city’s rich artistic history.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, and produced as part of MGM’s famed Arthur Freed unit, An American in Paris follows former GI Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), a painter committed to the life of a romantic, starving artist in Paris. His apartment may be tiny and cluttered, but he has good friends, good spirits, and good wine to help him through his days. He sells his paintings on scenic, cobblestone streets, Sacre Couer framed proudly in the background, and drinks tiny coffees in the café downstairs, as bakery workers bicycle around with baskets full of baguettes—basically, the ultimate Hollywood fantasy of life in Paris. Jerry picks up a pseudo-sugar mama in the form of Milo (Nina Foch), but quickly falls head-over-heels for young French shopgirl Lise (Leslie Caron). Of course, it couldn’t be that easy, as Lise herself feels romantically obligated to Henri (Georges Guétary), who took her in and protected her as a child during World War 2. Upon this slightly creepy premise, Jerry and Lise must work together to find out if love is in the cards for them.
The original concept for the film’s production was to shoot most of it at the studio, as was traditional at the time, but to supplement that footage with some limited work on location with the cast, much as Kelly had done for On the Town a few years earlier. In that film’s opening number montage, Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin are seen running around visiting various New York City landmarks. Though realism is not typically one of the hallmarks of MGM musicals, in this case, it helped lend authenticity to the characters’ claims that New York was indeed a helluva wonderful town.
For An American in Paris, however, the filmmakers were going for something a little different, and shooting on location didn’t work. The filmmakers turned to art directors Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons to create the Paris that audiences would see on screen in the film. Ames had studied architecture in Paris, which gave him a sense of both the authentic feel of the city, as well as its artistic output. To that end, they decided to go with a more creative atmosphere. Why depict Paris exactly as it is—which could be accomplished by a newsreel or documentary—when they could rebuild it in an artistic way, more in line with the dreamy aesthetics of the film?
The ballet sequence at the film’s end is the most pointedly theatrical, incorporating two-dimensional sets painted with heavy brushstrokes, a progression from the beautifully detailed matte paintings that simulated the edges of Paris in a more invisible manner earlier in the film. These ballet sets call attention to the artistic form in much the same way that the impressionists did, and, in fact, several of them—Dufy, Utrillo, Renoir, Lautrec, Rousseau, Van Gogh—are referenced directly as the sets morph to take on their distinct styles. The heightened style of this sequence complements the silent artistry of the ballet performance, fully signalling the divergence from the traditional Hollywood film form and structure that this number represented at the time.
One of the essential components for all of these pieces to come together is the attention to detail. At no point does the depiction of Paris feel sloppy or out of place—even when the filmmakers are intentionally presenting an unrealistic view of the city, they’re careful to take that to its full extent. Like an impressionist painting, An American in Paris may look haphazard and free, but in reality, it takes an immense amount of technical skill and knowledge to successfully create that effect.