The symphonic tone poem, An American in Paris, featuring Parisian taxicab horns as part of the ensemble of instruments, was composed by George Gershwin in 1928. Reportedly, the producer Arthur Freed and George’s brother and long-time lyricist Ira came to an agreement about the movie rights for the tone poem over their weekly pool game. MGM would pay $158,750 for the rights, Ira would receive $56,250 as consultant and writer of any incidental lyrics that were needed, and Freed agreed that only Gershwin songs would be used in the picture. Gene Kelly was said to have screened The Red Shoes for MGM executives to convince them a dance-centered film could make money.
The movie was filmed from August, 1950 through January, 1951, when the dance sequence was shot, with some retakes the following April. The script was written by Alan Jay Lerner, and the picture was directed by Vincente Minnelli. The cinematography was by Alfred Gilks and John Alton, the art direction by Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames, Edwin Willis and Keogh Gleason, and the costumes were by Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff. Gene Kelly designed the dances and did the choreography. The film was released in October, 1951. Cedric Gibbons and company won the Oscar for art direction, Gilks and Alton won for color cinematography, Orry-Kelly and company won for costume design, Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin won for best music scoring, Lerner won for best writing, story and screenplay, and the movie won best picture. Minnelli was nominated for best director and Adrienne Fazan was nominated for best editing. And it did make money: grossing $8 million worldwide on an investment of $2.7 million. In 1993 the Library of Congress put this picture on the National Film Registry as a film worthy of preservation.
This was a prestige production for both MGM and for Arthur Freed, and maybe it seems a bit more like Hollywood than like Paris. I’ve quoted the director Ernst Lubitsch before, “I’ve been in Paris, France and Paris, Paramount. Paris, Paramount is better.” Lubitsch might have found Paris, MGM even better, though it is clear throughout the movie that the place Gene Kelly is in couldn’t possibly be anywhere but Culver City, California. Kelly is 38, Leslie Caron is 19, and in her first film. Perhaps the love story between them isn’t very well developed, as the critic David Thomson has written. He then asked, “Does that seem unfair, or beside the point?” There are no words spoken in the last twenty minutes and twenty-five seconds of this film – the dance itself speaks. And maybe that is in and of itself a reason to enjoy watching An American in Paris.