Wednesday, September 10, 2008

MGM's Desperation

Next week we're getting "special edition" DVDs of the only Arthur Freed musicals to win Best Picture Oscars: An American in Paris and Gigi. (Blu-Ray versions will follow next year, just to piss off everybody who has a Blu-Ray player and bought the SD versions this year.) Apart from winning Oscars, the two movies have a lot of things in common: they're both directed by Vincente Minnelli, they both have Leslie Caron, they are both set in Paris, they're both written by Alan Jay Lerner, they're both kind of downbeat and dour in spots (Andrew Sarris called them "oddly depressing") and they've both come to be considered a little over-rated compared to the very best of the Freed/Minnelli musicals -- I think it's fair to say that Meet Me In St. Louis and The Band Wagon have higher reputations these days, and if they don't, they should.

Paris is a musical I've never had a lot of time for. I remember as a kid I was given VHS copies of both Paris and Singin' In the Rain; I watched Rain over and over, but I could barely get through Paris. It's not a bad movie, of course, but seems to have an uncanny ability to capture all the things that bug me about Freed's films: the over-orchestrated music (Conrad Salinger was the most bombastic, noisy orchestrator in Hollywood, and he nearly kills Gershwin's music), the slightly pretentious air, the casting of inexplicable Freed favorites like Oscar Levant (he's better here than in The Band Wagon, but he had a smaller role in Band Wagon and couldn't really hurt it much), the slow pacing and lack of fun. (One Freed musical that holds up better than most is Good News, because it's so fun and unpretentious that it hardly seems like a Freed production at all.) I'm making it sound worse than it is, but a movie with this much talent and prestige should have been better than it is.

Gigi, on the other hand, I liked as a kid and still do. Of course it's a film born out of desperation; MGM had cut its budgets, fired most of the people it signed up to do musicals, and this was Freed's last-ditch attempt to keep his unit alive. It didn't really work, either, since he only got to produce one more musical (Bells Are Ringing), but at least he came up with an award-winning film. But though it has a lot of flaws -- almost no dancing, uncertainty about how far to go with its sleazy story, too many characters dubbed by Paul Frees, the song "Say a Prayer" is a literal My Fair Lady reject that has no business being in this picture -- a lot of the jokes land (it's a lot funnier than Paris) and the score is great, hardly a given with Freed movies; Lerner had a lot of problems as a scriptwriter, but when he was working with Loewe, he really didn't seem capable of turning out a bad song. Also it's one of the few Minnelli CinemaScope movies where he really seems at ease with the wide screen; maybe because the film is kind of stagy-looking, the proscenium shape of the screen actually works and leads to great effects like the three-person shot that opens "Thank Heaven For Little Girls."


Anonymous said...

I agree about "Say a Prayer" - no self-respecting French person would ever say "Let me be Wellington, not Bonaparte." Humph. It's still one of my favorite musicals, though. Did you ever see the original French Gigi? Very entertaining, and much blunter about the whole thing. I'm in agreement about American in Paris - it's really only saved by parts of the ballet - particularly the "Toulouse-Lautrec" section.


Edward Hegstrom said...

Not just MEET ME IN ST LOUIS and THE BAND WAGON. These days, I think THE PIRATE and YOLANDA AND THE THIEF are held in higher esteem than AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. And deservedly so--how did that movie get such an inflated reputation in the first place? Okay, sure, the ballet, but man, it's a long slog getting to it, and Georges Guetary grates on the nerves with everything he does, and Gene Kelly's smarm-meter is off the charts here--it's the only movie of his that makes me realize why people could dislike him.

Anonymous said...

Another thing about "American in Paris" is its groundbreaking use of ace film noir cinematographer Robert Alton to shoot the ballet. This yielded great solid black core shadows on the leads, which looked great in three strip Technicolor. Hollywood and especially MGM were completely in the tank for the French impressionists in that day, hard to fathom in this age of witless digital carnage.