THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘An American in Paris’ (1951)

In 1952, the 24th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1951 and December 31, 1951 the awards were held on March 20. A Streetcar Named Desire led the field with 12 nominations, including nominations in all four acting categories, becoming the 6th film in history to achieve this honour. It ultimately won six Oscars, including three of the four acting awards, but failed to take Best Picture.

With the buzz all about A Streetcar Named Desire, Best Actor nominee Humphrey Bogart assumed Marlon Brando would take home the prize. Bogart considered not attending, but changed his mind, at the last-minute. It was lucky he did, as he became the somewhat-surprise winner for his performance in The African Queen. While his performance is great, many see his victory as a consolation prize for being overlooked by the Academy for his classic performance in Casablanca.

But the biggest surprise was Best Picture, with many assuming it was a two-horse race between critically-acclaimed dramas A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. When Jessie L. Lasky was handed the envelope, he exclaimed “oh, dear”, and announced the winner was actually An American in Paris. There were loud gasps in the room, and thus, the first real Best Picture upset was born. The next day, some columnists even called for a recount. Even MGM, the studio responsible for the film, later admitted to being rather surprised, and ran an advertisement in the trade magazines saying “Honestly, I was just standing in the Sun waiting for A Streetcar.” After Gone with the Wind, An American in Paris became only the second colour film to win Best Picture.

The nominees:
An American in Paris
Decision Before Dawn
A Place in the Sun
Quo Vadis
A Streetcar Named Desire

The winner:
An American in Paris

Inspired by George Gershwin’s 1928 orchestral composition of the same name, An American in Paris is the kind of big, flashy musical only MGM could produce. The film centres on, funnily enough, an American in Paris. Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), a penniless painter, has settled in Paris, hoping the city will inspire his work. Despite his inability to ever sell a painting, Jerry is living the dream. While attempting to sell his work on the Parisian streets, he attracts the eye of a lonely, wealthy woman, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who is taken by the painter’s work, but even more taken by Jerry himself. Offering to sponsor and promote his work, Milo wishes to whisk Jerry around Paris, introducing him to the important people of the art scene. Despite his lack of romantic desire for Milo, Jerry reluctantly agrees. While at a restaurant, he spots Lise (Leslie Caron), and is instantly smitten. The connection between the pair is undeniable, but Lise is engaged to marry a famous singer, Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary), who also happens to be a close friend of Jerry’s. So begins a complicate love quadrangle that will undoubtedly end in heartache for someone.

Why did it win?
After almost a decade of shunning musical cinema, the Academy simply fell in love with director Vincent Minnelli’s elaborate and dazzling creation. It was the peak of the MGM musical, and An American in Paris stood as their finest and most daring creation yet. After two decades of producing a string of musical sensations, including Babes in Arms, Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade, it was clearly time to award Arthur Freed for his incredible career.

But it was clear the Academy did not exactly expect An American in Paris to win Best Picture. At this very ceremony, they awarded Freed with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award – their version of a lifetime achievement honour. Gene Kelly was also presented an honorary Academy Award for “his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” It seems these two honours were perhaps meant as consolation prizes for the musical assumed failure to win the major award of Best Picture.

Kelly himself was instrumental in the film’s Oscar campaign, appearing at screenings and interviews around Hollywood. He consistently challenged the idea that a musical couldn’t or shouldn’t win Best Picture, saying “there is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas,” and that it was “a form of snobbism.” It seems his charms were too hard to resist, and voters evidently were keen to prove him wrong.

The film received overwhelming critical acclaim, with many taken by its originality and grand nature. Variety called it “one of the most imaginative musical confections turned out by Hollywood in years,” while TIME Magazine hailed it as “a brilliant combination of Hollywood’s opulence and technical wizardry with the kind of taste and creativeness that most high-budgeted musicals notoriously lack.” The New York Daily News even declared it “one of the finest musicals Hollywood has ever produced.”

With the public still grieving over World War II, an escapism like a big MGM musical was just what they wanted. The film was also a roaring success with the audiences, taking in $3.75 million at the US box-office and a further $3.2 million in Canada. After the hugely popular Singin’ in the Rain was released the following year, An American in Paris received a re-release, which further grew its box-office, and it ultimately became one of MGM’s most profitable films.

Much like Bette Davis’ shock Best Actress loss the previous year, one could also argue An American in Paris‘ surprise win for Best Picture was again the result of an unfortunate vote splitting situation. With a strong two-horse race between A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun clearly dividing votes, it’s completely reasonable to assume this perhaps led to An American in Paris sailing past them both to steal the prize.

Did it deserve to win?
As a big fan of musicals, particularly of this golden era, it’s hard for me to say one of the greatest movie musicals ever made didn’t deserve to win Best Picture. An American in Paris is a landmark film of this genre, and stands out for its dazzling visuals, incredible choreography, and captivating lead performances from Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, in her film debut. It is a piece of cinema that has gone on to influence a generation of artists, filmmakers, choreographers, and dancers. Director Damien Chazelle openly admitted his musical La La Land pays deep and loving homage to the film, particularly the film’s epic dream sequence climax and several other key visual moments.

Filmed entirely on the backlot of MGM’s studios, plus a few establishing location shots of Paris itself, the film’s elaborate production numbers are genuinely stunning. With Kelly’s masterful choreography, Minnelli’s unique directorial vision, and Gershwin’s glorious music, the film is a true work of art. Costing half a million dollars to craft, and four weeks of rehearsals and filming, the film’s incredible finale ballet sequence, running a full 17-minutes, is the stuff of cinematic legend, and worth the price of admission alone. As Kelly and Caron dance through varying sets inspired by the iconic artwork of French painters including van Gogh and Renoir, we are treated to one of the most visually impressive music numbers ever captured on film.

Dazzling displays aside, the film is decidedly light and fluffy compared to the stellar dramas it beat out to take home Best Picture. Perhaps it would have been enough for it to only be awarded for its technical accomplishments, much like La La Land was. No one would deny it deserved to win for its music, costuming, cinematography and art direction. But to call it the best overall production of the year is stretching things a little far, particularly against something like A Streetcar Named Desire.

The film did revitalise the musical genre, and ultimately ushered in another few decades of masterful work, including Singin’ in the Rain, the following year. Frankly, that would have been a more deserving MGM musical to award with Best Picture, and after the upset victory of An American in Paris, it’s likely why it failed to win. But the film is a beautiful piece of cinema, and perhaps if it had won any other year, we’d be decreeing it a deserving winner. As it stands though, it beat two far-more deserving pictures, and remains one of the Academy’s early missteps.