Performance Review

Man of the People: Gene Kelly and An American in Paris

To coincide with the classic musical's 70th anniversary, Lilia Pavin-Franks looks back on the complex duality of its leading man

In Performance Review, writers go deep on the performances that continue to obsess or fascinate them years after a film's release. To coincide with An American in Paris' 70th anniversary, Lilia Pavin-Franks reflects on Gene Kelly's singular turn

It would be quite fair to say that I grew up with Gene Kelly extremely present in my life, to the extent that he would only need to be referred to by his first name and, even as a child, I knew who we were talking about. It was as if he were always around, not physically, but through frequent flickers on screen, endless biographies on the living room bookshelves, and my mum’s ever-glowing words about the bygone age of the Hollywood musical.

When I ask my mum what it was about Kelly that made her so infatuated with him, she says it was (and still is) his effortless ability to sweep her away into a fantasy. The sheer joy radiating from his crooked grin and exuberant dancing had her hooked from the very first time she saw On the Town in glorious Technicolour on television. She notes how markedly different what Kelly was doing was to what she'd seen Fred Astaire doing in black and white – his sheer athleticism on par with the sense of gentle beauty that surrounded his every move. A far cry from the top and tails sophistication of Astaire, perhaps, but captivating nonetheless.

Herein lies the undoubtable charm of Gene Kelly: his grounded otherworldliness, his tender strength, or, put simply, his ability to be both. Laura Mulvey noted that, because of its reliance on spectacle (something often coded as feminine due to a certain level of passivity to the performer), the musical genre was responsible for upholding the reductive binary opposition of feminine performer and masculine (active) spectator. The musical performer is put into a position of “to-be-looked-at-ness,” a historically feminine situation, yet, conversely, the musical is also responsible for putting the male body on display for largely female audiences.

Post-war America in the 1950s saw the reintegration of traditional gender roles into everyday life, after the war had forced women out of the homestead and into the workforce. There was a desperation for men to overcome a crisis of masculine identity, wherein their bodies, laden with trauma from the war, sought to regain that sense of heroism they felt as soldiers on the battlefield. Kelly positioned himself early on as an entertainer that spoke to the masses, particularly the men enchanted by physicality, raw masculine strength and virility. In all his transcendence, he was still a performer with a sense of relatability.

Kelly inserted his persona into all of his performances, but perhaps most of all in Vincente Minelli’s 1951 musical An American in Paris. Singin’ in the Rain spoke to his status as a star, but An American vouched for the down-to-earth everyman charm of Kelly that made him an icon in the first place. The character of Jerry, an ex-GI and dedicated artist, mirrored Kelly’s own trajectory as a committed dancer, choreographer, and veteran Navy soldier. Wearing simple workman’s clothes, his aesthetic was made far more achievable to the everyday cinema-goer. He was a man of the people just as he was captivating on a level that made him otherworldly. Moreover, Kelly’s choice of clothes purposefully showed off his toned physique and accentuated the curves of his muscles, a stark contrast to the straight, boxy shapes of a suit.

In the opening scenes of An American in Paris, artist Jerry wakes in his cramped living-space-come-studio and contemplates a self portrait – an explicit visual display of his duality, the artist reflecting upon his own image. Dressed in soft pink striped pyjamas, he addresses his sketch of the rugged man in front of him, composed of strong lines and shadows, visually contrasting his current state. He brushes his fingers gently across his own sketched lips before smudging the portrait with a cloth, blurring the distinction between his two established on-screen images.

An American in Paris also sees Jerry in this state of flux when it comes to control and women. On one hand, he asserts such dominance over Lise (Leslie Caron), pursuing her despite her obvious reluctance, but he also finds himself financially indebted to Milo (Nina Foch), a wealthy socialite supporting his artistic endeavours. His relentless pursuit of Lise is perhaps overcompensation for the emasculated position he’s put into under Milo’s assistance.

For all the brash masculinity, though, there is an undoubtable degree of femininity in Kelly’s performances that worked in tandem with his bravado. Kelly himself often noted the hybrid form of his dance style, never wanting to define it in black and white. Though it was noted that he always wanted to imbue a strong sense of masculinity into his movements, he recognised that the use of balletic steps was often interpreted as effeminate. In fact, as a boy, he gave up dancing until the age of 15 after being targeted as a “sissy” by fellow neighbourhood children.

Yet Kelly’s ability to transcend traditional gender boundaries is not merely limited to his physicality. A large part of his appeal can be attributed to the raw emotion and vulnerability of his musical performances. His work as a choreographer undoubtedly asserted the sense of control he commands over not only his own performances but his fellow co-stars'. The entertainer also captures attention through his willingness to allow his body to be swayed by emotion. For all the corporeal control that resides over his performances, there is an equal measure of emotion – a strong representation of the duality he held, of being as domineering as he was warm and charming.

There’s a sense of visual irony in the final act of An American in Paris when Jerry and co. attend a black and white themed party. Adoring strict tonal costumes, Jerry dons clownish get-up that's split right down the middle. Gene Kelly, on and off screen, was anything but black and white, though, a notion that's perhaps most famously communicated via the 17-minute dance sequence that brings the film to a close. Imbued with an abundance of colour,  not to mention such complex and technical dance, it's a sequence that hammers home the role of fantasy in Kelly’s wider appeal.

The spectacular final dance sequence serves as a visceral, full body expression of emotion – a dream sequence conjured up by Jerry after he watches Lise (Leslie Caron) leave to marry another man. Kelly’s strong understanding of the body’s capacity worked in tandem with his understanding of the cinematic lens. Whereas Astaire’s routines utilised tight, static framing, emphasising the sense of sophistication, Kelly always made full use of space, integrating the mise-en-scène into the very fabric of the choreography, and vice versa. This sense of visual and kinetic command was an attempt at masculine control in a traditionally feminine space.

The film’s setting of Paris, the City of Love, already exists on a heightened level, but the final sequence turns it into a fully fledged dreamland, extending An American in Paris' sense of fluidity. In a beautiful combination of ballet, tap and modern dance, a crestfallen Jerry dominates the screen amongst happy Parisian couples dancing in pairs. Alone, he asserts his power with sharp and commanding tap moves, his muscular legs carrying his body with force but also a weightlessness. Surrounded by flowers, Lise appears and gracefully pirouettes on pointed toes, using Jerry’s body purely as support for her own moves. He picks her up, reversing the role of support and she falls limp in his arms before she is placed on the ground and they extend outwards, balancing on each other and exhibiting an equal share of power. In 17 minutes, Kelly twirls effortlessly between careful, solemn steps, commanding strides alongside French soldiers and jubilant leaps with a gaggle of colourfully dressed dandies – a full spectrum of movement and emotion, never once settling for a single effect.

Though Singin’ in the Rain may first spring to mind when one hears the name Gene Kelly, it’s An American in Paris which fully highlights the way his work was always transcendental and yet so grounded within the strict physicality of the body. Kelly existed in this fluid state between fantasy and reality, of masculinity and femininity, of the psychological and the physical. The enigmatic charm of this great performer still radiates, 70 years on.

An American in Paris is available on various streaming services.

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