Or: What a joy! It’s M-G-M’s Technicolor musical!
An American in Paris might be the perfect example of what I was talking about yesterday. Here’s a movie that’s doing some really cool things, but it seems totally benign because of the ending and the format.
Jerry Mulligan is a starving artist in Montmartre. He’s got some talent and a few good buddies, but mostly he just has a good time walking around the streets of Paris and entertaining children with his spontaneous outbursts of tap dancing. He’s all happy-go-lucky until he meets the women in his life: Milo Roberts, a wealthy British ex-Pat, wants to “sponsor him as an artist” (bone him); and Lise Bouvier, probably the cutest musical star ever, whom he falls in love with. By being a total jackass to Milo, and being a romantic sweetheart to Lise, Jerry somehow seems to get everything he wants in the end.
Seems fairly conventional. Jerry man be an artist, but he’s still a man. He is very uncomfortable with Milo paying his way all the time. A sentiment his concert pianist friend tends to drive home ad nauseam. That’s not to say he isn’t going to go along with the whole thing, with the promise that he will soon pay her back. However, like I said in my last post, this radical behavior in musicals tends to go unpunished. No, Milo does not end up getting exactly what she wants (Jerry) but she also isn’t left high and dry in the end. By being “manly,” she has secured a partnership with a promising young artist who only seems to be getting better through her encouragement. Likewise, she doesn’t seem that broken up about the whole thing in the end. Earlier in the film one of her friends warns her against getting involved with yet another young artist, but we can assume that she will go right back to the hunt once she realizes that Jerry is now spoken for. I liked Milo. And, for once, I don’t think I’m going against the grain here. She’s a very likable character. Well fleshed-out: emotional and professional at the same time. Just the fact that a bargain-driving, professional woman is to be admired in a 1950s film is a step in the right direction.
But it was Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) in which I was most interested. Gene Kelly made the ladies swoon. Probably still does. (As a side note, my dad once told us that everyone used to say he looked just like Gene Kelly. Proving his confidence, maybe. I think he was more of a young Bruce Springsteen, but now he looks more like Tony Soprano.) And he knew how to use that swooning power to his advantage. Dressed in form fitting clothing that highlight his forearms and butt just right, performing for the cute little children, and even shot for glamour now and then, Kelly is not exactly the manly men of, say, Paint Your Wagon. Instead, his character is not afraid to daydream, fall in love hard, and bend to a kiss his girl initiates. I ask you, is there anything more emasculating than shimming around in a Toulouse-Lautrec painting wearing an all-yellow skin-tight outfit (and don’t forget the beret)?
What’s great is that going to see a Gene Kelly movie would have nothing to do with any of the political/gender implications that these characterizations imply. Suddenly, in the bizarro world of the musical, it’s okay for men to cry and women to wield their power to get what they want. None of this gender-bending is a threat. It’s merely all wrapped up in the isolated fantasy world of the musical: where no one ever takes off their tap shoes.
Yes, Jerry ends up with Lise in the end and everything is very heterosexual. But he’s still wearing a ridiculous outfit, dressed up for the ball, and we haven’t forgotten the Gene Kelly as presented in the rest of the film.