The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents July 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Public Enemies
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
DVD Playback
An American in Paris
Ashes of Time Redux
ASC Close-Up
An American in Paris (1951)
Blu-ray Edition
1.33:1  (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby Digital 1.0
Warner Home Video, $28.99

While playing pool with lyricist and longtime friend Ira Gershwin, producer Arthur Freed asked whether MGM could adapt to the screen An American in Paris, one of Ira and George Gershwin’s most beloved pieces. Ira said MGM could, with the stipulation all the music in the film be from only the magnificent Gershwin songbook. Freed quickly tapped playwright and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner to come up with a story on which to hang numerous, signature Gershwin songs. He also culled together “Freed Unit” regulars — director Vincente Minnelli, dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly and musical directors Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin — to begin to plan what Freed called “a fusion of French Impressionism, ballet and Tin Pan alley.”  

The resultant film presents Jersey boy Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), an ex-G.I. who is living in Paris after the war and developing his talent for painting. Among his friends on the arty Left Bank are American composer Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), French singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary) and three French children who look forward to occasional handouts of American bubble gum. Just as Henri explains to Adam that he is in love with an amazing young woman named Lise (Leslie Caron), Jerry meets an American art enthusiast, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who approaches his street sale and asks to buy two paintings. Slightly suspicious of the woman but charmed nonetheless, Jerry agrees to accompany her to a jazz club. Once there, Jerry spots a beautiful, young woman seated at the club and ignores Milo completely. Sparks fly for Jerry and his newfound love, but problems arise when it turns out she is Lise, the object of Jerry’s affection.

Freed originally wanted to shoot An American in Paris on location in the famous city, but he decided to remain studio bound and use second-unit shots from Paris to design backdrops and sets. Cinematographer Alfred Gilks, ASC, joined the creative team to help bring the warm light of Paris streets to the back lot and soundstages of MGM; Gilks had a reputation for working quickly in complicated setups, which pleased Minnelli. The director tapped another veteran cinematographer, John Alton, ASC, to photograph the film’s climactic, ornate ballet number. Heavily diffused, color-drenched photography, inspired by painters such as Paul Cézanne and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, was incorporated into the meticulously designed sections of the 20-minute ballet. Gilks and Alton both added their own unique styles to the picture, and they won a well deserved Academy Award for their collaboration.

With its Blu-ray debut, the groundbreaking musical An American in Paris has once again made a remarkable splash. Looking every bit as lush and color-drenched as it must have upon its Technicolor release in 1951, this new, 1080p transfer is remarkably pristine, with heavily saturated primaries, bold contrasts and deep, true blacks. The Oscar-winning cinematography is luminously recreated with careful attention to color balance and clarity without ever seeming overly processed. Disc producer Warner Brothers has used its Ultra-Resolution digital restoration, and the stellar results are reference-quality color and light reproduction. The monaural sound has a solid presence in the center channel, with a surprising amount of bass, and is clear of any age-related noise.

Several supplements on this disc, all excellent, have been borrowed from the previously released standard-definition DVD. These include an audio commentary that splices together interviews with Kelly, Freed, Minnelli, Caron and others; the 90-minute television special American Masters: Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer; theatrical trailers; outtakes; audio segments and two period shorts. Newly produced for this package is “S’Wonderful,” an excellent, 42-minute documentary featurette that includes new interviews with Caron and Foch and previously unreleased footage of other members of the creative team, including Alton.  

The grand, high style of the Freed Unit shines anew for home screens with this high-definition release. The glowing, new transfer is a perfect addition to any film lover’s library and is sure to win many new fans to this beloved favorite.    

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