Sunday, December 14, 2008

Film Bookends Part I: "Casablanca" and "An American in Paris"

"We'll always have Paris."

This weekend we watched Vincente Minelli's 1951 Hollywood musical An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly. (The man can dance like nobody's business!) I had never seen it before, and my strongest impression of the film was that it was the Hollywood musical "answer" to Casablanca, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman classic directed by Michael Curtiz. It was uncanny. I don't know if Minelli loved Casablanca or hated it, but I do know that he responded to it quite overtly in An American in Paris. Consider this:

1. Casablanca is set during the war, and it was made during the war, too (in Hollywood). An American in Paris was made, and is set, after the war. Both have action that takes place in Paris; in Casablanca, it was immediately before and during the German Occupation of the city, and in An American in Paris it is set in a liberated city, one that is filled with Americans (three of the film's five main characters are Americans).

2. In Casablanca, there's a love triangle. The beautiful Ilsa Lund is secretly married to Victor Laszlo, international hero of the French Resistance. He's wanted by the Nazis, and they're hot on his trail as he tries to escape to America with Ilsa. But Ilsa is also in love with the American gunrunner Rick Blaine, with whom she had a brief but passionate affair in Paris a few years back, just before the German Occupation, while she thought Victor was dead.

In An American in Paris, there's also a love triangle. American GI-turned-painter Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) falls in love with 19-year-old Frenchwoman Lise Bouvier, but Lise is involved with famed French singer Henri Baurel. Lise is the daughter of French Resistance fighters; during the war, the parents had asked their friend, Henri Baurel, to take care of her. (We never meet her parents in the film, but I like to imagine that she's the daughter of Ilsa and Victor.)

3. In both films, men decide on the fate of the trio. In Casablanca, famously, Ilsa can't decide between Victor and Rick (she loves them both), and she tells Rick to decide her fate: "you have to think for both of us." Rick tells her he'll leave Casablanca with her, but instead he puts her on the plane to America with Victor, thus saving a crucial Resistance leader and becoming a hero. He even kills the Nazi leader to save Victor from capture.

In An American in Paris, Lise loves Jerry, but can't break up with Henri, because she "practically owes him her life." But Henri makes the decision that she should have made, freeing her to be with Jerry.

I think it is significant that these women -- Ilsa and Lise (even the names link them; Lise is pronounced "Lisa") -- aren't in control of their own fates. Only the men get to decide, and their decisions are therefore seen as noble because they have to break their own hearts to restore "the good" to the world. Women are emotional creatures; they are duplicitous and indecisive. Men are rational creatures, and they make noble decisions.

4. Casablanca has a poignant ending: our hero -- the American male -- does NOT get the girl. An American in Paris, on the other hand, has a happy ending: our hero -- the American male -- DOES get the girl. Perhaps it signals a better time for America, which became culturally dominant after its World War II victory.

5. In Casablanca, Rick's famous last words to Ilsa are "We'll always have Paris." In An American in Paris, Jerry tells Lise, "Now what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that's enough for some, but it isn't for me anymore, because the more beautiful everything is, the more it will hurt without you." How can this not be taken as a reply to the resignation, self-denial, and nostalgia expressed in Rick's farewell to his beloved? "Maybe that's enough for some [i.e., Rick and Ilsa], but it isn't for me anymore."

The message to Americans? We're entitled to it have it all -- after all, what other nation of people are told in their founding documents that they have the "right" to the "pursuit of happiness"? And if that's not enough, we earned that right in the war. And who could better represent America in the postwar period than Gene Kelly, the man with perfect teeth?

American women are the real losers in An American in Paris. The American woman who pursues Jerry, Milo Roberts (played by Nina Foch), is aggressive and domineering. She's a rich heiress who tries to win Jerry's heart by supporting him as an artist, thus undermining his masculinity both as sexual aggressor and as financial breadwinner. For Minelli, the American female is unfeminine and pushy. American women took a lot of hits from Hollywood in this postwar period -- don't even get me started on this subject.

An American in Paris is an interesting film for a lot of reasons, most of which I'm giving short shrift in this essay: the cultural stereotype of the artist; the use of artworks (paintings) in film; the myth of Paris. It's definitely worth watching. Casablanca, of course, is a classic; I've seen it so many times that I can't count them, and I could watch it again and again. It's sometimes hard to analyze something that you feel so attached to; for me, seeing An American in Paris helped me to think about an old favorite in a new way.

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