Long before there was An American in Paris the musical, there was just An American in Paris the piece of music written by George Gershwin in 1928 and inspired by his own time in Paris. When producer Arthur Freed attended a Gershwin concert he liked the title of the piece so much he wanted the rights to the composition for use of the name alone. The Gershwin estate balked at the idea of just the title being used and only agreed to the sale if an entire musical was built around it featuring classics from the Gershwin catalog. MGM agreed and thus an American classic was born.
An American in Paris was not only a hit in its own time - the 6th highest grossing picture of 1951 and winning eight Academy Awards, including best picture – but it is still considered a classic today. The American Film Institute ranked it as the 9th best movie musical of all time and a stage version was launched on Broadway in 2015 and is still touring today.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris follows Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) as the titular character and struggling artist who falls in love with Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). The only problem is that Lise is already engaged to Henri Baurel (George Guétary), who she feels indebted to because he protected her during the war. Filling out this love rectangle is Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy woman looking to sponsor Jerry in exchange for some undefined yet strongly implied benefits. Jerry’s fried Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) is also around providing comic relief and piano accompaniment to Gene’s tapping.
A perfect example of golden era moviemaking, An American in Paris is not overly subtle in its metaphors; for example, the use of red flowers, and red roses specifically, to denote true love.
We get the first instance of this correlation within the first minute of the film.
Interestingly enough, however, the first flowers we see associated with one of our main characters are purple.
The next time we see the color purple? When Henri is describing the sultrier side of his betrothed, Lise.
But after that diversion the film sticks to a strict Red Flowers = Lise equation. So of course, the first person presented with a red flower is Henri, whom Lise is engaged to and whom Jerry has not yet met.
Next up, the opposing force to Lise and her red flowers; Milo and her white flowers. After Milo buys some of Jerry’s paintings she takes him to her hotel room because Milo is not messing around. Traditionally, white flowers signify chastity or purity, but Ms. Milo is none of those things. Instead, her white flowers serve as a counterpoint to the red. The relationship she offers is cold, lacking any real affection or emotion while Lise offers true passion and romance.
Also note, the only time Lise is seen with white flowers is when Henri is speaking of her “sweet and shy” side. Also, during his varied descriptions of her, there are no red flowers.
Later that night Milo tricks Jerry into taking her on a date and of course she’s swathed in white. Interestingly though, the dress features a pink flower on the hip. This is before Jerry meets Lise when a romantic relationship with Milo isn’t totally off the table. She’s not offering him a true red romance; pink is as close as she can get.
It's also interesting to note that once Jerry has met Lise, we don’t see the pink portion of Milo’s dress again. In fact, Milo will only wear pink one other time in the film. So put a pin in that for now.
The first time Jerry sees Lise her dress has a touch of red near her face.
This motif is continued the next day when Jerry stalks her at work and bullies her into a date. Love was portrayed differently in 1951.
On Jerry and Lise’s first date she wears a mostly white dress, which is fitting because she’s still fairly cold towards Jerry. The vest of the dress, however, features small flowers; a hint towards the relationship blossoming between them, but still small enough that in certain shots they can’t be seen at all. Lise still isn’t sure about this romance.
But, after Lise and Jerry share their first kiss, Henri, who before was decorated with a red flower is now surrounded by white. From the dancers flanking him during his big number to the white flowers passing behind him as he talks to Lise. Henri is now firmly in the same camp as Milo. Now that Lise has experienced the real thing Henri can only offer passionless romance.
Next we get a montage of Jerry working on his paintings (he’s getting a show thanks to Milo) and Jerry and Lise’s deepening relationship. This is also the first time Lise is seen holding a red rose, leading straight into a passionate kiss.
To really drive the point home, the montage begins with a cross fade of Milo and Jerry embracing into a glob of white paint on a palette and ends with the aforementioned kiss fading into a smear of red paint on the palette.
Later, Henri and Jerry bond over being in love, unaware it’s with the same girl. Note, the first time they shared a scene together Henri had a touch of red in his costuming, but this time it’s Jerry. The red around his collar also calls back to the dress Lise wore when they first met.
After this scene Lise breaks the news to Jerry that she’s engaged to another man and plans to go through with the wedding, despite being in love with him. Brokenhearted though he is, Jerry is also prepared and runs straight to the woman he’s been keeping on the back-burner.
Once again Milo is swathed in white with touches of pink. She’s once again offering a more romantic relationship, but its not quite at the at the level of what he had with Lise.
Then everyone heads off to a very strict costume party where some non-flower related things happen. Namely, the four sides of the love rectangle meet, Lise rejects Jerry again, Henri overhears it and then whisks Lise away.
And then the real magic starts. An American in Paris has it faults, but it has more than earned its status on the strengths of this final 17-minute ballet set to the titular music composed by George Gershwin. It’s also chock full of more rose/red vs. white metaphors.
The ballet sequence is also the culmination of another flower motif throughout the film: flowers and song. Almost every musical number leading up to the ballet features flowers in some regard. From a full on flower stall to subdued floral wallpaper, the film makes a clear correlation between song and dance and flowers.
This motif fairly explodes during the ballet sequence. The ballet is composed of five distinct set pieces referencing the artwork of Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec. From the impressionist flowers of Renoir to the pops of color on Utrillo city street to the flower adorned ladies of the Moulin Rouge as painted by Lautrec, the ballet utilizes the flowers from famous works of art while still staying true to its own flower motifs.
These photos are but a sampling of the flowers on display. To really get the full effect you have to watch it. And it’s well worth your time. The trailer at the time boasted it was, “the greatest dance entertainment ever projected on the screen.” And that’s not hyperbole. It was true then and it remains true today.
[Photo credit: MGM via Floracracy]
Check out a related blog article, How Flowers Told One of the Greatest Love Stories in Film, to see how flowers are used by the iconic Charlie Chaplin.