American in Paris – Hollywood Ties The Knot With Paris
While Casablanca’s image of Paris also had its fair share of clichés – the wind in Ingrid Bergman’s hair down the Champs Elysees, the riverboat waiter with his striped sweater and beret, the statuette of the Eiffel Tower on the bar in Bogart’s restaurant – the street scenes are actually fairly matter of fact. The images say: this is a street in Paris, it’s a little foreign and may look somewhat different from your local main street in Dayton, Ohio,or Peru, Indiana, but that’s all there is to say about it. Nowhere is it implied that this street was better than a street anywhere else in the world.
But this is exactly what the street scene in An American in Paris tells us. Almost the first thing we learn about Paris – introduced by a kaleidoscope of her main sights, accompanied by jaunty music and a Gene Kelly voiceover – is that it is “a Mecca for the arts”. It’s magnificent, inspiring, beautiful – and that is only the beginning.
Because it is also, as we learn on our little tour of Kelly’s residential quarter,”urban” in the best sense of the word, a place where dissimilar elements meet and merge into a symphony of diversity, like different colors on a canvas: the young couple in their passionate embrace and the priest on his bicycle, the street cleaner and the bourgeois, the nuns and the kids, the tailor’s atelier and the book shop. It is also the place of a thriving and well-functioning community. Everybody is friends with everybody else, just like Gene Kelly is friends with the street urchins who are waving to him from the pavement.
Everything, in one word, is the negative mirror image of suburban America where you are only ever likely to meet somebody who is a lot like yourself.
Finally, to top it all, the scene where the music hall singer enters the bar. Everybody is happy to see him, loud voices are being raised: “Come and see who’s here!” This is clearly more Italy than France. Not that such a scene would be any more likely to occur in Rome than in Paris or anywhere else, but this is not an issue of reality but one of cinematic cliché: the mother figure coming straight from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the apron, the embrace – that is Sophia Loren, not Brigitte Bardot.
But this has ceased to matter. This is a Paris of the mind, a fantasy, a mythical place that appears to stand in for everything that America never had or once may have had only to lose it on its way. A place into which Americans project their collective longings.
By this time, Hollywood had clearly lost its critical bearings for its beloved, and more such Parisian love stories were to follow throughout the 1950s. After An American in Paris, Sabrina was shot in 1954, FunnyFace in 1955 and Gigi in 1958.
These four films – not the only, but the most important Hollywood movies of the period that were set in Paris – tell essentially the same story. The protagonist is always a young person who is taken out of his or her normal context – American or, in the case of Gigi, domestic – and travels to Paris (“society Paris” for Gigi) where he or she acquires sophistication and finds romance, in this order, though not as a consequence of it. This is an important point: the real reason why the protagonists find love and romance is always the purity of their hearts
Have you recognized the plot? You will have if you are familiar with the theory according to which all stories reflect one of a certain number of narrative archetypes. Because this is, in essence, the story of Cinderella, of “virtue rewarded”.
Now, all theories and all points can be overstretched to the point of caricature, and neither this theory nor this point are an exception. Nevertheless, it appears that America, the virtuous ingénue, has met the world, played in this Hollywood movie by Paris, fallen in love and “tied the knot” – to live happily ever after.
Only, of course, that she would not. But that is a story for another article.