What Is So Legendary About the “An American in Paris” Ballet Sequence?

Imagine if a modern filmmaker put a seventeen minute-long dance sequence into a movie. Even if that movie is about dance itself, seventeen minutes would be a long time for a single choreographed sequence without any dialogue or character interruption. It would almost surely be an audience killer.

An American in Paris (1951) is arguably MGM’s most elegant and extravagant musical of the 1950s, a decade filled with memorable Golden Age musical productions that bore optimism about post-war America. The film won Best Picture the year of its release, an award earned for its inventive blend of music, choreography, visuals, and cinematography that combine a vast array of talents into one picture.

Although An American in Paris features a number of dance routines, it is not a movie about dance. Yet it is most remembered for its long, intricate, and expensive “An American in Paris Ballet” sequence that concludes the film and signifies the emotional journey of its main characters, Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). The ballet is set to George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” orchestration from 1928, and takes the viewer on a tour through French art history while standing as a metaphor for Jerry and Lise’s complicated relationship. AMC’s Filmsite writes, “The pretentious sequence, featuring an Impressionistic period daydream in the style of various painters, is one of the longest uninterrupted dance sequences of any Hollywood film.”

Gershwin’s original composition was designed to convey to the listener a first-time impression of Paris. It was inspired by Gershwin’s own experiences in the city during a time when it was populated by many great artists (Hemingway, Picasso) seeking inspiration. It became one of his best-known pieces of music.

By turning the music into a musical film production, the intent was to exude that same joie de vivre of Paris with the added benefit of visuals and performance. Alan Jay Lerner was brought in to write, and Vincente Minnelli signed on to direct.

“Choreography was no small matter,” writes Film.com. “An American in Paris was to culminate in an elaborate dance sequence set to Gershwin’s composition — all 17 minutes of it. What’s more, it was to be a ballet, a dance form that had not had much exposure in popular film. But if anyone could bring it to the masses, it was Gene Kelly, who’d spent the 1940s establishing himself as one of the most likable, hard-working, and creative dancers in Hollywood.

The combination of An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, released the following year in 1952, solidified Kelly as an immortal screen icon and put ballet into the public eye as a legitimate and masculine artform for movie audiences. Blending classical dance technique with modern movements and styles (like Kelly’s trademark tapping) made ballet cool. As Film.com continues, “Musicals would fade in popularity over the next decade and a half, but the dance-heavy ones that flourished benefited from Kelly and An American in Paris. The dancing gang members in West Side Story (1961) would have seemed more peculiar if this film hadn’t helped audiences get used to the idea.”

Filming the An American in Paris Ballet took longer than many feature films of the time, and cost as much too. The budget for the dance sequence alone was allegedly around $500,000 ($4.5 million in 2015 dollars). Since other artists’ work had such a grand impact on Gershwin during his time in Paris, the ballet recreates the spirit of that sense of artistic wonder through its scenery. Entirely existing in a world of fantasy, the ballet reflects how Jerry, a painter, interprets his surroundings.

The AFI notes, “Each sequence in the ballet was shot in a different color scheme, with costumes, sets and choreography of the large company of dancers reflective of the mood of the various sections of Gershwin’s musical suite.” The styles of Renoir, Rousseau, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Dufy are among those recreated in the sets and costuming during the number.

Variety’s review of the film stated “There’s a lengthy ballet to the film’s title song for the finale, which is a masterpiece of design, lighting, costumes and color photography. It’s a unique blending of classical and modern dance with vaude-style tapping, which will undoubtedly trailblaze new [dance] techniques for Hollywood musicals. British-made The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), of course, have initiated American art house patrons to such work but this one will hit the mass audience — and it’s going to hold ’em completely entranced.”

Emmanuel Levy’s book Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer says the ballet reflected “Minnellis long-standing belief that words presented unnecessary barriers between the images and the emotions they convey… As a composer, Gershwin transcended the boundaries between Europe and America, theater and film, concert hall and music hall. A hybrid artists, Gershwin served as role model for Minnelli.”

The dance surpasses the confines of space and structure, taking the dancers to a number of fantastic locations and altering wardrobes several times throughout.

The ballet culminates all the visual and psychological components that served as the film’s first 80 minutes. The film’s chief reason for winning the Academy Award may have been largely thanks to the dance number, as its spectacle was unprecedented. Even now, over 60 years later, such a feat has hardly been replicated on screen.

Levy goes on to say, “For Minnelli, the ballet was an American renewal of the spirit that produced Gershwins music in the first place.” The film’s ballet brought the music to life in a new way, to new audiences, based on the same artistic love and intent that crafted the original orchestration.

It is a magical scene in film history, aptly choreographed and performed with elaborate attention to detail that solidified its place as one of the top dance numbers in cinema.