Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)

1951

Get your dancing shoes on, folks, ’cause Gene Kelly is here.

Actually don’t bother, just watching him is exhausting.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Okay, not to be the guy nitpicking cinema history, but of the five main characters, three are Americans in Paris, so the use of a singular article is not strictly accurate. But sure, despite the fact that one of the other Americans also gets to narrate his own first appearance, I’ll concede that it’s about one particular American in Paris more than the others.

Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is a frequently-broke painter living next door to his pal and fellow ex-pat Adam Cook, a former piano prodigy living off fellowships. Jerry encounters a matching pair of good news/bad news situations. Good news: in one day he acquires a wealthy patron hoping to kickstart his art career, and meets a lovely lady named Lise. Bad news: said patron has romantic notions in his direction and he’s not up for being a gigolo (probably saw how that went for the guy from Sunset Boulevard); and Lise is already involved with a cabaret singer friend of Adam’s named Georges. There’s a lot of wooing by the Seine and a good deal of song and/or dance numbers, which is what you expect when your two leads are Gene Kelly and a ballerina, but…

First off, Jerry’s pursuit of Lise has not aged well at all. He basically forces her into a dance, ignores multiple requests to leave her be and further requests to be left alone, and an entire generation’s takeaway was “Ah, but she fell for him eventually.” How many stalkers were inspired by Jerry’s “courtship?”

Second… remember how La La Land ended with that dance sequence depicting Seb and Mia picturing how their life might have gone had they stayed together? If you haven’t seen La La Land, remember that thing I just said in the last sentence? Anyway, once Jerry and Lise come clean about their other relationships, and it seems they’re doomed to part, there’s a similar sequence (I think?) at the end of An American in Paris, only at least ten times more complicated and ten times weirder. It’s a huge full company dance piece centered around Jerry and Lise dancing the happy times that he feels will never be, and that would be fine, but it happens instead of whatever happened to actually cause the impending happy ending. The dance number ends, we return to reality, and with 45 seconds left on the clock everything turns out fine basically.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: They rank it 14th, choosing to overlook the problems with the story in favour of its lavish dance sequences. I’m less generous, but I get it. Look, it’s a Classic Musical, you’re here for the songs and the dances more than the plot, and they work, and it’s not another biblical epic, so–

The Box Office Champ

Son of a bitch.

Set about 30 years after the crucifixion, it uses Jesus to establish its thesis that Slavery Was Bad, Actually… or rather it was bad when it was Romans doing it to white Christians. That said… Peter the Apostle turns up to do a lengthy sermon about how golly gee great his buddy Jesus was. So it might not strictly be a Bible story but it is aggressively Christian. As to the story…

Ugh. I might owe Jerry Mulligan an apology.

General Marcus Vinicius returns from a fresh round of conquest to Nero’s Rome, stays overnight at the house of a retired general who’s secretly Christian, and decides that the general’s adopted daughter Lygia, a hostage taken from a conquered king, is pretty hot and he wants to get all up in them hostage guts. And does not feel that a hostage has the right to refuse him. Well, isn’t this some classic screwball romantic hijinks? She’s a Christian princess raised in captivity by the the empire that conquered her people, and he’s a nigh-irredeemably terrible, bloodthirsty, misogynist ass-hat who treats her like property and is confused she doesn’t swoon for him, I hate him, I hate him so much.

Anyway not-yet-Saint Peter does a long, long sermon about Jesus and loving your enemy to shame me for how much I hate Marcus, and Lygia decides Marcus is pretty okay for reasons I neither understand nor approve, Marcus learns to be more Christian and that Nero might not be so great, especially after he sets Rome on fire and blames the Christians… and it’s not good, it’s not at all good. It’s Kirk Cameron’s Gladiator. It’s a Chick Tract pretending to be Spartacus.

And yet it nearly doubled the box office take of the second place movie, damn, what won’t conservative America fall for?

So Why Not…? The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn and directed by John Huston, is a better movie by basically any metric, and there’s a reason it’s better remembered than this one.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Only 17 reviews, but 88% are positive? How? Why? Did they see the same movie I did? That rating makes no sense to me.

Other Events in Film

  • Quo Vadis wasn’t even the only bible epic, Gregory Peck did one about King David.
  • Show Boat out grossed An American in Paris but couldn’t steal the Oscar crown.
  • A young, buff Marlon Brando set some hearts a-flutter in A Streetcar Named Desire. Man, 1952 was just all about problematic romances, wasn’t it.

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