All Singing! All Dancing! All Kelly!
The fixed toothy grin of Gene Kelly dominates the horizon of both An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain like the baby sun's face in the Teletubbies sky. Like other stars of the 1950s -- Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster -- Kelly masks actorly insecurities and unbecoming neediness with aggressive dental displays, and in his case terpsichorean skill as well. Unlike Fred Astaire and his empyrean perfectionism -- and Astaire's equals among a previous era's stars, like Grant and Stewart -- Kelly's look-at-me exhibitionism appears designed to ward off despair.
Or at least this seems to be the case with Kelly's moody painter in An American in Paris, which shocked everyone with its best picture Oscar for 1951. The underlying masculine melancholia of Paris is of a piece with the critical favorites Paris beat for the Oscar: A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Like Clift in Sun, Kelly's exiled would-be artist seeks solace in an imaginary woman (here, fawnlike Leslie Caron) whose love will break him out of his creative block.
Director Vincente Minnelli portrays the depressive Kelly with the same measured sympathy he would later give Kirk Douglas' Van Gogh in Lust for Life. Both lose themselves in paint -- in Kelly's case, the impressionist haze of the art-inspired reverie of the justly celebrated American in Paris Ballet that fills the film's last 20 minutes with images as pretty as George Gershwin's music.
Made back to back, Paris and its successor film Singin' in the Rain (directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen in 1952) are two peaks of the great run of musicals produced at MGM by Arthur Freed in the 1940s and '50s. Rain is a throwback to an earlier era -- literally so, given its amusing plot centered on the birth of talking pictures. Kelly is immensely appealing as a straightforward hero, and his love for perky ingenue Debbie Reynolds hits none of the nasty bumps that afflict the Kelly-Caron romance. Unlike the Paris score, ultrasophisticated but also weighed down by a couple of duds, Rain pulls its 1929-ish-sounding score from the cream of producer Freed's own songbook, including the immortal title song: a tribute to the goofiness love inspires. While Paris is ultimately a more interesting film, it's Rain that deservedly lives on as an evergreen popular favorite.
Singin' in the Rain screens Sunday, Feb. 28, at 2:40 and 7 p.m. (with An American in Paris at 12:25, 4:45, and 9:05 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $6.50; call (510) 843-3456.
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