Tag Archives: Irene Sharaff

WESTERN COSTUME COMPANY’S GOLDEN AGE

Many things come to mind when thinking about Hollywood costume, but few think about the venerable Western Costume Company, founded in 1912 when fledgling studios were start-ups in Hollywood. The company was started by Louis L. Burns.  Burns had collected Native American clothing, jewelry, weapons and props for renting through a trading store and then started Western Costume Company to supply Western films made in the new film industry. Cowboy star William S. Hart was a regular customer, as was Cecil B. DeMille.  Years later director John Ford became an investor. The first Western Costume  location was in a small space in downtown Los Angeles at 7th and Figueroa. By 1924 a ten-story building was needed when Western was supplying D.W Griffith with all his costumes.  It had 154 employees. It was located  on Broadway in downtown LA.  A Hollywood branch was also opened on Sunset Boulevard near Western.

Western Costume in 1925 located on Broadway near 10th.

The Great Depression hit many studios hard and Western Costume was also affected. Previously, a competitor, United Costume Company had also entered the business. Western Costume went bankrupt. Three brothers from the Oakland area, Dan, Joe, and Ike Greenberg bought Western and consolidated its locations into a new site in 1932 at 5335 Melrose Avenue in LA. It was next door to Paramount and RKO and near Columbia and the Goldwyn studio.  Although Western was the go-to place for renting Western, period and foreign costumes, it had also developed into a full costume supplier, being able to design in-house and fabricate whatever film costumes were needed. Their particular strength was in male costumes, because many studios did not have a dedicated male costume designer. Not only costumes were supplied, but all manner of decorations and medals to match appropriate uniforms. Even Warner Bros. went to Western to have the costumes designed and fabricated for Errol Flynn in his many early swashbucklers including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Western had also costumed the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood in 1922. To support its costume design, Western developed a superlative research library from its early days in the 1920s. Books, fashion magazines and pamphlets were collected from the US and abroad, and continue to help costume designers to this day.

From Photoplay magazine February, 1928
From Photoplay magazine February, 1928

One notable costume designer that worked at Western Costume (although briefly) was Walter Plunkett. After a salary dispute at RKO, Plunkett left and joined Western in 1930, where he knew the Greenberg brothers from his high school days in Oakland.  But he was missed at RKO and hired back in 1932, just in time to design for Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game.  Other early costume designers produced excellent work at Western in the 1930s, including Laon (Lon) Anthony who designed many of Errol Flynn’s costumes,

Errol Flynn costume design by Lon Anthony for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939

Emile (Mrs.) Santiago, who could design for men or women, and Marjorie Best, who designed mostly for men but could also design for women, also worked at Western. Costume designer Milo Anderson, at Warner Bros. from 1933-1952, developed his interest in costume while working during his summer vacations at Western while a student at Fairfax High School in the late 1920s.

By 1938, Walter Plunkett was back working with Western Costume, where he could supervise the fabrication of costumes for the principal cast for a big 1939 production he was working on – David O. Selznick‘s Gone with the Wind. The costuming of GWTW is a saga in itself. Some 4000 costumes were required, including 44 for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and 21 for Olivia de Havilland as Melanie. Confederate uniforms and other costumes for extras were rented from several sources.  In addition to the logistical issues, the requirements of filming in Technicolor were a constant constraint in the use of certain colors (or white) in the costumes’ designs and fabrics. Another 1939 film burnished Western’s history. The company long had cobblers and a shoe department. And as M-G-M was preparing to make The Wizard of Oz, Western was asked to provide shoes for Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. * With Adrian’s final design for the shoe, this would be a sparkling Ruby Slipper.  While there have been different accounts of how the shoes were made, it is generally believed that Joe Napoli at Western Costume made Judy’s shoe from a custom last of red satin with a short heel. At M-G-M wardrobe, the sequins were sewn onto chiffon and then formed on the shoe(s) and sewn into the fabric.  Adrian revised the bow design adding rhinestones and bugle beads. No one is sure how many pairs of Ruby Slippers were made.

The Ruby Slippers. Photo by Joshua White

Changes in ownership of Western Costume continued as the profitability of the company see-sawed in the 1940s. In 1943, the company was endangered and six studios joined to buy a controlling interest in Western: Universal, 20th Century-Fox,  Columbia,  Warner Bros, RKO, and Republic. This purchase led to John Golden managing the company and making changes to its operation and consolidation into two divisions:  one for made-to-order. the custom creations of working with designers, and the other the rental operations. A new “Golden Age” bloomed as a series of major movies were costumed by Western.

Western Costume at 5335 Melrose Avenue adjacent to the Paramount studio.

Costume designer Irene Sharaff used Western Costume to fabricate the costumes she designed – these for whatever studio she was contracted with, even for M-G-M’s Brigadoon in 1954.  Likewise, Sharaff worked with Western on the costumes for The King and I (1956) Best Costume OscarWest Side Story (1961) Best Costume Oscar, and Cleopatra (1963) Best Costume Oscar. Two other classic films had their costumes made at Western Costume, one was Some Like it Hot (1959), Billy Wilder‘s movie starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon. Orry-Kelly designed the costumes, winning a Best Costume Oscar. The other classic is The Sound of Music, (1965) starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and Eleanor Parker, with costumes designed by Dorothy Jeakins, nominated for Best Costume.  Costume designers were confident that their designs could be fabricated with expertise at Western, and this was done through the hands and supervision of cutter-fitters  Elizabeth Courtney,  Lilly Fonda, sisters Emma and Atti Parvin, and subsequently Tzetzi Ganev. and Nancy Arroyo. The talented men’s head tailor was Ruben Rubalcava and then Jack Kasbarian, with a crew of seamstresses, tailors,  and dyers present for the jobs at hand. Embroidery was farmed out to Eastern Embroidery in Los Angeles, which Adrian also used for his fashion line.

Margo Baxley was hired by manager Al Nichol in 1957 to work in the Made-to-Order department. When Irene Sharaff came to have her costumes made for Porgy and Bess (1959), Ms. Baxley became Women’s Key  Costumer for her film’s through 1961 while Bill Howard was the Men’s Key. For Porgy and Bess, Baxley had photocopies of Sharaff’s costume sketches and would get the fabrics that Sharaff had selected at Beverly Hills Silks. These would be in bolts, in which case only the amount of fabric used would be charged to that film. As it happened, the costumes and set for Porgy and Bess all burned in a fire at the Samuel Goldwyn studio on July 8, 1958. They all had to be recreated. Margo Baxley continued to work with Irene Sharaff at Western on Can Can, Flower Drum Song, West Side Story Cleopatra and later at Fox with Sharaff at Western on Hello Dolly, as well as with designers Dorothy Jeakins, Orry-Kelly, and Walter Plunkett. Ms. Baxley also worked with Vittorio  Nino Novarese on The Story of Ruth (see below about Eduardo Castro) Irene Sharaff used Lilly Fonda as her favorite cutter-fitter at Western. .

Andrea Weaver started at Western Costume in 1964 (aged 19) after finishing at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. She kept calling Al Nichol for a job until he interviewed her and gave her a job, at first waiting on customers before Halloween. She also did orders called “put-ups.” She worked with costume designers and costumers and after some experience, with a senior costumer on the TV show Hollywood Palace and The Lawrence Welk Show.  The cast members were fitted for their show costumes. After that costumer left, Andrea Weaver took over working with Designer Bill Thomas for Disney’s The Happiest Millionaire. Western also supplied the costumes for the riders on the Rose Parade floats. Weaver went on to became a successful costumer and costume supervisor after leaving Western.

Another costume designer that started his career at Western was Eduardo Castro. He was finishing up his last semester of graduate school at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh when he had an interview as a stock boy in 1976 at Western. As he recalls, he entered the lobby already intimidated, when the talented designer Ann Roth, in a gabardine pencil skirt and crisp white blouse and pearls exited the fitting room. At the same time, descending the staircase into the lobby was the colorful Theadora Van Runkle, wearing an amber and black silk print, floor length kimono. And as a collector of unique eye-catching jewelry, she wore several antique necklaces and amber bracelets, and rings. She had already designed Bonnie and Clyde, and The Thomas Crowne Affair. It wasn’t long before Eduardo Castro was working with both designers, learning from the best in their very different styles and approaches to costume design. Western Costume has also been the go-to place in LA for renting costumes for costume parties and Halloween (I had rented a Musketeer costume from one of the film versions around 1970).  Castro dreaded the arrival of Halloween as he was scheduled to work the front counter to help the “hordes” find costumes. But he came up with pre-loading costume carts with themed costumes. As he described it, “The first costume I prepared was a set of tail coats from a 1954 film designed by Rene Hubert and Charles Le Maire called “Desiree” starring Marlon Brando, and Jean Simmons. The film was about Napoleon and there was a series of about twenty-five or so tail coats in royal blue velvet with heavy gold embroidery, they came with coordinating white brocade vests and matching breeches. The pieces were all in great shape and I rented those costumes like hotcakes!!!” At auction today such costumes could fetch thousands of dollars each.

It was not long after Eduardo Castro began at Western that he was put in “stock,” putting back all types of costumes and accessories from pirate outfits to Chinese robes to space suits. On the third floor there was an entire wall devoted to stored boxes for a biblical movie, The Story of Ruth (1960). There were so many boxes that it become a lazy way to drop in a costume or item by stock boys or costumers rather than finding the correct location.  When the grand Tutankhamun exhibition came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 1978, the costumers on the third floor decided to decorate their area with an Egyptian theme, using costumes and props. Castro found a special item among The Story of Ruth materials.  He describes what happened next, “So I gathered a few bits and pieces to decorate my office, and I was particularly proud of this one unique gold lame piece, beautifully lined, that I draped over my window. A few days later, Al Nickel who headed the women’s department passed by my office and stood staring at the window I had decorated in absolute shock! He asked me if I knew what the piece was, I confessed I did not know. He said “Young Man !!!, Those are Elizabeth Taylor’s Wings from “Cleopatra” !!!, I have been looking for those for months !!!, Where did you get them?” I told him I found them peeking out of a box marked “The Story of Ruth”.

More changes were coming ahead for the company when its neighbor Paramount Pictures bought out Western in 1988.  But Paramount wasn’t interested in the costume business – they just wanted the land to expand. Accordingly, Paramount sold Western to a business group of three owners, on condition that they move out the collection of costumes within a year. The “Trinity Group” was agent Bill Haber, author Sidney Sheldon, and Paul Abramowitz, the latter serving as president. Soon after, it was costume designer Ann Roth that recommended costumer Eddie Marks to Abramowitz, who appointed him vice-president. Together they moved the contents of Western Costume to 11041 Vanowen in North Hollywood. The last of 34,500 boxes were moved in May, 1990, then the old building on Melrose was demolished. In 1992, Marks became President.

Among its estimated three million costumes, some were treasures no longer suitable to rent or reuse. The company decided to put some of the most valuable costumes up for auction. The costume historian Glenn Brown was enlisted to go through the inventory and select costumes for the auction in July 1994 by Butterfield and Butterfield. He found 300 items, among which were Rudolph Valentino‘s  burgundy and silver coat, likely from his last film, Son of the Sheik (1926), Orson Welles’ coat from Citizen Kane (1941), a set of costumes from the Van Trapp family from The Sound of Music (1965), various Errol Flynn jackets, breeches, and shirts from his swashbucklers at Warner Bros., and an Elizabeth Taylor bustier.  A previous “Star Collection” sale garnered a total of more than $590,000, on the strength of a Vivien Leigh Gone with the Wind costume (the traveling suit she wore as Scarlett during her ride through Shantytown). It sold for $33,350.

The Western Costume Company has demonstrated its role in Hollywood movies’ history. What’s more, it is still in business today, now entering its 111th year of operation.

 

See  https://www.westerncostume.com/1950s-tour-with-bob-moon for a tour of Western Costume in the early 1950s.

*Rhys Thomas, The Ruby Slippers of Oz: Thirty Years Later, Tale Weaver Publishing, 1989. p 63-70.

 

 

THE 10 WILDEST COSTUMES IN FILM HISTORY

Hollywood movies have a rich history of wild and outrageous costumes. My list of the “Ten Wildest” must be prefaced. I did not include show girl, chorine, or musical number costumes. If I had, Adrian would likely have taken all ten slots in his costumes from The Great Ziegfeld, and Ziegfeld Girl.  I also did not include fantasy, fairy tales, superhero, and science fiction movies, which precluded the great costumes from movies such as The Hobbit series, Snow White and the Huntsman,  the Star Wars series, and the fabulous Edward Scissorhands costume.

I did include the  costumes from historical characters on film, and from masked balls, which often depict historical characters, although with a bit of fantasy. Quite a bit as we’ll see later.  The costumes skew to the 1930s. As has been written about elsewhere, so much energy was channeled into the movies as a release from the Depression and other societal pressures. This was especially true for film costume design. Well represented below are the great designers of that field: Adrian; Travis Banton; Walter Plunkett; Edith Head, and Irene Sharaff.

Your own list may be very different than mine. There are many costumes out there to discover. But to start out 2015, here’s my ten wildest costumes of the last century on film. They are arranged in chronological order.

 

Costume Wild Salome Nazimova

1) Alla Nazimova in SALOME. Costume design by Natasha Rambova, 1923

The Biblical story of Salome, the daughter of Herod II and the original femme fatal, is told in this film, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The sets and costumes were designed by Natasha Rambova, the wife and manager of Rudolph Valentino. Even Erte was an admirer of Rambova’s style. She was born in Salt Lake City, and was not Russian. She did dance in the ballet and was very talented. She hired Adrian in New York to design costumes for Valentino, and was responsible for bringing him out to Hollywood with them. This costume was inspired by the book illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley.

 

Costume wild Evelyn Brent_ Slightly Scarlet_gray shades_001

2) Evelyn Brent in SLIGHTLY SCARLET  Costume design by Travis Banton, 1930

Evelyn Brent plays the unwilling accomplice of a jewel thief in Paris and the French Riviera in this caper. She looks like a jewel herself in this Travis Banton “hostess gown.”  The fabric was a sapphire blue chiffon, encrusted with crystal bugle beads. She wears no brassiere, definitely pre-code.

 

 

Costume wild Mme Satan 2

3) Kay Johnson in MADAM SATAN Costume design by  Adrian, 1930

This is a C.B. DeMille directed movie, which has to be seen if only for its Zeppelin Ball and “Ballet Mecanique” sequence. Kay Johnson plays a staid housewife that is losing the attention of her husband and so takes on the persona of “Madame Satan” at a party on a dirigible. The costume designed by Adrian had red sequins on the interior of the cape, flame-cut fabric that went up the bodice, flame shaped gauntlet gloves, and the horned mask. The velvet was not black but a dark purple that registered better on the black and white film.  See below.

 

Costume wild Madam Satan 1

 

 

 

Costume wild Garbo_Mata Hari_color_006

4) Greta Garbo in Mata Hari. Costume design by Adrian, 1931

Certainly one of the most amazing costumes in movie history is this outfit made for Garbo in Mata Hari, its pants were made of gold mesh, the bodice of spruce green colored glass beads, and crystals, with a metallic scull-cap, jeweled-belt, and a bugle-beaded, long-trained skirt. Yet the costume was backless, a typical asymmetrical flourish of Adrian’s, but one showing Garbo’s vulnerability as Mata Hari the spy. Fifteen women worked three weeks to make the costume.

 

Dietrich Coq feathers

5) Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Costume design by Travis Banton, 1932

Marlene Dietrich plays “Shaghai Lilly” in Von Sternberg’s film, playing a regular rider on the Shanghai Express, living by any means possible in China for a woman of her beauty and wits. Travis Banton dresses her to perfection for the role, the picture of allure that only the silver screen and the glamour photography of the era can capture. The black coq feathures, skull cap, and veil, concentrates attention on her face, yet surrounds it in mystery. Still the confidence and the power of glamour radiates from within. The long  string of pearls add sparkle over the black dress. The gloves and bag are Hermes.

 

Costume wild Hepburn Christopher Strong

6) Katharine Hepburn in CHRISTOPHER STRONG Designed by Walter Plunkett, 1933.

Katharine Hepburn played an aviator in this story of complicated love affairs within the Brittish upper classes. This was her first starring role. Here she wears this stunning Walter Plunkett designed costume to a party, The costume’s theme is “the silver moth” taken from “The White Moth,” an early working title for the film. The costume was made from small silver-metallic squares like an airplane would be, and she had a skull cap/helmet with the antennae of a moth. Indeed, she flies too close to the sun.

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 34 1
Photo courtesy Photofest

 7) Claudette Colbert in CLEOPATRA, Designed by Travis Banton, 1934.

Cleopatra was one of the Cecil B. DeMille spectacles, and despite its age, holds up well in its visual and storytelling qualities. The sets are amazing, though very much influenced by the styles of the 1930s, but the same holds true with the later Cleopatra and the influence of the 1960s. Travis Banton’s costumes are magnets for the eye, with essentially simple form-fitting, 1930s silhouettes adorned with Egyptian-chic  accesories. Banton had a series of arguments with Claudette Colbert over the designs for her costumes.  She found them too revealing, with disapproving comments written all over his beautiful costume sketches. He left a second set of costume sketches for her approval, with instructions that she had better either like these or slit her wrists. The next day Banton waited and waited, only to have them returned streaked with dried blood. Furious, Banton left the studio and went on a binge, not returning until several days later when studio head Adolph Zukor called him personally and mediated the situation.

 

Color Cleopatra_1934_3

 

 

 

Costumes wild GWTW
Photo courtesy Photofest

8) Vivien Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND, Designed by Walter Plunkett, 1939.

This is one of the most iconic costumes in movie history. Although the curtain dress was part of the original novel, Plunkett designed it with  much panache, adding its one sided capelet and huge tassled belt. Plunkett picked a green velvet to match Vivien Leigh’s eyes, although he had parts of it faded to look like authentic curtains. Vivien’s hat of velvet and black coq feathers was made by Mr. John. Scarlett wears the costume in crucial scenes as she goes asking for money from Rhett and then runs into Frank Kennedy.

 

 

Costume wilf Grace-Kelly

9) Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF, Designed by Edith Head, 1955

The exquisite Grace Kelly does not play hard to get opposite Cary Grant in this movie where we are kept wondering, is he or is he not a jewel thief, operating on the French Riviera (jewel thieves and the Riviera have a long history in film). This movie has some of Edith Head’s best costumes, and the one above is a knockout. It is worn at a costume party and the plot’s climax, and Grace is wears the mock Marie Antoinette 18th century gown of gold lame, complete with golden birds and a golden wig.

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 63
Photo courtesy Photofest

 

10) Elizabeth Taylor in CLEOPATRA, Designed by Irene Sharaff, 1963.

The last “wild costume” comes from another Cleopatra, and probably the most lavish costume film in history. In fact the production and marketing costs of $44 million (in 1963 dollars) for the movie nearly bankrupted 20th Century-Fox, and halted production on several of the studio’s movies. The number of costume changes for Elizabeth Taylor still holds a record at 65 costumes. The gold costume above and below was made of seed pearls, gold bugle beads, and sequins, including  a cape made of 24-carat gold -covered leather strips, made to look like the wings of a Phoenix.

costume wild Cleopatra Liz
Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

 

If only we still had such Masked Balls.

 

 

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: ART ON FILM

An American in Paris title card 1   An American in Paris was made in 1951 at the very peak of the Hollywood studio system and the pinnacle of Gene Kelly’s artistic career. It was the perfect blend of art and technique in classic American movie-making. MGM had among its employees all the veteran craftspeople and artists that could produce such a film. And as with many great movies, the back-story is as fascinating as the movie itself. In 1950 as the first plans were being made for the film, MGM, and indeed the entire Hollywood film industry, was in  transition. Television was siphoning off viewers and a court-imposed consent decree required studios to sell off their movie theaters. Cost-cutting was now the mantra, and MGM’s expensive musicals were not viewed favorably by its new production head Dore Schary nor by the corporate offices at Loew’s in New York. The old lion Louis B. Mayer, still in charge of studio operations, supported musicals and the planned An American in Parisbut it took a lot of pleading and persuasive pitches to gain the approval of Schary, and then even more to Loew’s corporate head Nick Schenck and his board. And still the threat of budget cuts loomed over the entire production.

This post is part of Silver Scenes’ MGM Bologathon. My post on An American in Paris was previously published in 2012 as part of the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon. An American in Paris title card 2

The famed Arthur Freed was the producer of An American in Paris,and he wanted Vincente Minnelli to direct and Gene Kelly to star and choreograph the film.  Minnelli and Kelly worked very well together and respected each other’s artistic talents. One of the big challenges for the film was the proposed 17 minute-long, wordless ballet and dance sequence  (called the “ballet” in the film’s production).  At the outset, I should say that the ballet sequence was heavily influenced by The Red ShoesPowell and Pressberger’s marvelous film with its own 15 minute-long ballet scene. And it was not just that The Red Shoes’  filmed ballet scenes influenced the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, but also that both film’s ballet sequence has as its purpose the visual depiction of the principal dancer’s interior conflicts and subjective emotions. To his credit, Vincente Minnelli’s  An American in Paris used this influence to produce a complex and deeply artistic film sequence of his own. And Gene Kelly brought to life the character that was an American in Paris – through his acting, choreography, and his unique dancing skills.
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with
his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface

The decision by Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute long dance sequence was bold and risky. Regardless of the success of The Red Shoes, nothing of that scope had been done in an American film. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner. An American In Paris 6

Other than Gene Kelly, the question of who should be cast for An American in Paris was not apparent. While MGM had several great female dancers, Kelly was convinced that a fresh faced and a native Frenchwoman should be cast as Lise Bouvier. And for that role he had seen a 19 year old French ballerina named Leslie Caron that he wanted for the part. This too was a risky move – a major role for a young woman who had never acted. In continuing with the relatively unknown  cast members, Georges Guetary, a French Music Hall singer, was cast as Henri Baurel. For the fellow American expat and starving musician-neighbor, the inspired choice was the concert pianist and wit Oscar Levant, playing the role of Adam Cook. Another fortuitous decision was bringing in costume designer Irene Sharaff. Sharaff was a Broadway designer but had worked for a spell in Hollywood. Minnelli convinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets, which Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, could quickly envision. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?

Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafst.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next.

From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant
From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant

As the film opens, each character as played by Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant and Georges Guetary narrates that the happy characters depicted on screen, “are not me.” Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is a struggling artist that stayed in Paris after WWII. He sells his paintings (sometimes) on a street in Montmartre, where a rich widow discovers him and decides to support him (with strings attached). Oscar Levant as Adam Cook is a struggling pianist, the “oldest former child prodigy.” In a very clever later scene Levant as Cook fantasizes about playing in a symphony, which he is also shown conducting while simultaneously playing several instruments. This take-off of an old Buster Keaton film is still funny, especially since Levant being the only one that truly appreciates himself, also fills the audience with himselves. Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel is the successful singer and entertainer, now worrying about getting older, but  providing the yet unknown rival for the love of Lise. His singing performance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, in classic Hollywood show-girls-down-the-stairs style, is a highlight of the movie. an american in paris guetary A  later dual number of Kelly and Guetary in “S’Wonderful,” where they are still ignorant of their rivalry, is pure joy. But Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is deeply in love with Caron as Lise Bouvier, made beautifully obvious in the “Our Love is Here to Stay” number, their song and dance on the banks of the Seine, here amazingly duplicated on a painted set built around one of the those old MGM “cycloramas” is pure joy. Another scene provides laughs as Levant, sitting between Jerry and Henri while they each describe Lise and how much they love her, oblivious of each other’s common object of affection, all the while nervously smokes two cigarettes and chugs several coffees and whiskies.

A later scene is the wild Beaux Arts “Black & White” Ball, here providing a stark contrast to the disintegrating relationships of the two couples: Jerry Mulligan with patroness Milo (Nina Foch), and Henri with Lise. Henri even overhears Jerry and Lise’s tender, heart-breaking exchanges.

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-rose transition
Jerry spots the rose, which earlier he and Lise had shared and which now symbolizes their love

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.
The Place de la Concorde by Raoul Dufy

The opening scene in the style of Raoul Dufy’s Place de la Concorde becomes Jerry’s  dream world.

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-furies transition

The Furies, dressed in white and then red, beckon Jerry to pursue Lise. Gene Kelly as Jerry is dressed simply in form-fitting clothes, the better to appreciate his dancing and his physique.

An American-in-Paris-gene-kelly- white dancers)

The white furies turn to more intense red furies

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly- Furies

The fountain at the Place de la Concorde serves as the dream dance floor to a united Jerry and Lise, dancing to George Gershwin’s exhilarating and romantic An American in Paris symphonic poem.

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly fontaine

 

A garden painted by Renoir
A garden painted by Renoir

Jerry pursues Lise to the floral backdrop inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, and as they dance, they hold the red rose of love. An American_in_Paris_5 Alas, even in dreams our dreams escape us. Lise has been transformed into flowers, soon to fall from his grasp. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-flowers The background has now turned into the melancholy monochromatic artwork of Maurice Utrillo. Gershwin’s music is also changing to American jazz-inspired melodies. An American in Paris Utrillo sacre-coeur Jerry becomes homesick, as had Gershwin in Paris, which inspired him to add the sounds of American blues and jazz into his musical composition. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Utrillo Jerry’s homesickness is symbolized by his former side-kicks, the U.S. military service-men shown in the scene. They are not quite tangible, the artist’s paint still fresh on their uniforms.

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A Bastille Day celebration painted by Henri Rousseau

The scene turns to the artwork of Henri Rousseau: primitive; wild; and exuberant. Jerry’s service-men are now in dressed in cheerful suits, as is he, with the Pompiers now leading them forward in dance. And now Lise will reappear. An-American-in-Paris Kelly-suits-pompiers     An American in Paris 7 pompiers Here now we enter the more turbulent world of Vincent Van Gogh, the skies of the backdrops painted in swirled colors.

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A Cafe painted by Vincent Van Gogh
The Place de la Concorde again provides the setting for the romantic and sexy dance of Jerry and Lise. The dance transforms into the climax, one of the most beautiful scenes in movie history – a perfect blend of music, dance, romance and art.
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But still the Furies beckon, transforming from red to many shades of yellow and orange.
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The setting now changes to the nocturnal and hallucinatory world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
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A painting of the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec
An American in Paris Chocolat dancing in the 'irish_american_bar', 1896 by Toulouse Lautrec
And now Jerry himself is transformed into one of Lautrec’s characters, a black stage dancer named Chocolat.
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This final ballet scene is the most exuberant yet, and Gene Kelly provides one of his best dance numbers, a masterpiece of choreography, dance, and art. In this cheerful dance he is joined by his dream Lise, taking on the historical dance-hall character of Jane Avril, another Lautrec favorite.
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Deep from his dream he begins to wake, only to realize that Lise is once again just a rose, and his colorful dream-setting turns black and white.
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Only this dream turns into his real dream, and Lise returns, running up the stairs of the real (set) stairs of Montmartre. The final kiss says it all, our love is here to stay.

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The film ends with a title card stating: Made in Hollywood, California. And so it was, where it also received 8 Academy Award nominations and won 6, though none for Minnelli. It won for Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Yet Walter Plunkett, who designed the costumes for the Black & White Ball scene, must have found it ironic, he who had designed Gone With the Wind, the two Little Women ( and the subsequent Singing in the Rain, Diane, Raintree Countee), among scores of others.  This would be his only Oscar, given for a relatively minor designing job.

Today it’s Singing in the Rain that is the crowd favorite and receives the “best musical ever made” accolades. No doubt that Singing in the Rain is the most cheerful and fun movie there is to watch, and the dancing is also outstanding. An American in Paris seems to be considered somehow less worthy because it strove to be art. But there is no more beautiful film ever made, and its integrated combination of music, dance, art, costume, and cinematography is the pinnacle of classic Hollywood film, and a proud achievement of the MGM Studio.