‘An American In Paris’ musical leads to the wit of Oscar Levant

By Calvin Palmer

Musicals as a form of entertainment hold little appeal for me. To have characters carrying on a dialogue and then suddenly bursting into song, and often a dance routine as well, seems so unrealistic.

Opera is an entirely different matter. It is singing all the way and with the added bonus of some of the finest music that has ever been written. Also opera stars can sing and hit all the notes as they are written.

So why did I sit through An American In Paris on the Turner Movie Classics channel the other night? Is it a sign that I am losing it once and for all, a portent of my decline into old age?

Frankly, I was stressed. Earlier in the day, I had received some distressing news from the UK and I just wanted something to keep my mind occupied and sad thoughts at bay.

And, as musicals go, it isn’t the worst one that has ever seen the light of day. The music of George Gershwin helps lift it to a higher plane among the genre.

The 16-minute ballet finale also struck me as being ahead of its time. Had someone involved in the choreography been experimenting with mind-altering drugs? It seemed almost trippy. At the time the film was released, 1951, a trip meant a journey from one place to another. People would take a trip to London, Paris or New York. It would take another decade before the word trip gained a whole new meaning.

After having watched one of these old movies, I tend to look it up on Google and Wikipedia gives me all the background details. More often than not I also check out the biographies of the stars.

I discovered that Greer Garson was British, after watching Mrs Miniver, and that her co-star Walter Pidgeon was Canadian.

In the case of An American In Paris, I checked out  the biography of Oscar Levant who plays the part of struggling concert pianist Adam Cook. Prior to the seeing the film, Levant had never registered on my cinema radar.

Levant was a pianist and composer in real life.  He had studied under Arnold Schoenberg and had written scores for more than 20 films.

His career later moved to radio and TV, hosting The Oscar Levant Show from 1958 to 1960 before it was taken off the air because of his comments about Mae West’s sex life.

Dear Oscar was something of  a wit and his Wikipedia entry concludes with some of his famous quips. One of them seared into my soul:

It is not who we are but what we fail to become that hurts.

Another Levant quote made me smile.

Leonard Bernstein is revealing musical secrets that have been common knowledge for centuries.

Ouch!!!

A few nights later, Leslie Caron, one of the stars of An American In Paris, cropped up again on the TMC channel in the musical Gigi.

I remember my parents had the EP of Gigi that used to be cranked out on an old record player. An EP was the size of a vinyl single but contained four or five tracks rather than just two. I have to admit that, as a child, I thought The Night They Invented Champagne was brilliant. I had a lot to learn in those days.

I caught the song in the movie. It didn’t quite have the same affect as it did 50 years ago, proof positive that my musical education has progressed over the years.

On Sunday night, the TCM channel featured My Fair Lady. I can well remember when it was released in 1964, my parents, aunts and uncles oooing and aaahing, thinking it was the best film ever made. With Beatlemania sweeping both sides of the Atlantic, and the British pop scene in full swing, My Fair Lady  just didn’t cut it.

The only thing that stops me from instantly flipping channels when it comes on TV is the delectably gorgeous Audrey Hepburn.

I have to confess to liking the song I Could Have Danced All Night.  Well, it is such a catchy and up tempo tune. I have another confession. I also liked Kathy Kirby’s cover of Secret Love, released in 1963.

I didn’t sit and watch My Fair Lady but caught a few minutes here and a few minutes there. I left it on while I worked in the office but as soon as I heard I Could Have Danced All Night strike up, I went back to the TV set. But as I watched the number something seemed wrong, even if I am smitten by Audrey Hepburn. She didn’t appear to be actually singing. I don’t ever remember any mention of her ever having a wonderful singing voice.

I went back to Google and Wikipedia once the number had finished. My suspicions were right. Hepburn’s singing was deemed inadequate and her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon.

It seems a little odd to cast someone to star in musical when they cannot sing but I guess that’s Hollywood for you. Never let an absence of a particular talent stand in the way of box office takings. Remember Clint Eastwood singing in Paint Your Wagon. I rest my case.

I will leave the final word to Oscar Levant who once remarked:

Strip away the false tinsel from Hollywood and you find the real tinsel inside.

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Filed under Cinema, Film, Movies, Music

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