The Films That Made Us: An American in Paris (1951)

When I was younger I worked as a projectionist for a mobile cinema. This was the late-1980s, in the north east of England, and the job itself was part of a wider community project aimed at putting people back to work, or, in my case, giving me my first job. I’m not sure when or where the concept of “outreach” was first formulated – I’ve always presumed it to be an American term though a universal idea - but looking back, reaching-out was clearly the goal.

Our audiences were invariably made up of people in residential care homes, though we also screened films in youth centres, church halls, and put on race-nights in social clubs (In possession of the outcome of a race, projectionists weren’t allowed to bet.) So our remit was simple: to entertain and delight. Working in teams of two (there was always a driver-projectionist), we would load up our van with a portable screen, a box of films, 1 x 16mm projector, and 2 x 8mm projectors. We screened documentaries, travelogues and those endlessly re-ran horse races in 16mm; the Westerns, Hollywood musicals, and historical epics that made up much of our programme were in the Super 8 format, an early version of pre-packaged, condensed home entertainment which had become popular in the 1970s prior to the arrival of the VCR. And by condensed, I mean that the films themselves were often abridged.

So An American in Paris (1951)the first film I ever screened - was a three-reeler, which means it was only an hour long, if that, and therefore shy its original running time by at least 53 minutes. Yet despite the missing reels, the story now severely truncated, the film still worked its magic. Perhaps the reason for this was the intrinsic nature of the film’s design: broad in outline (to the point of cliché), radical in execution (it exploded the cliché!), Vincente Minelli and Gene Kelly’s musical is built around a series of high-points culminating in The American in Paris Ballet sequence. I didn’t know it at the time, but that sequence - 17 minutes long, complete in itself – was a response to Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), made only three years before. You could say that it was one film talking to another. And that conversation is ongoing still: Damien Chazelle, whose La La Land is a celebration of the Hollywood musical, has made sure of that.

But back in 1986, film history was still ahead of me (it still is) and I had other things on my mind: we had to project the film (including change-overs) in front of an audience that was watching us, sceptical of our primitive equipment, and perhaps aware of my fledgling, nervous attempt to thread the film. But once the movie started the attention soon shifted to what was on the screen. How could it not? Gene Kelly. Leslie Caron. The explosion of colour and movement. George Gershwin’s glorious music. “Who could ask for anything more?”

[Mick McAloon, General Manager at Curzon Chelsea and Curzon Richmond]

This post is part of The Films That Made Us - click below to read more.

Ryan Hewitt