Leslie Caron admits she was a bit of a snob when she came from Paris to Hollywood more than 50 years ago to star with Gene Kelly in the 1951 MGM musical “An American in Paris.” For one thing, the teenage ballet dancer wasn’t impressed with Los Angeles.
“I thought compared to Paris it was very unsophisticated,” she recalls. “There were no theaters. Everybody was asleep by 9 p.m. There was no night life. There is so much going on in Paris every night.”
Despite her initial misgivings, “An American in Paris” made Caron an overnight sensation. With her ballet training, she brought an elegance and grace to the more jazz-oriented dance numbers in the film. She had a wonderfully fresh, innocent screen persona and even managed to soften Kelly’s brashness.
Rick Jewell, associate dean of the USC School of Cinema-Television, says that Caron was able to match Kelly step by step. “To me, she and Cyd Charisse were the two dancers who could match up with him best. I always felt she just complemented him.”
She went on to star in such classics as “Daddy Long Legs” (1955), “Gigi” (1958), and “Fanny” (1961) and received best actress Oscar nominations for “Lili” (1953) and “The L-Shaped Room” (1963). Along the way there were several marriages--including one to British director Peter Hall--and a well-publicized affair with Warren Beatty, with whom she appeared in 1965’s forgettable “Promise Her Anything.”
Petite and sporting a pixieish short haircut, the still-gamin 70-year-old Caron was in town recently to discuss her participation in the “American Masters” documentary “Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer,” airing Tuesday on KCET.
By now, Caron is very much a seasoned Hollywood pro. She knows how to conduct herself in interviews. She helps the photographer achieve the right lighting for her portrait. She’s charming and remarkably candid.
This late afternoon, Caron is holding court in a vintage suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, her favorite haunt in Los Angeles. “This is where I first descended, that is why I love it so much,” she says, smiling. “MGM put me here.”
Growing up in the “intellectual part of Paris” near the Sorbonne, Caron began taking ballet lessons at age 9. Seven years later, she was a member of the Ballets des Champs-Elysees. “It was the most avant-garde and sophisticated company [in Paris],” she says. “It was the modern ballet company in all of Europe.”
She had been with the company for a year when Kelly caught her performing the role of the Sphinx in “Oedipus and the Sphinx.” “I understand he came backstage but I had gone home to bed,” Caron says, laughing. “I didn’t know about this ritual of waiting in your dressing room for people to come and shake your hands and say, ‘Marvelous, darling.’”
Besides, she says, she didn’t have a clue who Kelly was. A year passed before she met the musical comedy star. “I met him at the Hotel George V,” she says. “He made me read a little bit and said, ‘Tomorrow let’s make a test.’ So I did it and then forgot all about it. I can’t say I was dying to become a movie star. It wasn’t in my plans. Then one day there was a phone call.”
Three days later, she found herself a Parisian in Los Angeles.
“I was sad to leave my friends at the ballet,” Caron says. “Hollywood didn’t mean anything to me. I was strictly a ballet dancer and I had so much to learn. I must say [films] became exciting, but not on the first film.
“The first film [‘American in Paris’] was hard work. I don’t want to say it was hostile, but unfriendly because I wasn’t used to working in front of the camera and on cement floors.
“I wasn’t used to express myself with talking and acting,” she continued. “It had to be learned and it was all hard.”
Caron was so shy she did all of her scenes with her back turned to the lens. Finally, Kelly gave her some advice. “Honey, if you want your mother to see you in this film, turn your face to the camera.”
During the production, she lived behind the electrical works at the studios, “in the section where the workmen lived because I was really paid very little.”
She also was suffering from mononucleosis during the filming. “I was very young, and it was very hard work and enormous responsibility,” Caron says. “I wasn’t really taken care of. At that age, you don’t have the self-assurance to say, ‘Listen guys. that’s it for day.’”
Directed by Vincente Minnelli and featuring the standards of George and Ira Gershwin, “An American in Paris” finds Kelly playing a struggling painter in the City of Light who falls in love with a young shop clerk (Caron). The Technicolor production, which won the best film Oscar, is best known for its climactic “American in Paris” ballet sequence that is still one of the most sumptuous numbers ever presented on screen.
The “American in Paris” ballet alone took six weeks to rehearse. “We had a whole ballet company put together,” she says. “We had a ballet master who would come in the morning and do the class. The whole film took about eight months to film.”
Kelly was a “great, great partner,” Caron says, but as a choreographer, he was pragmatic. “There was no time to teach me,” she says. “With his assistant, Carol Haney, he asked me to show him everything I could do well, all my advantages. I was very good at extension. He would use all the things that I could do well.”
While making “An American in Paris,” Caron fell in love with acting and asked the studio about doing straight acting parts. “I immediately started taking lessons,” she says. Before “An American in Paris” was released, the studio put her in a drama, “The Man With a Cloak,” opposite Joseph Cotten, and a drama with jazz music, “Glory Alley.”
She admits that she tried to break her contract with MGM. “I wanted more freedom,” she explains. “I would have liked to continue on the stage and couldn’t. That was painful, but on the other hand, I started taking acting lessons.”
It wasn’t until she did “Lili” in 1953 that she felt comfortable in front of the camera. In the charming drama with music, she plays a French waif who ends up working at a puppet show in a traveling carnival. “I enjoyed playing that character and I didn’t pay much attention to what people were thinking. I was happy.”
But the MGM brass wasn’t. “I found out at the end of the film the whole studio thought, ‘My god, poor Leslie. What happened to her?’ Talk about pitiful-looking. No glamour.”
Even “American in Paris” producer Arthur Freed visited her on the set one day to offer his regrets. “He said, ‘Leslie what have they done to you? I brought you to Hollywood and made you glamorous and look what they are doing to you. I have got to save your career. Is there another film you would like to do?’”
Caron mentioned a few projects; Freed, though, wasn’t interested in any until she brought up Collette’s story of “Gigi.”
“He said, ‘Oh I’ll get back to you on that.’ That is what triggered ‘Gigi'--he felt sorry for me.”
During production of “Lili,” Caron was ordered to forgo the plain-Jane appearance. “I was told, ‘You have to have makeup and curly hair and high heels,’” she recalls. “I was beside myself with despair.”
So she left the set and went to see MGM studio head Dory Schary to lodge a complaint. “I was half crying,” she says. “I said if I play her with curls and makeup, it’s not going to be the same character and the story is going to be lost. He said, ‘What film are you doing?’”
Caron informed him that it was “Lili.”
“He told me: ‘Do whatever your little heart wants.’ So I went to back to the set and told the producer he said I could do it the way I wanted. Everybody was angry with me because I had stopped the production and got my way.”
Since she was under contract, Caron generally had little say in her projects. “The studio was like a big factory,” she says. “You learned [about your roles] in the trades.” That’s how she learned MGM was loaning her to 20th Century Fox in 1955 to star opposite Fred Astaire in “Daddy Long Legs.”
“I really loved dancing with Fred,” Caron says. “He was in fabulous shape before, during and after a film. Gene wasn’t in shape between films. Gene would let himself go, so it was a hard effort for him to [get back into shape]. Fred was always in good shape. He was a natural dancer. He had muscles like a rabbit. He never got out of breath. He would do a whole number like ‘Slewfoot’ and I would be [panting] and he was [fine].”
Caron, who lives in Paris, has continued to act. Although the parts haven’t been as meaty as during her 20s and 30s, she appeared in such miniseries as “QBVII,” “Master of the Game” and “The Man Who Lived at the Ritz” in the 1970s and ‘80s. She had a small part in Francois Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women” (1977). She has also starred on the European stage and headlined the national tour of the revival of “On Your Toes” in 1984.,
More recently, she appeared as the widow Madame Audel in “Chocolat” (2000) and in the 2001 TV remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.” She also has a country inn at Auberge, La Lucarne aux Chouettes, that consists of four restored boathouses built centuries ago on the river Yonne.
She doesn’t dance anymore but keeps fit walking her young Jack Russell terrier, Toto. “He’s a little devil,” Caron says, laughing. “Very often I have to run after him.”
Although her career has lasted for half a century, Jewell always felt a bit sad that Caron came to Hollywood toward the conclusion of the Hollywood studio system. “She got to the party awfully late,” he says. “Musicals were in decline. I guess another way of looking at it is the old ‘glass full/glass empty’ idea. At least she made it before it was all over, and certainly she is an important part of the end of the great era of American musicals.”
“American Masters: Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer” airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KCET; it repeats next Sunday at 4 and 9:05 p.m.
Susan King is a Times staff writer.