By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 17, 2020 at 10:30 AM EST
John Springer Collection

Paris is always a good idea…

That line might be from another classic film, but it still applies to An American in Paris, which returns to theaters this January to kick off the 2020 TCM Big Screen Classics Series. Presented by Fathom Events and TCM, the series brings classic films to the big screen so audiences can enjoy them as they were originally intended to be seen.

Leslie Caron made her screen debut opposite Gene Kelly in the Best Picture winning musical. Starring as Lise Bouvier, an enchanting and culturally enlightened young French woman, Caron danced her way into Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan’s heart — and the audience to boot. Featuring the music of George Gershwin, the film memorably concludes with a remarkable 17-minute ballet, still considered one of the triumphs of its genre.

Ahead of An American in Paris’ return to theaters on Jan. 19 and 22 (check the Fathom Events website to find where it’s playing near you), EW called up Caron for an exclusive chat about her memories making the film, why she believes it has endured, and the long reach of the projects it’s inspired, including recent hit La La Land.

“It’s a great pleasure to still be talking about An American in Paris,” she reflected to EW about the project’s return to theaters. “I wish to God Gene [Kelly] was still there. Gene was such an inspiration. [Director] Vincente Minnelli was such a darling man with such a passion for doing beautiful things. I wish they were here to appreciate the immense success that their work still has.”

Caron was a complete newcomer to Hollywood when she starred in An American in Paris, plucked by Gene Kelly from the stage after he saw her dance with the Roland Petit company Ballet des Champs Elysées. It launched a film career for the French dancer, including memorable turns in Gigi, Lili, and an Oscar-nominated performance in The L-Shaped Room. But for so many, she will always be Lise, the charming ballet dancer who captured Gene Kelly’s heart. Caron remembers her work on the film as at first, intimidating, but ultimately, grand fun — even if her ballet costumes back in Paris were more impressive.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: An American in Paris was your screen debut – how intimidating was it for you to come in and find yourself in that world?
LESLIE CARON: It’s the fact that I was used to performing in front of the public and the silence of the movie set when they start. When the director says, “Roll ’em and action,” it is so quiet. I found myself in front of a piece of metal and that is what froze me at first. I found it very difficult working in front of a piece of metal. Little by little, I got accustomed to feeling the reaction of the crew and the director. And I even got to enjoy working for this piece of metal — the camera.

The story of how you were discovered when Gene Kelly saw you dance is so remarkable. How aware were you of his star power? Were you familiar with his career?
No, no, no, I’d never heard him. During the war, we had no contact with America. And this was soon after the war. I had never heard of him or seen his films.

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Was he very demanding as a choreographer and dancer on set? Or no more so than what you were already used to at the ballet?
He was by no means the most demanding ballet master I had. Roland Petit, with whom I was working at the time, was infinitely worse.

When he chose you and asked you to come over, what was your reaction? Where was there hesitation? Were you excited?
I was not really excited, because I really loved being in the ballet company. I loved the company. We had enormous success wherever we went. It was the first French company that came around Europe after the war. We were acclaimed everywhere we went. I didn’t know anything about the fame of Hollywood. I wasn’t movie struck at all. My mother, who was born American. enjoyed seeing American films after the war. Her favorites were Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. So, we had seen a a few American films, but otherwise Hollywood didn’t mean anything to me.

You also have many beautiful costumes. Was there one in particular that took your breath away when you first saw it?
Well, don’t think for a minute that I wasn’t used to beautiful costumes. My first costume was designed by Christian Dior! When I was 16, my first costume was done by Dior. Don’t forget that I was coming from Paris. I was no country bumpkin. Some of the costumes were lovely, but frankly, we had great costumes in our ballet company.

I read a story about how censors kept insisting you tone down a number with a chair in the “Dancing” sequence. Can you tell me more about that and what the problem was?
Gene Kelly had an assistant called Carol Haney. She was a very sensual dancer, and she worked a lot on the choreography with Gene Kelly. She taught me that number and all I did was imitate her movements. I must admit — it was rather sexy looking. However, I was only dancing with a chair. But the person from the censorship bureau thought that the number looked too sexy. Gene was asked to make me do it again and tone down the sex appeal of it. But what could go on with a chair? Not very much.

The final ballet very famously brings to life some iconic paintings, and the entire film kind of evokes that – who is your favorite painter who the film pays homage to?
I was particularly taken by the one [paying homage] to Renoir. I did love the whole ballet. I thought it was beautifully done. And of course, I simply adored dancing. The most magnificent thing about making An American in Paris was dancing to the music of Gershwin. I thought that was spectacular — that was grand music and learning to do modern dancing was what thrilled me the most.

Were you a big fan of Gershwin’s music already? Or were you not familiar with it?
No, I didn’t know anything about jazz. That was completely new. Although there was very good jazz in Paris at the time, but I was strictly with classical ballet. Until that film, I never did anything on jazz that so that was the really thrilling thing about the film. I thought that music was fabulous. I love everything about jazz and and all the great composers of jazz whether they were Cole Porter or Gershwin. That’s what I was really extremely taken by.

There’s this added component of singing, and at that time, it was quite popular to dub people. What was the process of like of reaching a final decision on that?
Oh, no, no, there never was a question of me singing. I was extremely shy about my voice and couldn’t possibly imagine singing. Gene tried to push me into trying to sing but I was very, very shy about singing. You must remember that ballet is totally silent. Acting with the voice was already a great novelty for me. And I couldn’t speak English of course. So, all of that was extremely difficult and new and a little forbidding. But when it comes to singing I I never thought that I could.

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Why do you think the film has endured as it has?
I am so impressed about the fact that I’m still being questioned about the film many many decades after making it. I think [it’s] quality and enthusiasm — the enthusiasm of everyone involved, from Arthur Freed, the producer, to Gene Kelly and to every single person involved with the film. We all thought we were doing something magnificent. When you work on Gershwin’s music, it’s just the top. It’s just the best, and you consider yourself really lucky to be doing something that is so remarkable.

Original movie musicals went away for awhile, but are tentatively starting to return. Why do you think they fell out of favor?
Oh, because of money, money, money. Just money. I mean, we were all under contract with very small salaries. So were the musicians, so were the creatives in every department. Doing a musical is immensely expensive — so many talented people are involved. When actors started having big salaries and also writers, everything followed. It just became prohibitive. So, from that moment on, studios would only film the well-tried musicals, the ones that have succeeded on Broadway. Otherwise, they would not embark on such a big expenditure.

Why do you think it’s important we continue to have new ones and not just adapt stage material?
Well I don’t think the situation is changing. It’s still too expensive to make musicals and find the talent to perform. It’s hard enough to make something like James Bond with all the tricks and explosions, but with musicals, the actors have to sing, dance, perform, look good. The story has to be attractive, so many things have to be so quality. It’s really a very dicey enterprise. I quite understand why musicals are only done from well-tried stage musicals.

La La Land really drew on the imagery of An American in Paris – what did you think of it?
I liked it, but then I am not somebody who thinks that only professional ballet dancers should play dancers you know. I love to see amateurs dancing. I love Billy Elliot. I love films about non-dancers, so I really liked the film and I thought the acting was very good. I know a lot of people said, “They don’t look as good as you all did in An American in Paris,” but I don’t think it’s necessary to be a top tap dancer or to have lots of gimmicks. I love non-dancers.

Dale Robinette/Black Label Media/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Did you recognize that it was drawing on An American in Paris while watching it?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. I can spot where the inspiration comes from, whether it’s a musical or straight film. After you’ve seen so many hundreds and hundreds of films, the very particular things that make a film unique usually stick to your mind. When it’s used again, when it’s copied, you can’t help remembering where it comes from where the inspiration comes from.

Lastly, there is a stage production of An American in Paris now. What do you think of it?
I liked it very much. But I was extremely surprised when people involved in that production said, of course, [Lise] lost her parents because of the Jewish situation. I just fell down on the floor. It had absolutely not occurred to any of us during the film. This is something very modern that the world became aware of, little by little, after the end of the war. But in the 1950s, when we started, the plight of the Jews during the war was absolutely not in people’s minds. It took many many, many, many years for survivors of the Shoah to come and tell their stories. An American in Paris, as we did it, was infinitely more innocent and youthful in a way. We were a bunch of young people. The oldest person involved in the film can’t have been over 40, except perhaps the producer Arthur Freed. But there was a sense of youth in the working of it, and the whole thing was done with a lot of giggles and a lot of fun. Gene Kelly — he may have been demanding, but he was full of fun. Perhaps this is something that you have to remember when you start in film. The main thing is enthusiasm and fun. Going to work in the morning, even though I was quite sick doing the film and even though I couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t act and I did many things I didn’t know, nevertheless, the whole adventure was really thrilling.

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