In the opening voiceover from An American in Paris (1951), Gene Kelly’s character, Jerry Mulligan, neatly parallels Gene’s own thoughts on the subject at hand: “Paris is a mood, a longing you didn’t know you had until it was answered. Paris is like love or art or faith, it can’t be explained, only felt.” (Right: Gene flying high for Air France.)
As I rewatched An American in Paris for the umpteenth time today, it occurred to me that the first thing I loved about Gene Kelly was his love of Paris. I’ve been to Paris only through art, music, poetry, and the final stage of the Tour de France each year, but it is in my heart nevertheless. I believe I fell in love with Paris and France through the same initial channel as Gene Kelly — the language. Kelly had a comfortable mastery of French, which he studied in college along with economics and law. And when he began to realize his destiny as a dancer, he studied French writings on that subject, reading them in their original language in order to appreciate fully what was being said.
Gene Kelly successfully embodied the French esprit in his role as a WWII prisoner of war in the 1943 film The Cross of Lorraine. Later, after WWII, he spent a week in Paris, auditioning hopefuls for roles in the artistic musical tribute to France, An American in Paris. He fell in love with France, and they loved him right back for his earnestness in capturing their sensibility on film as well as his unique combination of vigor and elegance. Case in point: Gene’s homage to Toulouse Lautrec’s artwork in the “American in Paris ballet” (below, top-right).
During the early 1950s, Gene and his wife Betsy, along with their daughter Kerry, lived in London and Paris to take advantage of tax benefits and to afford him the opportunity to make films for MGM using European resources. Later on, he produced, directed, and appeared in several more films set in France as well as composed a jazz ballet for the Paris Opera (below top-left and bottom-right), appeared in advertisements for Air France, and spent time there whenever he could. The language, artistry and way of life in France inspired Gene Kelly and captured his heart. And the French people honored his devotion to their country with two national awards: The Legion of Honor and The Commander of Arts and Literature.
- Hirschhorn, Clive. Gene Kelly. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.
- Yudkoff, Alvin. Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1999.