Had she not heeded the emphatic, nonnegotiable edict of her iron-willed mother, we might have met Leslie Caron in 1950's "The Black Rose," playing a comely concubine fleeing the harem of Tartan warlord Orson Welles for the welcoming arms of Tyrone Power.
"How did you know that?" Caron squealed in amused amazement Jan. 15 when she met the press in the lobby of Broadway's Palace Theatre, where the role that did mark her film bow is — courtesy of Leanne Cope — still alive and well and kicking up a storm.
Mama Caron could quick-read trash: "That script's ridiculous. You're not doing it." Happily, her mother stood her ground, so Caron stayed the course at Roland Petit’s Ballet des Champ-Elysses company in Paris, where in April 1948 Gene Kelly spotted her Sphinx in a ballet version of the painting "Oedipus and the Sphinx" and was awed.
The memory of all that lingered on in Kelly's mind, marinating for two years, and eventually returned to him when he needed a leading lady for "An American in Paris." Marge Champion refused to go Gower-less, and Cyd Charisse got pregnant, so his mind drifted back to that young, elfin creature who was French and danced.
On June 3, 1950, Caron arrived in Hollywood — mother in tow — without any kind of command of English, to begin her Hollywood career. Everybody thinks that it was "An American in Paris." The reality was that it was "A Frenchwoman in Culver City."
Kelly, who managed to get three great days of New York location-shooting into "On the Town," had the radical idea of actually filming "An American in Paris" in Paris, but the studio shot that down. Only two authentic shots of Paris made it into the finished film. Everything else was shot on MGM's Culver City backlot where E. Preston Ames fashioned 44 Oscar-winning facsimiles of France.
Maurice Chevalier almost signed up for the role of her benefactor, but bowed out when informed he wouldn't get the girl, so Caron got Georges Guetary. They were as Gallic as "An American in Paris" got. Throughout the film, she practically bubbled with infectious French charm, but it was a far and desperate cry from what she was truly feeling.
"Working for the camera was exhausting," she admits. "In ballet, you never wear your ballet shoes eight hours in a row, but I often did during the shooting. Also, I'd been so undernourished during the war I had anemia when I arrived in Hollywood."
Fortunately, her discoverer proved a genuine Galahad. "When I came down with mononucleosis while we were filming, Gene spoke to the studio and said, 'She's got to rest. She can work one day, but she must rest the next.' He was adamant about it.
"Yes, he was a hard taskmaster — and, sometimes, a tease. He used to call me 'Lester the Pester' — but with fondness. He was a very good friend and helped me in many, many ways. His house was always open on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons."
The great optical effect in An American in Paris is the fleeting illusion that the young Caron is still on pointe, pirouetting on all cylinders through the show — a persistent thought that crosses one's mind every time Cope flashes her wide, dazzling smile.
"Nobody had ever said anything about me looking like Leslie Caron until I got this show, and now that's all they say when I leave the stage door," Cope notes. "But there is something similar. Leslie and I were talking about it last week. I think it's because we're both gigglers. When I'm nervous, I giggle. When I'm happy, I giggle. And being in this position, I can't help but be happy. I feel the glow of this show."
These two Lise Dassins — the film original and her stage equivalent 65 years later — crossed paths a year ago by chance during Cope's four-month break between the Paris premiere and the Broadway production. They met in line getting tickets to see Cope's husband, Paul Kay, perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland at the Royal Opera House in London. "Very unlike me," says Cope, "I just went up to her, and we started chatting. Then, we went for tea, and she gave me endless advice about how to keep yourself motivated and how to get through an eight-show week."
But it wasn't until last Jan. 12 that Caron actually saw her star-making part done by Cope. There were frayed nerves in both camps. "I just wanted to make Lise as relatable and as personable as Leslie did in the film," Cope says. "The storyline for our show is slightly different from the film, so there was no way I could be a paper cut-out of her. I just wanted her to approve of my Lise, and it appears that she does."
Though thoroughly braced for the intense déjà vu ahead, Caron found it much more potent than she had imagined. The first sight of Cope in the postwar victory ballet, she said, gave her chills — and a double flashback. Not only did she see Lise, she saw her own 14-year-old self. "Leslie lived through the Paris Occupation when she was a teenager," Cope points out. "She was seeing Leslie in our opening ballet, walking through the streets of Paris, with German soldiers and Nazi flags hanging from every window. That opening scene, I think, brought the show really close to her heart."
Certainly, her reality was closer to Craig Lucas' stage adaptation than to the fluffier plot originally concocted for the film. Grumbled Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, "Kelly's the one who pulls the faint thread of Alan Jay Lerner's peach-fuzz script into some sort of pattern of coherence and keeps it from snapping in 100 pieces and blowing away." Still, it held the Gershwin evergreens in place and got the Oscar.
"I think the new version carries the stories deeper and farther," Caron contends. "It gives a better, more realistic view of Paris at that time. In 1950, Hollywood was extremely loathe to show anything dramatic or realistic. They preferred everything to be in Technicolor, so I approve, and appreciate, the darker tones in this musical."
And it was plain she approved of any Cope/Caron echos. "I saw something of what I used to be like," she says rather wistfully. "Leanne has so much going for her. She's so accomplished. She can sing, she can act, and, of course, she's a great dancer. Every member of the corps de ballet is a good dancer. They all look great — slim — and the toe work is very, very good. There is such gorgeous dancing up there on that stage."
At 84, the innocent gamine who once needed protection has evolved into a tiny tower of graceful strength, much like the diminutive dictator Maria Ouspenskaya played to Vivien Leigh’s ballerina in "Waterloo Bridge," and the young stars of An American in Paris buzzing about her at the press conference — Robert Fairchild, Cope, Max von Essen, Veanne Cox and Brandon Uranowitz — seconded that motion. She was the dowager queen, crowned by a shock of white hair that framed her face.
Even set designer Bob Crowley's cubist overhaul of the film’s classic centerpiece — a climactic 18-minute ballet in which Kelly and Caron cavorted against backdrops suggesting Dufy, Manet, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh and, Caron’s favorite, Toulouse-Lautrec — went down well with the actress. "It made me think of the ballet Diaghilev made called Le Train Bleu. Picasso did the stage curtain and Chanel the costumes."
The film's sequence took a half million dollars to make and a full month to shoot. It's still hailed as a highpoint in MGM musicals. "At the time it was made," Caron recalls, "the whole of Hollywood thought it'd never work. 'A 20-minute ballet at the end of a film is a killer!' 'It's going to drown the film! You can't finish a film like that!' It took a lot of guts for Arthur Freed, the producer, and Vincente Minnelli, the director, to continue in the face of that. I'm tremendously proud that a movie we did so many years ago lives on as film and, now, has a second life with this remarkable show."