Many Americans dream of living in Paris, surrounded by the lights of the Eiffel Tower with the streets adorned with peonies and the aroma of freshly-baked croissants. If you’re a Française, then you may dream of living in America with the Broadway lights, hamburger stands, and leading Hollywood roles. At least, that’s how it was for French dancer and actress Leslie Caron.
Hollywood has been the home for many actors and singers as well as dancers who could act or sing — or both! Old musicals provided dance numbers, fun songs, and storylines, so it’s no surprise some musical films have became classics. Among popular titles are The Wizard of Oz (1939), An American in Paris (1951), Singing in the Rain (1952), and West Side Story (1961).
Let’s look at the story of one of these films, shall we? Let’s look at the story of An American in Paris by rearranging the words: A Parisian in America. The female protagonist Leslie Caron was a French ballerina who moved to the United States and graced the theater screens with her beauty, her acting, and her French accent. In this Old Hollywood Spotlight, we explore the background story of the dancer and actress Leslie Caron.
Leslie Claire Margaret Caron was born near Paris in Boulogne–Billancourt, France, on July 1, 1939. Her American-born mother had been a ballet dancer, and Caron followed her footsteps by enrolling in dance classes at age 11. At age 18, Leslie Caron arrived in Hollywood with her mother in 1950 after Gene Kelly had spotted her in a French ballet and had cast her for his next film. Still a teenager, Caron was signed with MGM studios, which gave her the star treatment of having makeup, hair, and costume designers as well as speech and acting coaches and dance instructors.
Caron’s first film debut came in 1951 with An American in Paris with Gene Kelly as her costar. The film embraced the young ballerina’s dancing talents throughout and included her speaking only a few lines in English. Despite having an American mother, Caron was not fluent in English, so the film was her introduction to the language and its cinema. Caron then went on to appear in the film Daddy Long Legs (1955) with Fred Astaire.
Another MGM movie followed, this time the drama The Man in the Cloak with Barbara Stanwyck and Joseph Cotten. She did two more musicals (Lili and Gigi) and decided to became an actress and leave her career as a dancer. In Lili (1953) she played a teenage orphan who becomes a part of a puppet act and falls in love with an antisocial puppeteer played by Mel Ferrer. The role earned her two Academy Award nominations.
When she was in her 30s, in her second marriage with two children, Caron was no longer playing the roles of girls but of women. The transition was shown in The Subterraneans (1960), Fanny (1961), and The L-Shaped Room (1962), in which she played more dramatic roles.
By the end of the decade, the dancer turned actress moved back to France, where she appeared in European films and TV shows, including Carola (1973), The Man Who Loved Women (1977), and Le Divorce (2003) with Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. In 2007 she received an Emmy Award for her guest appearance in Law and Order SVU, and in 2009 she got her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to Gene Kelly.
Besides acting, Caron dedicates her time as an innkeeper, turning old buildings in France into restored inns, such as La Lucarne de aux Chouettes.
Leslie Caron was one of the few dancers who became an actress in Hollywood. Knowing little English with no acting experience, the Française gained the admiration of audiences after her performance in An American in Paris. She is currently 85 years old, and she continues to act.