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American In London—Gene Kelly

It’s come at last! The Americans have invaded London. They’ve stormed Grosvenor Square, set up camp, and from all reports the head of the outfit is planning a revolutionary movement to startle the world.

What’s more the British, bless their rolled-umbrellas and bowler hats, are helping them. They’re conspiring like mad to keep the Kellys here as long as possible. They’ve shined up the Tower of London for young Kerry; leased the prettiest house in the Mews to Betsy; and are keeping strictly out of Gene’s hair. All Mr. Kelly wants is to be left alone with his wonderful Invitation To The Dance.

This “hoofer’s dream,” as he calls it, is a. really fantastic project. It will be a technicolored spectacle consisting of four ballet stories danced to four totally different musical moods. The plans have been two years and three continents in the dreaming. Film is rolling through the cameras, but the entire picture is not even yet planned. Kelly claims he is still working “off the cuff.” In fact, impressed but incredulous visitors to the set report, “He is actually making it up as he goes along!”

Far from being haphazard or careless, this daily improvisation is carefully maintained to keep to the spirit of the project. It is an exciting new idea. There will be no dialogue . . . no continuation of story. Each narrative ballet follows a rough plot outline, but the actual performance is dictated only by great dancers’ responses to great musical inspiration.

The first ballet concerns the circus. Kelly dances a clown hopelessly in love with a beautiful tightrope walker. He meets his death trying to impress her. Episode number two is as brilliantly sophisticated as the first is tragic. A diamond bracelet passes from husband to wife, to gigolo, to hatcheck girl, round and round till it gets back to the husband. The third section will follow some modern music. Gene hasn’t yet decided what composer will do the job . . . and consequently hasn’t a glimmer of what form the ballet will take. And those in the know are hinting that the fourth sequence will pattern somewhat after the wonderful cartoon dance in Anchors Aweigh.

Completely honest with himself, Gene Kelly, knows that a movie of nothing but ballet is a tremendous gamble. Many of his gravest doubts were erased, however, the day he received a special Oscar for An American In Paris. In spite of anything he may have said before, or even at the time, he was thrilled to receive it. As a matter of fact, he didn’t quite believe the BBC broadcaster who announced it. It took a recording from Hollywood, and a playback of those familiar voices in the actual ceremony to convince him. It was almost too good to be true. It meant more than personal acclaim. It meant that the public had accepted his ideas; that it was eager to receive the best he could give. It also meant that he could count on all the studio backing he needed.

Although the famous Kelly feet will star in only the “Clown” and “Modern” dances (he may do a “bit” in the jewel sequence) Invitation is really his baby. His heart and imagination will be in every downbeat, in every gesture. He is acting, dancing, choreographing, directing, and inspiring every foot of film.

Naturally, this kind of hard work means that Gene is not overly eager for gaiety and nightlife after studio hours. Much as he loves people, he has no time for parties, clubbing, or even the theater. He just wants to go home, relax, maybe dream up some new ideas.

Country living, though ideal, was out of the question considering Gene’s hectic schedule. No more such idyllic spots as the darling old mill they’d lived in in France. There the great wheels had long since stopped churning water, and were covered with the kind of ivy that only grows on the handsome estates just outside of Chartres. The Moulin de La Roche, 40 kilometers from Paris, was fine while Gene was in the planning stages, but now, with things rolling, the Kellys had to live in the center of bustling London town.

It was no easy job to find a place. Many British homes, no matter how beautiful, look stiff and formal to American eyes. They looked absolutely forbidding to Betsy, remembering her casual California home.

The Kelly family was almost in despair the day they were sent off to somewhere called “the Mews.” The agent, of course, knew it meant a row of coach houses around a “yard.” But Betsy and Gene were delightfully surprised to step into a wide alleyway, with the mews branching off it. There are three soft old brick houses, all identical, on one side of the yard. Three exactly like them are primly mirrored on the other side.

They knew “their” house on sight. It is typically English, but seems to have a touch of California about it. The two upper floors have two bedrooms and a bath each; the first floor has a tavern-type dining room adjoining a spacious living room. The house seemed just tailor-made for an actor.

As a matter of fact, it is. After they’d settled the deal, the agent told them that it is Robert Donat’s town house. Gene noticed at the time that Betsy seemed strangely affected by this news. He thought no more about it, however, until Mr. Donat called on the telephone.

It seems that Donat had left a silver baby spoon in the house, and wondered if Mrs. Kelly would be good enough to find and send it on to him. Mrs. Kelly began blushing like a school-girl.

“Yes, Mr. Donat. Of course, Mr. Donat. I’ll look, Mr. Donat,” she stammered between giggles.

Gene couldn’t believe his ears. When she hung up he accused her of sounding like a teen-aged fan, and did a creditable imitation of her to prove it. It was then that she admitted the awful truth. Long before she was a teen-ager she developed a hopeless love for Robert Donat. She was his A No: 1 fan. And still is.

The second time, she called him. She wanted permission to repaint the dining nook. Mr. Donat was out, but would call back. The living room was filled with friends celebrating Gene’s birthday on August 23rd when the call came. He had alerted them all to the reaction his lovely wife underwent, and Betsy was determined to thwart them. She would maintain womanly poise and dignity. But when her idol’s voice came over the phone, she reverted to type. She giggled and carried on. Gene has never stopped teasing her. And what is worse, she’s afraid they’ll be evicted, on good evidence, as unstable tenants.

This of course, is sheer nonsense. Even the energetic English are impressed by the “ ’ard worker” her husband is. And her daughter, fresh from school in France, is their idea of the perfect visitor.

Kerry Kelly is a delightful child, according to any standard. She is that appealing creature, a shy, well-mannered little girl who is interested in others. Londoners often see Kerry and her mother at London Bridge, the Tower, Westminster or other points of local pride. Kerry looks into all of them. Then she writes full and interesting letters to her many friends at home in California, and her Parisian schoolmates. She learned to speak and write French. beautifully last year. It was her first experience with a private school. At home she attends the neighborhood public school. This year she will again attend private school in England, but the exact one hasn’t yet been chosen.

This switching around educationally is pretty hard for a little girl. First there’s the language problem, but she overcame that wonderfully in Paris. This year, in England, of course, it will be smooth sailing. Then, Kerry sometimes gets a little homesick for her chums in Hollywood.

Betsy suspects that she sometimes gets a little homesick for Dublin, Ireland, too, although Kerry Kelly has been there only once. Here’s how it happened.

After Gene finished making Devil Makes Three in Munich he was ready for a short breather. He and Betsy decided on a week’s holiday in North Africa. They rented a car in Casablanca, and spent a wonderful, non-spectacular seven days casually visiting all the little towns in the French Moroccan area. At least it was non-spectacular for the Kellys. French Morocco may never be the same. They are great movie fans there, which rather surprised Gene. But very respectful ones, standing quietly at a good distance, just looking. (In Germany, it is quite the reverse. Stars are followed around everywhere.)

The vacation was fine, except for one thing. Kerry was in school, and couldn’t come. So her Daddy promised to make it up to her as soon as they got together.

On the very first Bank Holiday after they arrived in London, all the Kellys headed for Dublin. From the moment they started Gene and Kerry were like nine-year-olds. For what Donat does to Betsy, Dublin does for her husband and daughter. The mere name of the place thrills them. They prowled the countryside for hours. They haunted ancient castles. Long before the too short holiday was ended, Gene had instilled the love of Ireland in Kerry. And it looks as if it will remain a life-long romance.

Back in England again, the Kellys set right to work. Gene on the picture. Betsy and Kerry on Operation Birthday. Gene’s birthday falls on August 23rd, and the ladies in the family determined to make a “thing” of it, Kerry became engrossed in a “secret project.” Secret from everyone but her mother, that is. She has fine artistic talent, which has developed wonderfully this past year. She turned out an amazingly good painting for her father’s birthday present. Meantime, she kept encouraging her mother to bake a home-made cake.

Betsy Kelly is an artist in the kitchen. In their early years in Hollywood she did every scrap of her own housekeeping. But baking a cake in London was more of a problem than she’d bargained for.

It wasn’t a matter of getting the ingredients, Great Britain is, of course, on an Austerity Program. But for proper ration coupons, or for visitors, shop-keepers can supply any need. The trouble was mathematics. The English figure recipes in teacups, not the standard American measuring cup. Betsy was as busy with pencil and paper as with egg-beater and flour-sifter. But higher education and a light hand with the pastry were triumphant. The cake was a masterpiece.

So was the party that went with it. The Kellys invited many friends for the occasion. It was a special event indeed, the first major entertainment held by this popular couple.

London finds the Kellys rather unusual. Ordinarily American film stars dash around, seeing and being seen in all the smartest restaurants and elegant salons. The Kellys haunt quite different places. Betsy, for instance, is a familiar figure in the home-furnishing shops. She is personally buying everything for the house, from superb linen and silver to the most humble pot or pan. (Contrary to American custom, English houses have only furniture when let. The renter must outfit it for living.)

Inhabitants of the Mews are accustomed to seeing Kerry at the post-box. Or running down the street to meet a trim young man who walks with athletic stride, deeply absorbed in his own thoughts. Then, she and her father walk to the house together, exchanging news of home happenings, or studio goings-on.

Sundays, the whole family is at home together. Betsy caring for her house and family; Kerry painting; and Gene, notebook in hand, dashing down ideas and sketches for the next day’s work. Or noting an idea forBrigadoon which he will make in Scotland next spring. Or perhaps outlining a completely new scheme. This man is brimming over with ideas which the world will applaud in time, because he has the personal genuis to create them and a family to back him with love and cooperation.

These happy, work-a-day Kellys may be a disappointment to a few autograph-hunting fans in Piccadilly. But the majority of Londoners couldn’t be more charmed with them. For when they invaded the English capital, they invaded British hearts. And they’ll never leave them, no matter where they go from here.





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