Gene Kelly, Creative Genius

A personal celebration of his life and work

This page is sheer indulgence for me. I love the fact that Gene lived here in England for a time during the early fifties, in London. He came over to Europe in 1952, in order to take advantage of tax breaks promised by the US government, and to make his long-term dream project, Invitation To The Dance, a reality:  He also made Crest Of The Wave here, but as it was probably one of the less interesting of his films, I will make no boasts about it's being a British production! Parts of Invitation were made at Boreham Wood Studios just outside London.

 

He brought with him Betsy, Kerry, his secretary Lois, Jeanne Coyne and Carol Haney.

They lived in style for a short time, first at the Dorchester, then at the Savoy, two of London’s top hotels. They had a river suite at the Savoy, overlooking the Thames, and no doubt spent time in the American Bar there.

 

I found this article quite revealing, it feels like we can really ‘enter in’ to Gene’s family life during their stay in England.

 

 

Motion Picture magazine January 1953

During the making of Invitation To The Dance

…The Kellys took off for London where the picture was to be filmed…their first thought…was a home of their own. This time it was…an old house in St John’s Wood section of the city.

Winters are penetratingly cold in London and the Kellys depend mainly on coal fireplaces for their warmth. “There is some central heating, as they term it, in the living room and hall,” Betsy explained. “But our other rooms have only fireplaces.”

Kerry was enrolled in a good school nearby, so the question of rationing books was tackled next. In a country where food is scarce to homemakers but more than ample to hotel guests, the Kellys, undaunted and more than anxious to share this problem with other homemakers of England, were busily moving out of their luxurious suite at the Hotel Savoy when we caught up with them.

Instead of variety, the Kellys will be permitted one egg per week and two shilling’s worth of meat per person each week. Coffee and tea are both scarce and expensive….Gene’s secretary and two assistants on the film have thrown in their allotted books and will take their meals with the Kellys; maintaining their own sleeping quarters, of course.

Betsy’s next problem was the choice of a butcher and green grocer with which to register. The choice made, there is no changing or shopping about….

Next, governmental red tape hit Betsy square on when it came to hiring a housekeeper. Anxious to keep alive Kerry’s knowledge of French…Betsy found a woman employed in the Latvian embassy who spoke French and English…Having first registered with the police – even Gene cannot work in England without registering – it became necessary for the maid to write to the Ministry of Labour for a new work permit….Betsy assumed the task…

Of the three Kellys, only Kerry seems a mite homesick…Between Gene and Kerry exists a bond beyond parent and child…Gene and Kerry have found a meeting of minds, as it were, an understanding and pleasure in each other’s company. Together they enjoy the same simple things – steeple rides in the park, a visit to London’s Zoo, or quiet evening walks down narrow winding streets…

At lunch in the studio commissary, ice cream between Nabisco wafers was served. Unmindful of the delicate handling of spoon and fork of the English guests, Gene picked up his ice cream sandwich in his fingers and fell to. “It’s the American way,” he said simply, but the words and gesture conveyed much. At home or abroad it’s his way, the Kelly way, to be simple and simply American. To love his work, his family and above all – his home.

 

In early 1952 they took over a house in Three Kings Yard, just off Oxford Street in central London. It belonged to Robert Donat. It is now part of the Italian Embassy and so there is no access for the public, but I did manage to sneak a picture through the bars of the gate, hoping that no one would come to arrest me!

In an interview with Edward Murrow in 1958, Gene proudly showed off a picture of the house, which Kerry had made for him while they were living there.

 

Screen Stars June 1953

Kerry Kelly is living the life of a little fairy princess…A modern-day genius is her benefactor, and that genius is young, handsome, lovable – and her father; Gene Kelly, and his creative mind and enchanted toes have danced Little Kerry and her mother and himself way round the world.

 Watching Kerry’s eyes light with pleasure at the sight of the colourful change of guard at Buckingham Palace, widen with awe at a close-up view of Big Ben in London…being able to open up exciting and instructive experiences to her, are some of the things that Gene Kelly appreciates about his current assignments in Europe.

“Right now we’re living temporarily in a place that a little girl might well be reading about, starry-eyed, in storybooks if she were back home in Hollywood,” enthused Gene.

The three gay and merry Kellys are living in a Mews house in a place delightfully called Three Kings Yard in London. Like something out of an historical novel, it is a cobbled street, with old-fashioned attached houses on both sides, and an arched exit at the far end that leads into a regular street….

“Living in a place like that,” smiled Gene, “is romantic. It’s different, a new experience…it’s stimulating.”

“I suppose,” I conjectured, “that love feeds on such exciting shared adventures too?”…

“Sure,” he said, “it’s natural for a couple to feel that much closer when they’re discovering lots of new and fascinating things together. Gives ‘em a lot to talk about,” he grinned.

 

Motion Picture & Television  January 1953

The slide in the park was steeply curved and the squeals of delight coming from the little girl wedged firmly between her father’s knees brought smiles to the faces watching below. There was something about the pair – the striking resemblance perhaps or their uninhibited way of giving in to the fun – that fascinated London’s visitors to Basttersea’s public park.

“Let’s do it again, Daddy,” the little girl begged when the fun was over, and Gene Kelly with his 9-year-old Kerry by the hand, bought another round of tickets. Gene, on a Sunday off from his strenuous work at MGM’s Elstree studios outside London, was spending the day exactly as he would at home – with Kerry.

 

Modern Screen December 1952

American In London

It’s come at last! The Americans have invaded London…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...

Country living, though ideal, was out of the question considering Gene’s hectic schedule…

It was no easy job to find a place. Many British homes, no matter how beautiful, look stiff and formal to American eyes…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 delighted 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…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 seemed 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 schoolgirl.

“Yes, Mr Donat. Of course, 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 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…

Back in England again, [following a trip to Dublin] 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 decided 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…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 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 note-book in hand, dashing down ideas and sketches for the next day’s work. Or noting an idea for Brigadoon which he will make in Scotland next Spring. Or perhaps outlining a completely new scheme. This man is brimming with ideas which the world will applaud in time, because he has the personal genius 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.

 

There is a pub called the Star Tavern in the heart of Belgravia – probably the most exclusive area in London – which Gene frequented, along with many other US and British actors. It probably looks much the same now as it did then, tucked away in a tiny mews, where there were no prying eyes or autograph hunters. It has a bizarre claim to fame. There was a great British train robbery in the sixties, and it was plotted inside the Star Tavern. Not when Gene was there!!

 

 

 They were in London at the time of our Queen’s coronation, June 1953. Both Betsy and Gene have spoken of that day. It was raining and they had to get through a crowd of thousands of people waiting to see the procession. Someone recognised Gene and the crowd started to sing Singin’ In The Rain, and made a path for them, with Kerry also, to run through. Gene said it beat anything he had experienced in all his years in show business, and Betsy has also said how special it was, that the English had taken him to their hearts as lovingly as the Americans had.

After that, Gene said that the English could "do no wrong”.

Gene talks movingly about that experience in an interview with Andre Previn in 1986, which can be found on the 'I could talk about' page.

 

Timesonline. July 2008

Betsy:  We had a house near Hyde Park and Gene’s agents invited us to watch the Coronation Day parade. We had a ten-minute walk, but it was so crowded it was taking us a while. Then there was a shower and someone saw us and started singing Singin’ in the Rain. The whole crowd joined in and then cleared a path for us. We ran and skipped and got to the door of the building, where Gene smiled and did a little pirouette.”

 

Inspiration For Dancing. 1953 magazine article, by Helen Gould

This year and a half has been filled with important work that may put Gene Kelly in a class by himself among Hollywood artists. It has also been a year and a half of family life with his wife and their little girl, Kerry, close to him all the time…Gene considers…that she has undoubtedly gained something from this stay in Europe…the Kellys spent half their time in Paris and half in London…their home was in Free [Three] Kings Road. Later, when Robert Donat needed his house again…they took one opposite Buckingham Palace. Betsy calls it “the back end of the palace,” but actually it faced the garden, with a superb view. They lived there until they returned to Hollywood.

 

 Gene has talked of a trip he made with Kerry up the river Thames in a cruiser, seems like it was a memorable holiday for them. At weekends the family and friends would visit the Olde Bell at Hurley, or the Compleat Angler at Marlow, both on the Thames. He has spoken of his love of the English countryside, including the Cotswolds and the Lake District.

 

Motion Picture magazine 1954

After Crest was finished Gene came as close to complete relaxation as he has ever known. “With Betsy and Kerry, Lois and assorted friends I hired a launch and cruised up and down the Thames, stopping for tea at interesting old towns, cooking lunch on the lush river banks, staying in a different inn every night. It was great fun.”

  

 

August 17, 1953, St. Petersburg Times  

Gene Kelly slipped away from Britain very quietly on a BOAC plane by booking the seat in the name of Mrs. F. Kelly.

 

Movieland 1954. Busy, Busy, Busy.

Kerry, at eleven-and-a-half, is a travelled young lady…How did she adjust – after the year and a half that the Kellys lived and worked in Europe?

“Like a homing pigeon,” laughs Gene. “European schools are more stringent; she likes it better here. She learned French and skiing abroad; it was exciting, and she acquired a lot. But her friends are still at the school. Like us, she likes to be back.

 

Following their return to The States in 1953, Gene made frequent visits to England, and even to Scotland while looking for locations for Brigadoon.

 

He appeared on (more than once) and hosted (in 1983) the Royal Variety Show, a huge yearly charity Gala in the presence of the Queen.

 

Hirschorn records these words of Gene:

“I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I, for no particular reason, felt hostile towards the ‘limeys’ when I first visited England in 1947. But I realised I was wrong. My eighteen months in England convinced me of that.”