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Gene Kelly: Rare Photos of a Song and Dance Legend in Paris

Rare photographs of Gene Kelley in France in 1960, creating a ballet for the storied Paris Opera.

Talented song and dance men have hoofed it across the silver screen almost since movies were born, but of those who earned fame during the Golden Age of Hollywood, only three stand out as genuine legends: Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Gene Kelly.

Astaire, of course, is the paragon of onscreen elegance; Cagney, meanwhile, perfected a style of quintessentially American acting, singing and dancing so winningly explosive that it’s been celebrated — and lovingly parodied — ever since.

And then there’s Gene Kelly. In movies like On the Town (with good friend Frank Sinatra), An American in Paris and, of course, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain — for most movie fans, the greatest Hollywood musical of all time — Eugene Curran Kelly created an utterly inimitable onscreen persona: optimistic, playful, knowing and yet, deep down, hopelessly romantic. That he could dance, it seemed, from morning til night without breaking a sweat only added to his visceral charm. (There’s an old saying to the effect that the women who swarmed to movie musicals in the middle part of the 20th century dreamed of dancing the night away with Fred Astaire — and of going home with Gene Kelly.)

Here, LIFE.com offers rare photographs of the protean dancer, singer, actor, producer, director and choreographer in France in 1960, as he enjoys a prestigious off-screen career highlight: creating a ballet for the storied Paris Opera.

As LIFE noted in August 1960, in an article about Kelly’s Parisian triumph:

The figure on the austere marble stairs of the Paris Opera [see first image in this gallery], looking like a sporting type who got in by mistake, is the newest addition to its ballet roster: Gene Kelly. Normally the staircase swarms with France’s most resplendent music-goers, and on gala openings it is lined with red-coated guardsmen.

But at times this summer the scene looked right out of his American in Paris as Kelly rushed to and from the stage at rehearsals of his 45-minute jazz ballet, Pas de Dieux (Dance of the Gods). Idolized in France for his movie dancing, Kelly was signed by the Opera’s own ballet company to enliven its shopworn repertoire with this work set to Gershwin music. He does not perform himself, but his radical dance ideas drew 23 curtain calls from a fancy premiere audience of ballet regulars. Cheered one of France’s top critics: “Kelly succeeded in blowing away a half century of dust from the Paris Opera.”

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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