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Gene Kelly (1912-1996)

By Karyn D. Collins

Say the name “Gene Kelly” and most people conjure up a singular image of a man, seemingly oblivious to a driving rainstorm, singing, one arm flung out wide in blissful abandon, a closed umbrella clutched in his hand, while his other arm encircles a lamp post. This iconic image comes from Singin’ in the Rain, and in many ways both the image and the film exemplify the essence of Gene Kelly: entertainment, the embodiment of the average Joe, a dancer literally brimming with brawn and masculine vigor with overtones of vaudevillian flair. But Kelly was more than just a great dancer with a great smile and even more than a notoriously demanding choreographer and director. He was all of that. But more importantly, dance historians now see Kelly and his work behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera as revolutionary for the way he presented, framed, and shaped dance.

Kelly presented the dance world with the image of an everyday guy – grinning broadly or simmering with masculine bravado and machismo, dressed perhaps in a sailor’s uniform or in a workaday pair of Chinos and loafers topped by a simple shirt, sometimes even just a t-shirt. Compared to the other premier dancer of his day – the elegant and debonair Fred Astaire, Kelly was all charm, muscle and showman’s hustle. With Astaire, one never saw the effort. With Kelly, one marveled at the effort as well as the always exciting results. Kelly was certainly always aware of the differences between the two stars. One of the most famous quotes ascribed to Kelly has the dancer proclaiming that if Astaire was the Cary Grant of the dance world then he was the Marlon Brando.

“I didn’t want to move or act like a rich man,” Kelly said in the 2002 PBS “American Masters” documentary Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer. “I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets.”

While Astaire enjoyed a long career, becoming a star on the stage and remaining one for years on screen, Kelly’s time at the top of the entertainment world was actually relatively short, with the bulk of his biggest work in Hollywood coming between 1945 and 1952. It was only with his last two major films, An American In Paris in 1951 and 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, that he achieved his most famous and accomplished work as a Hollywood triple threat: performer, choreographer and behind-the-scenes visionary, though not—to his long held resentment and chagrin—the official director.  Those two films, more than any of his other work, cemented Kelly’s status as a true revolutionary, one who pushed to  create and film dance in ways that enhanced the combined effects of movement, color, and concept.

Not that anyone saw Kelly as any kind of revolutionary in the beginning.

Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, into a large, Irish working class family with a dad who was a traveling phonograph salesman and a mom who was determined to get her kids into show business. Though Kelly would later say he dreamed of becoming a shortstop for his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates, his mom had other ideas and enrolled a then eight-year-old Gene and his older brother, James, in dance classes. According to interviews with Gene Kelly, the brothers quit soon after, having gotten into a number of fights with other boys from the neighborhood who teased them about taking dance classes. But Gene started dancing again as a teenager, even while he played sports—since athletics were as important to Mr. Kelly as show business was to Mrs. Kelly. But while all five Kelly children danced and took piano lessons it was the youngest Kelly brother, Fred, who was considered the real show business talent in the family. Accident-prone Gene was seen as the family’s best bet to become a lawyer, though he like all of the Kelly kids was part of a family act that started in the family’s basement with little Fred as the star.

As a teenager, Gene helped his mom take over and expand a local dancing school. Despite the talent he showed in teaching and running the family’s studios, Gene went away to college at Penn State, but still did the occasional gig with Fred and continued to show a growing talent as a director and choreographer.

It wasn’t long before the enterprising Gene saw show business and amateur contests as a way to help his family survive during the Depression. While he continued to work his way through college (he transferred to Pittsburgh University for his sophomore year) and teach at the family dance studio, Gene and Fred meticulously studied other performers and molded their own act. The brothers quickly made a name for themselves with inventive bits. Gene also was a frequent ballroom dance partner for his older sister and also remained busy teaching and choreographing around the area.

After earning his bachelor’s degree at Pitt, and a couple of weeks in law school, Gene decided to focus on choreographing and teaching. But then, at 25, he decided to try his luck on Broadway, though he was long past the age when most young men decide to break into the big time.   Through luck and persistence he snagged a small featured role as a specialty dancer in the 1938 Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me! in which he was one of the guys to lift a young Mary Martin. Several other shows would follow that saw Kelly not only perform but choreograph, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time Of Your Life in 1939.

And then there was Pal Joey. The lead role in this Rodgers and Hart show not only made Kelly a star on Broadway, but earned the interest of Hollywood. Pal Joey, which opened Christmas Day in 1940, was anything but the usual Broadway musical. The title character, Joey Evans, was the owner of a seen-better-days nightclub. He was an anti-hero in every way–a callous womanizer who ruthlessly used people, especially women, to get ahead. The show drew mixed reviews, but Kelly’s performance earned raves not just for his dancing but for his ability to make even an unsavory character like Joey human and engrossing instead of mere cardboard.

Within a year, Kelly was on his way to Hollywood, but not without a quick plunge into another Broadway project—choreographing the musical Best Foot Forward—and getting into a minor snit with MGM due to  a misunderstanding  over a screen test. Both were signs of three Kelly trademarks (besides his dancing): his workaholic nature, his reluctance to hold back his strong opinions, and his hot, Irish temper. The latter two had and would continue to lead to disagreements large and small with various people throughout Kelly’s career, including some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

After a frustrating year of waiting for something to happen for him in Hollywood and slowly learning how things worked behind-the-scenes there, Kelly was given the lead in For Me and My Gal. The role, which he got at least in part thanks to an earlier friendship he’d forged with the movie’s star, Judy Garland, also gave Kelly the chance to learn more about filming dance. And the film’s director, the legendary Busby Berkeley, allowed Kelly to do the choreography for his solos and duets with Garland. The film, released in 1942, made Kelly, if not a star, than well known. 

But being well known is not the same as stardom and Kelly felt the difference keenly. His years in Hollywood were not an unqualified success. While he was kept busy with a variety of small roles in musicals as well as dramas, Kelly was less than thrilled with many of the results. And he continued to cement his reputation in Hollywood as a hardheaded, argumentative and difficult personality. His liberal politics and activism were another sore spot for the MGM brass.  Adding to the friction were his constant requests to be released from his contract so he could join the military at the height of World War II. A bright spot came with his work in the 1943 Thousands Cheer, which provided Kelly a rare opportunity to show what he could do as a choreographer. His self-choreographed solo with a mop (shades of Astaire) earned him universal praise. Another in his minor successes was his brief appearance opposite Astaire in the 1944 Ziegfeld Follies, their only film appearance together.

The 1945 film Anchors Aweigh served as a turning point for Kelly. Not only did it pair him for the first time with Frank Sinatra, who would team with him for two other notable hits, but Kelly was given free rein to create his own dance numbers and ultimately show off his ability to use the camera to illuminate the dance. Moreover, Kelly’s dance with the cartoon mouse Jerry (of Tom and Jerry fame) in “The King Who Couldn’t Dance” elevated Anchors Aweigh to something more than just another wartime-themed film. It also helped to further establish Kelly’s reputation as a dancer who represented the regular Joe (though he and Sinatra swore they would never put on sailor suits again), as well as an inventive choreographer for film.

Ironically, shortly after completing filming of Anchors Aweigh, Kelly finally got permission from MGM to enlist and joined the Navy. To his chagrin, he was assigned for the most part to perform in and make films, documentaries and newsreels for the Navy.

After he was released from the Navy in 1946, Kelly’s career in Hollywood continued its uneven and sporadic pattern. But 1948 began a remarkable run of some of Kelly’s greatest film moments. They included the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” divertissement in Words and Music in 1948, Take Me Out To The Ballgame and On The Town in 1949, Summer Stock in 1950 (mostly memorable for Kelly’s wildly inventive “You Wonderful You” solo utilizing a creaky floorboard and a piece of newspaper on the floor),  and then the two films that Kelly would perhaps be best remembered for,  An American in Paris  and Singin’ in the Rain.

On the Town, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain showed Kelly at his best—in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes. He served as choreographer for all three, was co-director with Stanley Donen for On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain and was the unofficial co-director for An American in Paris. Each of these films carried Kelly’s distinctive creative imprint.

 On the Town included location shots of New York City, an unheard of expense for a musical at the time but in line with Kelly’s belief in authenticity, which he’d been pushing for years. And despite his and Sinatra’s earlier grousing about wearing sailor suits, the role further cemented Kelly’s average Joe image.

With An American in Paris, all of Kelly’s talents were on display, from his performance as the everyman—an ex-G.I. pursuing his love of art in post-war Paris—to the plot concept to the casting, his picturesque framing of the various songs, to other work behind the scenes. Indeed, Kelly’s role as unofficial director was so dominant and successful that the official director, Vincente Minnelli, took leaves of absence to handle another film and deal with personal matters. One of the most remarkable aspects of An American in Paris was its ending, a 17-minute-long ballet that captured the swirling color and romance of Paris. The ballet, critics would come to say, elevated An American in Paris from a charming musical to a work of Technicolor art. The film won several Academy Awards including Best Picture. Minnelli, ironically, was nominated for Best Director and Alan Jay Lerner won an Oscar for the screenplay. Kelly’s considerable work behind the scenes shaping and directing the film was never officially recognized, a fact that was a sore spot for the rest of his life according to numerous sources, even after he received a special Oscar in 1953 for his work as a choreographer.

Singin’ in the Rain is viewed as the quintessential movie musical, a project in which all the components seemed to align perfectly. Here, Kelly’s painstaking work behind the scenes included intensive research on the transition from silent films to the talkies, a series of near-perfect musical numbers including the 25-minute “Broadway Melody” segment, a top notch score and screenplay, and the performers themselves, led by Kelly and his co-stars Donald O’Connor, who some feel actually out-danced Kelly, and the ingénue Debbie Reynolds. But beyond the sum of all of these glorious parts there is the title number, now considered one of the greatest dance moments ever captured on film. Here was Kelly, though playing a movie star, appearing in this scene as just an average Joe, singing and dancing with glee in the middle of a rainstorm. Ironically, hardly anyone at the time thought Singin’ in the Rain would be considered anything more than a good musical. But today most critics and dancers point to Singin’ in the Rain as a legendary film that far surpasses anything else made during the movie musical era.

Kelly’s career would never again reach the heights of the period that ended with Singin’ in the Rain. Political skirmishes in the age of McCarthyism and a subsequent move to Europe led to Kelly quickly disappearing from relevance in Hollywood.  Although he had a few notable film projects here and there such as Brigadoon and his ambitious but ultimately disappointing Invitation to the Dance, Kelly’s status as one of Hollywood’s leading song and dance men dropped as quickly as the musical genre itself.

He had some modest successes as a director, most notably with the 1967 comedy A Guide for the Married Man. But the 1968 musical Hello Dolly! that he directed was a box office flop and became known as a symbol of Hollywood’s past. Kelly would continue to direct and appear in projects here and there; there was even a disastrous film—the 1980 Xanadu—opposite pop star Olivia Newton-John.

Today, though, Kelly is remembered not for the many fits and starts of his career or for the alarming swiftness of his decline. Instead, he is remembered for his screen persona as America’s average Joe and for his behind-the-scenes innovations to film dance, which reflected a real energy and vitality.

Karyn D. Collins has been a professional journalist since 1984. A native of Chicago, Ms. Collins specializes in features writing including dance, fashion, beauty and entertainment. In addition to her work as a journalist she is an educator and serves as an adjunct at Bloomfield College in Bloomfield, NJ, as well as a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, NJ. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force. www.karyncollins.com


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Hirschhorn, Clive. Gene Kelly: A Biography. London: Allen. 1974.

Masson, Alain. Gene Kelly. (French). Paris: Gallimard, 2012.

Morley, Sheridan and Ruth Leon. Gene Kelly: A Celebration. London: Pavilion, 1996.

Thomas, Tony. The Films of Gene Kelly: Song and Dance Man. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.

Yudkoff, Alvin. Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams. New York: Back Stage Books, 1999.

Online Resources

Turner Classic Movies http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/100306%7C57646/Gene-Kelly/

Biography.com http://www.biography.com/people/gene-kelly-9362176

Moving Image

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer. American Masters. Written, produced and directed by Robert Trachtenberg. WNET/Thirteen, 2002.