Today marks the 22nd anniversary of Gene Kelly’s passing at the age of 83. I remember hearing of his death in the sixth grade and feeling so sad. I was a few months shy of twelve at the time. I had just discovered Nick at Nite the year prior and had just discovered Gene Kelly by way of his appearance with Lucille Ball in DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). While ‘DuBarry’ wasn’t his best film, I liked Gene. He just had that je ne sois quoi about him. After seeing him with Lucy, I was hooked. I religiously checked the TCM listings (then in its infancy) for Gene’s movies and tried to set the VCR to record them. With each recording, I’d cross my fingers hoping that I’d set up the recording correctly and that the tape wouldn’t run out before my recording was complete. Between TCM and the ever reliable Hollywood Video, I managed to see a few of Gene’s films. When I heard that he had died, I remember watching Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Pirate (1948) with my friend who also loved him.
While I love Fred Astaire, I would never compare him with Gene. Honestly, they’re like apples and oranges. Sure, they’re both dancers and both men, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. In the end though, I think I have to give Gene the edge–if only because I love the fabulous elaborate dance numbers he put together in his films. Astaire, to his credit, did do some pretty fantastic numbers in his post-Ginger Rogers films. However, Astaire never put together such productions like the ballet in An American in Paris (1951) and the “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain–two of my favorite numbers of any musical ever made. Gene was a pioneer and an innovator not only in musicals but in the world of film itself.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in “Ziegfeld Follies (1945)” Two fantastic, yet very different dancers.
Gene was born in Pittsburgh in 1912. As a child, he was reluctantly enrolled in dance classes with his brothers. Gene dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team–not being a world renowned movie star, dancer, choreographer and director. At some point, Gene had a change of heart and gave up on his dream of being a professional baseball player. Lucky for us, he decided to dedicate himself to dancing. By the early 1930s, Gene was a teacher at his own dancing school. By the late 1930s, Gene had established a very successful dance studio and decided to move to New York City to find work as a choreographer. He didn’t find much success during his first stint in New York. By 1940, he was back in his hometown starring in and choreographing local theater productions. It was in one of these productions where he was discovered and given a larger part. That part led to an even larger part in a bigger production and so on.
By 1940, Gene was back in New York appearing on Broadway in Pal Joey–a play which was later made into a 1957 film starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. During Gene’s appearance in Pal Joey, he was approached by Hollywood mogul David O.Selznick for a Hollywood contract. By the time Gene made his film debut in 1942 in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland, Selznick had sold Gene’s contract to MGM. During the next couple of years, Gene appeared in a few dramatic films and even appeared in a musical with Lucille Ball who had recently signed with MGM after a long stint at RKO as “The Queen of the Bs.”
Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, Tommy Dorsey, Rags Ragland and Zero Mostrel in “DuBarry Was a Lady.”
Gene’s big big break was when he was loaned to Columbia to appear with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944). It was this film where he finally started to show glimpses of what he would achieve later. One of the best dance numbers in this film is when Gene dances with his own reflection. For the next decade or so, Gene appeared in a remarkable series of films that gradually built upon one another and showcased the innovative film and storytelling techniques and dance routines that Gene would become known for. Gene was lucky to come around at just the right time–the Golden Era of the Hollywood musical from the mid-1940s through the mid to late 1950s.
By the late 1950s, the public’s tastes had changed and intense dramas and issue driven films were more popular. The musicals of the 1960s and beyond definitely have a different feel about them and feel gritty and grim–which is a definite contrast to the glamorous and sparkly looks of their predecessors. By this point in his career, Gene had mostly retired from dancing and turned into a director. One his biggest films was 1969’s Hello, Dolly! which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three. In 1980, Gene returned to the big screen in the musical Xanadu.
Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John in that cinematic classic, “Xanadu.”
Despite its reputation as one of those “so bad, its good” movies, I love Xanadu. It has everything you’d want in a film: Gene Kelly, Gene Kelly roller skating, Gene Kelly playing the clarinet, Olivia Newton-John singing catchy 80s pop songs, a big roller skating dance number, flashbacks, Greek Gods, magic, neon… This film has everything. When asked about why he made this film, Gene stated that the film had a great concept, it just didn’t quite turn out. I think it turned out great. This is truly one of the gems from 1980. After Xanadu, Gene was pretty much retired and spent the remainder of his life making the award show circuits (picking up a Cecil B. DeMille award in 1981, Kennedy Center Honors in 1982, AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1989, just to name a few of the honors he received). By the late 1980s-early 1990s, Gene’s health steadily declined until his passing in 1996.
My favorite Gene Kelly movies:
Words and Music (1948),”Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Gene and Vera-Ellen only appeared in a segment of this musical biopic starring Mickey Rooney and Tom Drake, however, they are definitely the highlight. “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is definitely a sexy number, a trait that is unusual in the goody two shoes MGM movies of the 1940s. Vera-Ellen’s character is killed and she dies on the staircase, on her back, right in front of the camera. All we see of Vera-Ellen’s character is her chest and legs. This number also has great music that I really like.
Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in “Words and Music.”
On the Town (1949). This film is the final film that Gene made with Frank Sinatra and I feel that it is their best. I like Anchors Aweigh but cannot stand Kathryn Grayson, so that film pales a little bit in comparison with ‘Town.’ I thought Gene had a great rapport with not only Frank but love interest Vera-Ellen. My favorite number in this film is actually the “Prehistoric Man” number that mainly features Ann Miller, but Gene provides some amusing backup. However, for Gene’s best number in this film, that honor would have to go to “A Day in New York” where all his co-stars, save for Vera-Ellen (who had ballet training, which non of the actor cast members had). Vera-Ellen and Gene make a great duo–which is interesting because I don’t typically think of Gene as being part of a dancing team.
An American in Paris. This film is widely considered Gene’s masterpiece and won the 1951 Oscar for Best Picture over the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. While I like ‘Desire,’ and ‘Sun,’ give me ‘Paris,’ any day. This film is so much fun and such a delight to both the eyes and ears that it makes an enjoyable experience each time I see it. The best number in this film is of course the seventeen minute ballet at the end of the film. This was a huge gamble for Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed. Not only was the ballet expensive to produce, but it was unknown whether the audience would respond to it. Well the audience did and the film was a huge hit, winning six Oscars, including the aforementioned “Best Picture” Oscar. Gene was also given an Honorary Oscar for his versatility and achievement in choreography on film. My favorite part of the entire ballet is the Toulouse Lautrec part. Could anyone else but Gene Kelly wear a flesh colored leotard?
Gene Kelly’s flesh colored leotard in the Toulouse Lautrec part of the ballet in “An American in Paris.” I’m not going to lie, this gif was the whole reason for this post.
Singin’ in the Rain. This is probably Gene’s best known film and honestly, it is probably the best musical ever made. I love this movie. From the amazing cast (Gene, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen) to the great music, fun storyline, great costumes, everything. This film is almost perfect. The only thing marring this fabulous film, in my opinion, is the fact that Debbie Reynolds’ character has three different singing voices. O’Connor is hilarious and has his amazing “Make ‘Em Laugh” dance routine. Has there ever been a dance that looked so physically exhausting? Jean Hagen is hilarious as Lina Lamont, Gene’s delusional co-star and Hollywood-manufactured love interest. Lina has a horrendous voice that is fine in silent film (because obviously you can’t hear her), but in a talkie… ugh. And Debbie is just adorable as Gene’s love interest and the studio’s new discovery, threatening to supplant Lina’s status as top female star at the studio. Pretty much every number in this film is fantastic, but my favorite would be the “Broadway Melody” number toward the end of the film. It is colorful, has great dancing, a storyline, and fun music. My favorite part of it is the part where Gene dances with Cyd Charisse, who is wearing a fringed and beaded green flapper dress. The music is fantastic and Gene and Cyd just sizzle on screen. This is one of the sexier musical numbers during the production code era. The best part is when Gene lifts Cyd up with just one arm.
Other favorite Gene Kelly films:
–Summer Stock (1950). “Get Happy” is probably one of the best numbers in Judy Garland’s career. On the flipside, “Heavenly Music” is probably one of the absolute worst numbers in Gene’s career. I loathe that number. The only good part is when the dogs run out on stage.
–The Pirate. This film failed at the box office in 1948, but it’s a great film. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. Gene has all kinds of great athletic numbers, including one where he dons shorty shorts and dances with fire. Judy is great and looks gorgeous and there is a fantastic number at the end where Gene dances with the amazing Nicholas Brothers. They sing “Be a Clown” which suspiciously sounds like “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain. Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” came before Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s “Make ‘Em Laugh.” However, both The Pirate and Singin’ in the Rain were produced by Arthur Freed. Hmm…
-Les Girls (1957). Gene dances with Mitzi Gaynor in a fantastic number called “Why Am I So Gone (About That Gal?).” Mitzi looks great and she and Gene have a great dancing chemistry.
–What a Way to Go! (1964) This film stars Shirley MacLaine as an inadvertent black widow who just wants to live a simple life, free of material possessions. The present day part of the film features her telling the story of how she met and married each of her husbands and how money led her husband to his eventual death–the kicker being that it was Shirley who in trying to help her husband’s psyche, ends up leading him to riches. With each death, Shirley inherited her husband’s fortune. She’s worth millions upon millions of dollars and just wants to give it all away. She’s sent to a psychologist (Robert Cummings) because who wouldn’t want all that money? In this film, Gene plays Shirley’s fourth husband, Pinky Benson.
When Shirley meets Gene, he is working as a two-bit clown in a small club. His act is lame and nobody in the club pays attention to him. She feels sorry for Gene because he’s a very nice man and she senses that underneath the clown getup, he does have some talent. One night, Gene is running late and doesn’t have time to put on the clown costume. She convinces him to go out without the costume and just perform his act. Well, Gene’s simple soft-shoe routine is a sensation and soon he’s off to Hollywood. We are then treated to a send up of the big flashy MGM musicals as Shirley describes her life with Gene to the psychologist (each of her stories about her different husbands is a spoof of a different genre of film). Shirley is up to the task of dancing with Gene and they do a really great and funny number together. Gene’s character eventually becomes a huge, egotistical star who lives in an all-pink mansion (his character’s name is “Pinky” after all), and by all-pink, I mean ALL-PINK. He eventually meets his fate when he is crushed to death by a stampede of adoring fans.