Gene Kelly - 8/23
"If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando," said Gene Kelly of his Hollywood career. And true, if you think of dancers in movies, only two men come to mind - Astaire and Kelly. But with such incredibly different styles, Astaire all classical movement and elegance, and Kelly the athlete who made dance out of everyday life, there was clearly room in town for both men to be stars. Astaire arrived first, but Gene Kelly soon found a spotlight of his own, as a dancer, actor, director and choreographer.
Gene Kelly was born August 23, 1912 to an a lower middle class Irish family in Pittsburgh. His mother, hoping to instill a love of the arts in her children, sent Gene to dance class when he was seven. He hated it and couldn't wait to quit. Sports were his game and he dreamed of being shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates or a professional hockey player. But thing changed in high school when Gene realized that girls liked a boy who could dance. So he went back to dancing school to learn more steps. Ultimately, he started teaching dance and when his father lost his job in the Depression it became a family affair with The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance.
Kelly was a good dance instructor and enjoyed the work. Eventually, he moved to New York, hoping to get work as a choreographer but found the only work he could get was as a dancer. His first job was in Cole Porter's Leave it to Me starring Mary Martin. It was in these early days that Kelly began to shape a completely new American style of dance that would break with European tradition. Kelly would discover that he could create characters through physical movements, a sort of "dance-acting", which he learned during his first featured role in The Time of Your Life. Kelly's first starring role, and big break, however, came with Pal Joey which opened on Christmas day 1940. In two years, Kelly had gone from dance teacher to Broadway star.
And Hollywood was watching. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer caught a performance of Pal Joey and offered Kelly a contract, saying there was no need for a screen test. But when Mayer went back on his promise regarding the screen test, Kelly refused the contract. It was a move that set up strained future relations between the two. David O. Selznick came calling next, and signed Gene Kelly to a seven-year contract. There was only one hitch - Selznick didn't see Kelly as a song and dance man. Luckily Arthur Freed wanted Kelly for the Judy Garland-Busby Berkeley picture For Me and My Gal (1942). During Kelly's adjustment from stage to screen, Judy Garland was a very supportive ally. He would repay the kindness later in his career, working patiently with an ailing Garland on her last MGM picture Summer Stock (1950). After For Me and My Gal, Selznick sold Kelly's contract to MGM (at the insistence of MGM musical producer Freed). And Kelly would end up working for Louis B. Mayer after all.
His first official film at MGM was Thousands Cheer (1943), where Kelly showed off his working class style, dancing with a mop and broom. When he wasn't playing the song-and-dance man, MGM kept Kelly busy in dramatic roles like Pilot No. Five (1943). The studio loaned Kelly out to Columbia in 1944 for the film Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth, and Kelly brought assistant Stanley Donen in to make sure the camera's movements were in sync with the musical beats. The film showed off the combined talents of Kelly and Donen, which were especially noticeable in the "Alter Ego" number where Kelly dances counterpoint with his own image. This revolutionary scene was the first to involve dollying and panning in double exposure using Technicolor. After Cover Girl, MGM realized what it had in Kelly and refused to loan him out again.
Kelly would team with his buddy Frank Sinatra in 1945's Anchors Aweigh. Never a dancer, Sinatra "trained like a prize fighter," according to Kelly. Anchors Aweigh also broke new ground combining live action with animation in Kelly's dance with Jerry the Mouse (of Tom and Jerry fame). Though Walt Disney was too busy to take on the work, he advised the M-G-M studio executives to move forward with the project. Anchors Aweigh received five Oscar® nominations, including one for Gene Kelly.
WWII found Kelly in the Navy, working at the Naval Photographic Unit in Anacostia. Soon after the war, a broken ankle forced the actor to drop out of Easter Parade (1948). So he urged the studio to call Fred Astaire, who was in retirement, to play the part. It was a big comeback for Astaire who had teamed with Kelly the previous year for Ziegfeld Follie (the only feature Kelly and Astaire would make together). The Pirate (1948) would pair Kelly once again with Judy Garland and with the Nicholas Brothers for some acrobatics that were some of the most demanding scenes of Kelly's career. And for Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) Kelly took one more turn with director Busby Berkeley. Kelly and Donen were, however, in charge of trol over the dance numbers.
For the next film, they would have complete control. Kelly and Donen made their directorial debuts with On the Town (1949). Often cited by Kelly as one of his favorite films because it broke new ground, On the Town took the musical off the back lot (requiring much convincing of the MGM bosses) and on location in New York. Another Kelly favorite came with Summer Stock's dance number that centered on a squeaky board and a newspaper. For An American in Paris (1951), Kelly discovered co-star Leslie Caron in Paris and created an extraordinary seventeen-minute ballet that appears near the end of the film. Kelly would receive an Honorary Oscar® "In appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film." An American in Paris would receive six more Oscars®, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture.
While An American in Paris might have been Kelly's most honored work, he's probably best remembered for Singin' in the Rain (1952) which he co-directed with Stanley Donen. Kelly's umbrella scene, where he's literally singing and dancing in the rain, has become an iconic moment in American cinema, and the film is often considered the best musical ever made. But it wasn't all fun and games, as then newcomer Debbie Reynolds recalls, "the hardest two things I ever did - childbirth and Singin' in the Rain."
Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli hoped to make Brigadoon (1954) on location in Scotland, but MGM cited budget concerns and wouldn't allow it. Despite the restrictions, Kelly felt that the two pas de deux with Cyd Charisse were the best that he ever did on film. It's Always Fair Weather (1955), also co-directed by Kelly and Donen, was designed as a sequel to On the Town, but with a more satirical, serious edge. With several wonderful numbers, including one danced with trash can lids, the most memorable sequence is probably Kelly's dancing remarkable feat on roller skates. Kelly's experimental, non-traditional musical, Invitation to the Dance (1956), which was made in England, received high honors at the Berlin Film Festival.
Even after age began limiting his dancing, Kelly still kept active in film, starring in dramas like Inherit the Wind (1960), where he played journalist E.K. Hornbeck, a character based on real-life Scopes Monkey trial journalist H.L. Mencken. He appeared as an on-screen narrator in That's Entertainment! (1974) and directed the screen adaptation of Hello, Dolly! (1969). The movie won three Oscars® and received four more nominations including Best Picture. While Kelly's direction wasn't Oscar® nominated, he did receive a Golden Globe nomination and was named Best Director by the Director's Guild.
Other lifetime honors for Gene Kelly included an AFI award in 1985, the National Medal of Arts presented by President Clinton in 1994 and the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1980. But perhaps the most fitting tributes came after his death in February of 1996 at age 83 when the lights of Broadway were dimmed in his honor. Not bad for a boy from Pittsburgh who, as one critic put it, simply wanted to "democratize dance."
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