Gene Kelly – The Smiling Dance Man

“You dance Love, and you dance Joy, and you dance Dreams. And I know if I can make you smile by jumping over a couple of couches or running through a rainstorm, then I’ll be very glad to be a song and dance man.“ Gene Kelly

Eugene Curran Kelly (August 23, 1912 – February 2, 1996), better known as Gene Kelly, was an American dancer, actor, singer, director, producer and choreographer. He was a great example of 20th century filmed dance, famous for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks and the likeable characters that he played on screen. Although he is probably most famous today for his act in Singin’ in the Rain, he was the most popular actor in the Hollywood musical movie industry from the mid 1940s to the early 1980s.

He achieved a significant breakthrough as a dancer on film when MGM lent him to Columbia to work with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944). He created a memorable routine dancing to his own reflection. Directed by Charles Vidor, film featured beautiful chemistry between Kelly and Hayworth.

Kelly is best known today for his performances in films such as:

Cover Girl (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, On the Town (1949), which was his directorial debut, An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Brigadoon (1954), and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). Kelly made his film debut with Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942), and followed by Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), The Pirate (1948), Summer Stock (1950), and Les Girls (1957) among others. After musicals he starred in two films outside the musical genre: Inherit the Wind (1960) and What a Way to Go! (1964). In 1967, he appeared in French director Jacques Demy’s musical comedy The Young Girls of Rochefort opposite Catherine Deneuve. Kelly solo directed the comedy A Guide for the Married Man (1967) starring Walter Matthau, and later the extravagant musical Hello, Dolly! (1969) starring Barbra Streisand, recognized with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Kelly co-hosted and appeared in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), That’s Entertainment! (1974), That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976), That’s Dancing! (1985), and That’s Entertainment, Part III (1994).

According to the Hollywood Walk of Fame website, his many innovations transformed the Hollywood musical, and he is credited with almost single-handedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences. Kelly received an Academy Honorary Award in 1952 for his career achievements, the same year An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. He later received lifetime achievement awards in the Kennedy Center Honors (1982) and from the Screen Actors Guild and American Film Institute. In 1999, the American Film Institute also ranked him as the 15th greatest male screen legend of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Gene Kelly – Singin’ in the Rain (1952) MGM

Making steps for entering the dancing and acting career

Kelly was born in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, into a large middle-class Irish family. Kelly’s father, James Patrick Joseph Kelly, was a traveling record salesman, and his mother, Harriet Catherine Curran, was determined to expose her children to the arts. When Kelly was eight, his  mother enrolled him and his brother James in dance classes. At one time, his childhood dream was to play shortstop for the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.

By the time he decided to dance, he was an accomplished sportsman. He attended St. Raphael Elementary School in the Morningside neighborhood of Pittsburgh and graduated from Peabody High School at age 16. He entered the Pennsylvania State College as a journalism major, but after the 1929 crash, he left school and found work in order to help his family financially. He created dance routines with his younger brother Fred to earn prize money in local talent contests.

In 1931, Kelly enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to study economics, He became involved in the University’s Club, which staged original musical productions.  After graduating in 1933, he continued to be active with the Club,  as the director from 1934 to 1938. Kelly was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

His family opened a dance studio in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In 1932, they renamed it the Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance and opened a second location in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1933. Kelly decided to pursue a career as a dance teacher and full-time entertainer, so he dropped out of law school after two months. In 1937, he finally did move to New York City in search of work as a choreographer.

His first Broadway assignment, in November 1938, was as a dancer in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me! In 1940, he got the lead role in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, again choreographed by Robert Alton. This role propelled him to stardom. During its run, Kelly told reporters: “I don’t believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand. While I am a hundred percent for ballet technique, I use only what I can adapt to my own use. I never let technique get in the way of mood or continuity.“

Offers from Hollywood began to arrive, but Kelly was in no hurry to leave New York. He signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood at the end of his commitment to Pal Joey, in October 1941. Selznick sold half of Kelly’s contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for his first motion picture: For Me and My Gal (1942) starring Judy Garland.

According to American Masters (PBS television series), when Kelly was loaned out to Columbia for 1944’s Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth, he became firmly established as a star:His landmark “alter ego” sequence, in which he partnered with himself, brought film dance to a new level of special effects. With Stanley Donen as his assistant, Kelly created a sense of the psychological and integrated story telling never before seen in a Hollywood musical.“

Dancing moves

In his dancing moves, Kelly joined ballet and modern dance forms. He refused to categorize his style: “I don’t have a name for my style of dancing … It’s certainly hybrid … I’ve borrowed from the modern dance, from the classical, and certainly from the American folk dance-tap-dancing, jitterbugging …

Kelly was also influenced by an African-American dancer, Robert Dotson, whom he saw perform at Loew’s Penn Theatre around 1929.

His main interest was in ballet, which he studied under Kotchetovsky in the early 1930s. Biographer Clive Hirschhorn writes: “As a child, he used to run for miles through parks and streets and woods—anywhere, just as long as he could feel the wind against his body and through his hair. Ballet gave him the same feeling of exhilaration, and in 1933, he was convinced it was the most satisfying form of self-expression.” He also studied Spanish dancing under Angel Cansino, Rita Hayworth’s uncle.

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, An American in Paris, Dream ballet, 1951, MGM

Extraordinary facts:

In 1993, “An American in Paris“ was selected for preservation by the United States Library of Congress in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It is ranked number nine among AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals” Also in 1951, Kelly received an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film musicals and the art of choreography.

“An American in Paris“ won six Academy Awards, including the Best Picture. The film also marked the debut of 19-year-old ballerina Leslie Caron, whom Kelly had spotted in Paris and brought to Hollywood. Its „dream ballet sequence“, a 17-minute dialogue-free dance, was the most expensive production number ever filmed at that time. Bosley Crowther described it as “one of the finest ever put on the screen.  An American in Paris is a 1951 American musical comedy film inspired by the 1928 orchestral composition An American in Paris by George Gershwin.

According to Delamater, Kelly’s work “seems to represent the fulfillment of dance-film integration in the 1940s and 1950s”. While Fred Astaire had revolutionized the filming of dance in the 1930s by insisting on full-figure photography of dancers, while allowing only a modest degree of camera movement, Kelly freed up the camera, making greater use of space, camera movement, camera angles, and editing, creating a partnership between dance movement and camera movement without sacrificing full-figure framing.

For his role in The Pirate (1948), Gene Kelly invented “the U-Bangi” (now called a “camera offset”), a mechanism to get low-angle shots that were virtually impossible because of the large size of Technicolor cameras.

In 1958, Kelly directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play Flower Drum Song. Early in 1960, Kelly, an ardent Francophile and fluent French speaker, was invited by A. M. Julien, the general administrator of the Paris Opéra and Opéra-Comique, to select his own material and create a modern ballet for the company, the first time an American had received such an assignment. The result was Pas de Dieux, based on Greek mythology, combined with the music of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F. It was a major success, and led to his being honored with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French Government.

Gene Kelly – An American in Paris, 1951, MGM

“There’s a strong link between sports and dancing, and my own dancing springs from my early days as an athlete … I think dancing is a man’s game and if he does it well he does it better than a woman.”

“I never played a rich man, I never played a prince. And to play a sailor or longshoreman you had to make your dance more eclectic and varied, but still keep it indigenous to your nationality, upbringing, and background.“

Gene Kelly