Along with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly (1912–1996) was the original song-and-dance man in American cinema. For redefining the boundaries of dance, Kelly received a special Oscar in 1951, recognizing his masterful work in An American In Paris, which featured a 17-minute ballet sequence, widely considered one of the finest ever filmed. Citing his “versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography,” the trophy celebrated Kelly’s effort to invest dance with an everyman quality.
Kelly was born in Pittsburgh to an actress and a theatrical manager. Yet, this world-class performer initially did not want to dance. He dreamed about being a baseball player, joking much later, in a 1985 American Film Institute special saluting his career, that he yearned to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His family prodded him into taking dance lessons: Along with his siblings Jay, Jim, Louise and Fred, Kelly performed on the amateur vaudeville circuit as part of “The Five Kellys.”
In 1932, he founded the Gene Kelly School of Dance in his hometown, and staffed it with members of his family. There, Kelly developed and honed his skills as a teacher, while earning an economics degree at the University of Pittsburgh. After graduating, he entered law school. But his love for dance conflicted with his studies and he soon dropped out, moving to New York City in 1938.
He quickly made his Broadway debut, as a dancer in Leave It to Me. Later, Kelly would score one of his biggest triumphs on the Great White Way, playing the titular role in the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart/John O’Hara musical Pal Joey. His sensational performance led Gone With the Wind’s legendary film producer David O. Selznick to sign Kelly to a seven-year contract with Selznick International.
But Selznick had no interest in musicals and lent Kelly to MGM to co-star with Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942). It became a mega-hit and MGM bought out Kelly’s contract with Selznick. In 1944, Kelly added choreographer to his resumé with his work in Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth. To differentiate his choreography from Astaire’s, Kelly substituted swaggering physicality for his screen rival’s ballroom dancing. A slew of successful MGM musicals followed, including Anchors Aweigh (1945), in which Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse of “Tom and Jerry”; and The Pirate (1948), which highlighted his immortal footwork in “Be A Clown” and “Nina,” set to Cole Porter’s ebullient score.
Kelly’s most important collaborator was Stanley Donen. Together they co-directed the film version of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Broadway smash, On the Town (1949), in which Kelly co-starred with Frank Sinatra. Later they teamed up for Busby Berkeley’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game, co-directing the “Strictly USA” number, with Kelly nabbing an overall story credit. But their work in Singin’ in the Rain would enshrine Kelly as an icon in the Tinsel Town pantheon. The film included some of the screen’s most memorable choreography, most notably Kelly’s indelible water-drenched romp to the title song.
In the 1950s, the movie musical declined, as illustrated by the tepid public and critical reception accorded to Kelly’s last MGM productions, among them the disappointing Brigadoon (1954) and the underrated It’s Always Fair Weather (1956), a dance film that Kelly directed, choreographed and starred in. The latter boasted a “Sinbad the Sailor” segment that critics often laud for its skillful fusion of live action and cartoon.
Kelly went on to explore other options. He directed the Broadway mounting of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song and choreographed an original ballet for the Paris Opéra Ballet. In the late 1950s, Kelly was asked by the television show “Omnibus” to produce a documentary about dance and athletics. He complied with the inventive Dancing: A Man’s Game.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Kelly appeared on both the big and small screen, whether appearing in cameos on television or acting as a narrator for compilation films such as That’s Entertainment! His last major film role was in the poorly received Xanadu (1980).
With his virile grace and singular athleticism, Kelly left a vivid legacy as a film dancer and choreographer. The image of Kelly frolicking about with an umbrella has left enough “glorious feelings” for generations to come. DT