Gene Kelly was one of the original song-and-dance men from the movie-musical golden age, credited with introducing ballet to mainstream film audiences and encouraging masculinity in dance. Kelly had considerable influence behind the camera, where he sought to change the way dance was presented and framed in film.
Eugene Curran Kelly (1912–1996) was born in Pittsburgh, where his mother enrolled him in dance classes at the age of 8. He and his four siblings grew up performing as The Five Kellys, though his brothers soon quit dancing once the neighborhood boys teased them. As a teenager, Kelly managed to juggle sports and dance and eventually ran a dance studio in his hometown—where his future second wife, Jeanne Coyne, became a student—even as he pursued a college degree in economics. He attended law school briefly before dropping out to focus on dance.
He got his comparatively late start on Broadway (he was 26) as a specialty dancer in the Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me! He soon snagged the lead in Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s new musical Pal Joey, where he managed to charm audiences even as he played a sleazy anti-hero. His performance attracted the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film scouts, and he soon made his way to Hollywood. But his big break didn’t happen until a few years later, with 1945’s Anchors Aweigh, in which Kelly displayed his ingenuity as a choreographer during his duet with the animated mouse Jerry, of “Tom and Jerry” fame.
The next couple of years saw a string of small hits until Kelly made the three films that would cement his career as a film choreographer willing to think outside of the box: On the Town (1949), for which he insisted on traveling to New York City to shoot certain scenes on location; An American in Paris (1951), which ended with a then-unheard-of 17-minute ballet; and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time, featuring Kelly’s eponymous tap dance scene.
But the rest of his career was downhill. His left-wing politics got him in trouble during the McCarthy era, and several of his later films, including Brigadoon, Hello Dolly! and Xanadu, were flops, though the last has attained a cult following. DT
Much of Kelly’s appeal was in his masculine, everyman persona. He was able to mesh several different forms of dance—tap, ballet, modern—into a hybrid form ripe with athleticism and vigor. Kelly once told interviewers, “I don’t believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand.”
The Legacy Lives On
Kelly’s insistence that his 17-minute ballet be included at the end of An American in Paris gave many moviegoers their first real glimpse of ballet. He also experimented with split screens (It’s Always Fair Weather), double images (Cover Girl, in which he danced with his own reflection) and mixing live action with animation (Anchors Aweigh), forever changing the way dance was presented on film.
Kelly broke his ankle during one of the legendarily competitive volleyball games held at the home that he and his first wife, Betsy Blair, shared—making him unavailable to work on his next picture, Easter Parade. To collect unemployment, Kelly told MGM head honcho L.B. Mayer that he’d hurt his ankle during rehearsal for the upcoming film; he also managed to coax Fred Astaire out of retirement to take his place.
Gene Kelly had a hand in more than 40 films over the course of his career, whether as a star, choreographer or director—and sometimes all three at once.
Anchors Aweigh (1945) Given the freedom to create his own dance numbers for the first time, Kelly proved himself an innovative choreographer with his “The King Who Couldn’t Dance (The Worry Song)” number, which paired him with the cartoon mouse Jerry.
On the Town (1949) Kelly co-directed this remake of the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical of the same name with Stanley Donen. In a push for authenticity, Kelly insisted on location shots of New York City—an expense previously not awarded to movie musicals.
An American in Paris (1951) Kelly’s unofficial role as director was so assured that the titular director, Vincente Minnelli, would often leave the set. The film’s 17-minute closing ballet helped earn it several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Kelly’s gleeful tap dance on a puddle-filled street has made this one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time. His unrelenting work ethic and quest for perfection was not lost on co-star Debbie Reynolds, who later said that childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain were the two hardest things she ever did in her life.
“Gene Kelly: How an American Icon Carved Out His Niche by Incorporating Athleticism into His Adopted Artform,” by Iris Dorbian, Dance Teacher, February 2005
The Films of Gene Kelly: Song and Dance Man, by Tony Thomas, The Citadel Press, 1974
Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams, by Alvin Yudkoff, Back Stage Books, 1999
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives