Gene Kelly: “I’m Singing in the rain”
Gene Kelly in 1943
Eugene Curran “Gene” Kelly (August 23, 1912 – February 2, 1996) was an American dancer, actor, singer, film director and producer, and choreographer. Kelly was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks and the likeable characters that he played on screen.
Although he is known today for his performances in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, he was a dominant force in Hollywood musical films from the mid 1940s until this art form fell out of fashion in the late 1950s. His many innovations transformed the Hollywood musical film, and he is credited with almost single-handedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences.
Kelly was the recipient of an Academy Honorary Award in 1952 for his career achievements. He later received lifetime achievement awards in the Kennedy Center Honors, and from the Screen Actors Guild and American Film Institute; in 1999, the American Film Institute also numbered him 15th in their Greatest Male Stars of All Time list.
After a fruitless search, Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, to his first position as a choreographer with the Charles Gaynor musical revue Hold Your Hats at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in April, 1938. Kelly appeared in six of the sketches, one of which, “La Cumparsita”, became the basis of an extended Spanish number in Anchors Aweigh eight years later.
His first Broadway assignment, in November 1938, was as a dancer in Cole Porter‘s Leave It to Me! as the American ambassador’s secretary who supports Mary Martin while she sings “My Heart Belongs to Daddy“. He had been hired by Robert Alton who had staged a show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and been impressed by Kelly’s teaching skills. When Alton moved on to choreograph One for the Moneyhe hired Kelly to act, sing and dance in a total of eight routines. In 1939, he was selected to be part of a musical revue “One for the Money” produced by the actress Katharine Cornell, who was known for finding and hiring talented young actors.
Kelly’s first career breakthrough was in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life, which opened on October 25, 1939, where for the first time on Broadway he danced to his own choreography. In the same year he received his first assignment as a Broadway choreographer, for Billy Rose‘s Diamond Horseshoe. His future wife, Betsy Blair, was a member of the cast. They began dating and married on October 16, 1941.
In 1940, he was given the leading role in Rodgers and Hart‘s Pal Joey, again choreographed by Robert Alton, and this role propelled him to stardom. During its run he 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.” It was at this time also, that his phenomenal commitment to rehearsal and hard work was noticed by his colleagues. Van Johnson who also appeared in Pal Joey recalled: “I watched him rehearsing, and it seemed to me that there was no possible room for improvement. Yet he wasn’t satisfied. It was midnight and we had been rehearsing since eight in the morning. I was making my way sleepily down the long flight of stairs when I heard staccato steps coming from the stage…I could see just a single lamp burning. Under it, a figure was dancing…Gene.”
Offers from Hollywood began to arrive but Kelly was in no particular hurry to leave New York. Eventually, he signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood at the end of his commitment to Pal Joey, in October 1941. Prior to his contract, he also managed to fit in choreographing the stage production of Best Foot Forward.
Film career – 1941–1944: Becoming established in Hollywood
Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry in Anchors Aweigh (1945)
Selznick sold half of Kelly’s contract to MGM and loaned him out to MGM for his first motion picture: For Me and My Gal (1942) with Judy Garland. Kelly was “appalled at the sight of myself blown up twenty times. I had an awful feeling that I was a tremendous flop” but the picture did well and, in the face of much internal resistance, Arthur Freed of MGM picked up the other half of Kelly’s contract. After appearing in the B-movie drama Pilot #5 he took the male lead in Cole Porter’s Du Barry Was a Lady opposite Lucille Ball. His first opportunity to dance to his own choreography came in his next picture Thousands Cheer, where he performed a mock-love dance with a mop.
He achieved his breakthrough as a dancer on film when MGM loaned him out to Columbia to work with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944), where he created a memorable routine dancing to his own reflection. In his next film Anchors Aweigh (1945), MGM virtually gave him a free hand to devise a range of dance routines, including the celebrated and much imitated animated dances with Jerry Mouse, and his duets with co-star Frank Sinatra. Anchors Aweigh became one of the most successful films of 1945 and it garnered Kelly his first and only Academy Award nomination forBest Actor. In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) – which was produced in 1944 but not released until 1946 – Kelly collaborated with Fred Astaire – for whom he had the greatest admiration – in the famous “The Babbitt and the Bromide” challenge dance routine.
At the end of 1944, Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Naval Air Service and was commissioned as lieutenant junior grade. He was stationed in the Photographic Section, Washington D.C., where he was involved in writing and directing a range of documentaries, and this stimulated his interest in the production side of film-making.
An American in Paris (1951)
On his return to Hollywood in the spring of 1946, MGM had nothing lined up and used him in yet another B-movie: Living in a Big Way. The film was considered so weak that Kelly was asked to design and insert a series of dance routines, and his ability to carry off such assignments was noticed. This led to his next picture with Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, a musical film version of S.N. Behrman‘s play The Pirate, with songs by Cole Porter, in which Kelly plays the eponymous swashbuckler. Now regarded as a classic, the film was ahead of its time and was not well received. The Pirate gave full rein to Kelly’s athleticism and is probably best remembered for Kelly’s work with The Nicholas Brothers – the leading African-American dancers of their day – in a virtuoso dance routine.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)
Although MGM wanted Kelly to return to safer and more commercial vehicles, he ceaselessly fought for an opportunity to direct his own musical film. In the interim, he capitalised on his swashbuckling image as d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. and also appeared with Vera-Ellen in the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet in Words and Music (1948). He was due to play the male lead opposite Garland in Easter Parade (1948), but broke his ankle playing volleyball. He withdrew from the film and encouraged Fred Astaire to come out of retirement to replace him. There followed Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), his second film with Sinatra, where Kelly paid tribute to his Irish heritage in The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick’s Day routine. It was this musical film which persuaded Arthur Freed to allow Kelly to make On the Town, where he partnered with Frank Sinatra for the third and final time, creating a breakthrough in the musical film genre which has been described as “the most inventive and effervescent musical thus far produced in Hollywood.”
Stanley Donen, brought to Hollywood by Kelly to be his assistant choreographer, received co-director credit for On the Town. According to Kelly: “…when you are involved in doing choreography for film you must have expert assistants. I needed one to watch my performance, and one to work with the cameraman on the timing..without such people as Stanley, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne I could never have done these things. When we came to do On the Town, I knew it was time for Stanley to get screen credit because we weren’t boss-assistant anymore but co-creators.” Together, they opened up the musical form, taking the film musical out of the studio and into real locations, with Donen taking responsibility for the staging and Kelly handling the choreography. Kelly went much further than before in introducing modern ballet into his dance sequences, going so far in the “Day in New York” routine as to substitute four leading ballet specialists for Sinatra, Munshin, Garrett and Miller.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
It was now Kelly’s turn to ask the studio for a straight acting role and he took the lead role in the early mafia melodrama: Black Hand (1950). This expose of organized crime is set in New York’s “Little Italy” the late 19th century, and focuses on the Black Hand, a group which extorts money upon threat of death. In the real-life incidents upon which this film is based, it was the Mafia, not the Black Hand, who functioned as the villain. Even in 1950, however, Hollywood had to tread gingerly whenever dealing with big-time crime; it was easier (and safer) to go after a “dead” criminal organization than a “live” one.
There followed Summer Stock (1950) – Judy Garland’s last musical film for MGM – in which Kelly performed the celebrated “You, You Wonderful You” solo routine with a newspaper and a squeaky floorboard. In his book “Easy the Hard Way”, Joe Pasternak, head of one of the other musical units within MGM, singled out Kelly for his patience and willingness to spend as much time as necessary to enable the ailing Garland to complete her part.
There followed in quick succession two musicals which have secured Kelly’s reputation as a major figure in the American musical film, An American in Paris(1951) and – probably the most popular and admired of all film musicals – Singin’ in the Rain (1952). As co-director, lead star and choreographer, Kelly was the central driving force. Johnny Green, head of music at MGM at the time, described him as follows:
“Gene is easygoing as long as you know exactly what you are doing when you’re working with him. He’s a hard taskmaster and he loves hard work. If you want to play on his team you’d better like hard work, too. He isn’t cruel but he is tough, and if Gene believed in something he didn’t care who he was talking to, whether it was Louis B. Mayer or the gatekeeper. He wasn’t awed by anybody, and he had a good record of getting what he wanted.”
An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, in the same year, Kelly was presented with an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film musicals and the art of choreography. The film also marked the debut of Leslie Caron, who Kelly had spotted in Paris and brought to Hollywood. Its dream ballet sequence, lasting an unprecedented seventeen minutes, was the most expensive production number ever filmed up to that point. It was described by Bosley Crowther as, “whoop-de-doo … one of the finest ever put on the screen.” Singin’ in the Rain featured Kelly’s celebrated and much imitated solo dance routine to the title song, along with the “Moses Supposes” routine with Donald O’Connor and the “Broadway Melody” finale with Cyd Charisse. Though the scene did not initially generate the same enthusiasm as An American in Paris, it subsequently overtook the earlier film to occupy its current pre-eminent place among critics and filmgoers alike.
1953–57: The Decline of the Hollywood Musical
Kelly, at the very peak of his creative powers, now made what in retrospect is seen as a serious mistake. In December 1951 he signed a contract with MGM which sent him to Europe for nineteen months so that Kelly could use MGM funds frozen in Europe to make three pictures while personally benefiting from tax exemptions. Only one of these pictures was a musical, Invitation to the Dance, a pet project of Kelly’s to bring modern ballet to mainstream film audiences. It was beset with delays and technical problems, and flopped when finally released in 1956. When Kelly returned to Hollywood in 1953, the film musical was already beginning to feel the pressures from television, and MGM cut the budget for his next picture Brigadoon (1954), with Cyd Charisse, forcing the film to be made on studio backlots instead of on location in Scotland. This year also saw him appear as guest star with his brother Fred in the celebrated “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen” routine in Deep in My Heart. MGM’s refusal to loan him out for Guys and Dolls and Pal Joey put further strains on his relationship with the studio. He negotiated an exit to his contract which involved making three further pictures for MGM.
The first of these, It’s Always Fair Weather (1956) co-directed with Donen, was a musical satire on television and advertising, and includes his famous roller skate dance routine to “I Like Myself”, and a dance trio with Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey which allowed Kelly to experiment with the widescreen possibilities of Cinemascope. A modest success, it was followed by Kelly’s last musical film for MGM, Les Girls (1957), in which he partnered a trio of leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg. The third picture he completed was a co-production between MGM and himself, the B-movie The Happy Road, set in his beloved France, his first foray in his new role as producer-director-actor.
1958–1996: Years of perseverance
Leaving MGM in 1957, Kelly returned to stage work. When in 1958 he 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 honoured with the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur by the French Government.
Kelly as Hornbeck in In herit the Wind
Kelly continued to make some film appearances, such as Hornbeck in the 1960 Hollywood production of In herit the Wind. However, most of his efforts were now concentrated on film production and directing. In 1962, he directed Jackie Gleason in Gigot in Paris, but the film was drastically re-cut by Seven Arts Productions and flopped. Another French effort, Jacques Demy‘s homage to the MGM musical: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) in which Kelly appeared, was popular in France and nominated for Academy Awards for Best Music and Score of a Musical Picture (Original or Adaptation) but performed poorly, elsewhere. He appeared as himself in George Cukor‘s Let’s Make Love (1960).
His first foray into television was a documentary for NBC‘s Omnibus, Dancing is a Man’s Game (1958) where he assembled a group of America’s greatest sportsmen – including Mickey Mantle, Sugar Ray Robinson and Bob Cousy – and re-interpreted their moves choreographically, as part of his lifelong quest to remove the effeminate stereotype of the art of dance, while articulating the philosophy behind his dance style. It gained an Emmy nomination for choreography and now stands as the key document explaining Kelly’s approach to modern dance.
Kelly also frequently appeared on television shows during the 1960s, but his one effort at television series, as Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way (1962–63), based on the Best Picture of 1944 starring Bing Crosby, was dropped after thirty episodes, although it enjoyed great popularity in Roman Catholic countries outside of the United States. He also appeared in three major TV specials: New York, New York (1966), The Julie Andrews’ Show (1965), and Jack and the Beanstalk (1967) a show he produced and directed which returned to a combination of cartoon animation with live dance, winning him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.
In 1963, Kelly joined Universal Pictures for a two-year stint, which proved to be the most unproductive period of his career at that point. He joined 20th Century Fox in 1965, but had little to do – partly due to his decision to decline assignments away from Los Angeles for family reasons. His perseverance finally paid off, with the major box-office hit A Guide for the Married Man (1967) where he directed Walter Matthau. Then, a major opportunity arose when Fox – buoyed by the returns from The Sound of Music (1965) – commissioned Kelly to direct Hello, Dolly! (1969), again directing Matthau along with Barbra Streisand, but which unfortunately failed to recoup the enormous production expenses.
In 1970, he made another TV special: Gene Kelly and 50 Girls and was invited to bring the show to Las Vegas, Nevada, which he duly did for an eight-week stint – on condition he be paid more than any artist had hitherto been paid there. He directed veteran actors James Stewart and Henry Fonda in the comedy western The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) which performed very well at the box-office. In 1973, he would work again with Frank Sinatra as part of Sinatra’s Emmy nominated TV special Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. Then, in 1974, he appeared as one of many special narrators in the surprise hit of the year That’s Entertainment! and subsequently directed and co-starred with his friend Fred Astaire in the sequel That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976). It was a measure of his powers of persuasion that he managed to coax the 77-year-old Astaire – who had insisted that his contract rule out any dancing, having long since retired – into performing a series of song and dance duets, evoking a powerful nostalgia for the glory days of the American musical film. Kelly continued to make frequent TV appearances and, in 1980, appeared in an acting and dancing role opposite Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu (1980), an expensive theatrical flop which has since attained a cult following. In Kelly’s opinion, “The concept was marvelous but it just didn’t come off.” In the same year, he was invited by Francis Ford Coppola to recruit a production staff for American Zoetrope’s One from the Heart (1982). Although Coppola’s ambition was for him to establish a production unit to rival the Freed Unit at MGM, the film’s failure put an end to this idea. In 1985, Kelly served as executive producer and co-host of That’s Dancing! – a celebration of the history of dance in the American musical. After his final on-screen appearance, introducing That’s Entertainment! III, in 1994, his final film project was the animated movie Cats Don’t Dance, released in 1997 and dedicated to him, on which Kelly acted as uncredited choreographic consultant.