Talking Pictures

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Gene Kelly – dancer, choreographer, director.

Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2012

Kelly was born in Pittsburgh on August 23rd 1912: he died in Beverley Hills in 1996. His parents were Irish-American Catholic immigrants.  He took dance classes in his teens and then started performing in clubs with his brother Fred. He studied at the University of Pittsburgh where he was awarded a BA in the Arts. He also became involved in the University Cap and Gown club, which staged musical comedies: and he develops his sporting interests and his athleticism.

The family became involved in a Dance Studio in the late 1920s and in 1932 it became the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance. Kelly’s work as a teacher was an important skill, which served him well later in his career. He had a part in a musical revue at a Pittsburgh Theatre and in 1937 he moved to New York to seek work as choreographer. In New York Kelly met the choreographer John Alton who was to be a major influence: he also studied ballet and with an African-American dancer/teacher. There he met the first of his three wives, Betsy Blair. Kelly was a liberal and democratic supporter; Blair was a supporter of popular left causes. Both were to suffer later from the attentions of HUAC: Blair herself was blacklisted and had to move to Europe to work.

Kelly’s first major part was in the show The Time of Your Life in 1939. His big break came when he played Joey Evans in the musical Pal Joey from the pens of Rodgers and Hart. The part seems to have set Kelly with a character type: you can gauge what this was by the fact that the later film version had Joey played by Frank Sinatra.

David O. Selznick made one of several Hollywood offers to Kelly. Having signed a contract Kelly was then loaned out to MGM. His first appearance was in For Me and My Girl (1942), opposite Judy Garland and with director Busby Berkeley. The film, which celebrates Vaudeville and its contribution of the World War I efforts, was relatively successful. Arthur Freed then bought up the whole of Kelly’s contract. From his earliest days at the Studio Kelly alternated musicals with dramatic features. The persona suggested in For Me and My Girl [and preceded by Pal Joey} of a character caught between ambition and integrity and between flirtation and commitment was to become the regular character that Kelly projected on screen.

His musical breakthrough on the big screen came with a film made on loan for Columbia, Cover Girl (1944) opposite Rita Hayworth. Kelly now started his increasing tendency to control and choreograph his own dancing. The film is notable for a sequence in a night-time street where Kelly dances with his reflection in a shop window. His input as both choreographer and dancer, with a hint of director was even more notable in the following film, Anchors Aweigh (1945). Here he was teamed for the first time with Frank Sinatra, as sailors on shore leave. And he played opposite Kathryn Grayson, not the most appropriate style of leading actress for Kelly. What made the film stand out was Kelly’s interest in cinematic innovation, in this case a sequence where he dances with animated characters.

Following His appearance in Ziegfeld Follies Kelly enlisted in the US Naval Air Service where he mainly worked on documentaries for the Service. The experience increased his interest in the workings and possibilities of the film medium. After a B-movie drama Kelly returned to working with Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli in The Pirate (1948) with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. This is an extravagant costume musicals and was not especially successful at the time, but which has gained in reputation since. It displays Minnelli interest in pastiche and occasional camp presentation. It also offers a rare appearance of African-American star dancers on the screen, the Nicholas Brothers. One of Kelly’s more memorable dramatic roles followed: an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, with Kelly as D’Artagnan. His athleticism, so obvious in his dancing, was also apparent in his agility in the various fights and sword fights. He contributed another musical sequence to a biopic-cum-review musical, Words and Music (1948, the subjects were Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart]. This was the memorable Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Vera-Ellen.

He was teamed again with Sinatra in Take Me out to the Ball Game (1949). This film set the scene for On the Town (1949), one of Kelly’s outstanding contributions to the film musical. On both films he worked closely with Stanley Donen. They had already worked together on Broadway. It was Kelly who brought Donen out to Hollywood. They team effort benefited both: Donen developing his directorial talents, whilst Kelly concentrated on choreography. On the Town was also innovative in using the actual New York locations for the film: part of a wider trend to take the camera out into town and cities for real locations.

Frank Sinatra, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly and New York

An American in Paris (1951) has the memorable 17-minute ballet set to the music of George Gershwin. The represents the most notable example of the way that Kelly, [probably more than anyone else], brought ballet, as opposed to Tap, into centre of the Hollywood musical. This developed out of the arrival of modern dance on Broadway, notably in the stage productions of Oklahoma and the choreography of Agnes de Mille.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the most famous example of Hollywood musical comedy and contains the iconic song and dance sequence … in the rain [studio manufactured]. This latter film depends very much on the partnership between Kelly and Donen. The sequence was carefully prepared and choreographed, right down to the position of the puddles in which Kelly tramples exuberantly.

Both these famous films use a different leading lady: one aspect of Kelly’s persona was that he never developed the long-running partnership that characterised Fred Astaire films with [for example] Ginger Rogers. Kelly did dance in the later film with Cyd Charisse. And he partnered her again in Brigadoon (1954). The problems of the Studio system in the 1950s and the declining popularity of the musical meant that this film was entirely a studio production. It did, however, give Minnelli the opportunity to use the new widescreen process of CinemaScope very effectively.

In between Kelly had spent nearly two years in Europe, partly it would seem to avoid the attentions of HUAC: [he had joined in the lobby of The Committee for the First Amendment, which supported the ‘Hollywood ten’]. It was also useful for MGM who could use profits that they were prohibited from exporting back to the USA. The project, Invitation to the Dance (1956) was Kelly’s boldest experiment in dance and innovation onscreen, but it was flop when finally released.

However, the declining fortunes of Hollywood and the Musical are also apparent in It’s Always Fair Weather (1956). The trio of buddies from On the Town are reunited ten years on [using more or less the same production personnel but with different stars apart from Kelly]. However, life has soured them and their situations. The film is only able to salvage their friendship by an over-the-top plot mechanism, which offers Hollywood the chance to take a swipe at its younger rival television. The film does contain a brilliant sequence where Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kydd dance on dustbin lids. And there is a terrific dance number by Cyd Charisse in a boxing gym, but the film never achieves the elan of On the Town. Kelly’s last musical at MGM was Les Girls (1957}: it featured three leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendal and Taina Elg and Kelly in his most overt portrayal of the philanderer since Pal Joey.

His later career included extensive work on stage and for Television. He appeared in the French film musical Les Demoiselles du Rochefort (1967), a very French take on the Hollywood musical by Jacques Demy. Kelly’s other film work was mainly dramatic, or as a director or producer. His most notable dramatic role was in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960) where he played the cynical journalist Hornbeck, up against Spencer Tracy’s magisterial Clive Darrow, the embodiment of integrity and commitment. Kelly’s most notable directorial achievement was working with Barbara Streisand on Hello Dolly (1969). This was shot in deluxe colour and Todd AO: surviving prints has faded badly, though it would still be a great screening to be able to enjoy.

Then in the 1980s MGM cashed in their back catalogue of great music, great stars and great performances – That’s Entertainment I and II (1974 and 1976), followed by That’s Dancing

(1985) and finally That’s Entertainment III (1994). Kelly was both a narrative host and a featured artist in these compilations: then an executive producer. They were surprisingly popular, demonstrating the lasting pleasures that survived from the studio musical era.

Kelly’s great contribution to the film musical was in the years he spent at MGM. He was a fine and athletic dancer but also a skilled choreographer who brought a range of influences to his work. In terms of the film medium he was both an experimenter and an innovator. From the mid-40s to the mid-50s he was a leading force in transforming the Hollywood musical.

Kelly’s character in the musicals is a world away from the man-about-town established by Fred Astaire. Kelly is the ‘ordinary Joe’, a character central to Hollywood’s value system. In the studio he almost always wore a T-shirt, slacks, and sneakers; and his on-screen costumes mainly mirror this. So Kelly is a far more proletarian character than Astaire is and most of the other male musical stars. He himself talked about any sort of man being able to express himself in dance, giving as an example a plumber. Even when Kelly has a more elite career it has that ordinary man angle: in An American in Paris he is a painter, but also an ex-GI: in It’s Always Fair Weather his is a promoter, but of boxing bouts.

The settings for Kelly’s major dance performances mirror this. Whilst Astaire is most at home in clubs, theatres and hotels Kelly is found most frequently in the street. There are several street numbers in Cover Girl, New York city is central to On the Town, and It’s Always Fair Weather has two great sequences, involving dustbin lids and then roller-skates in the street.

The later is another of his famous solo dances. Kelly, more than any other male dance star, chose to frequently dance alone, though often uses props like a mop (Thousand Cheers. 1943) or newspapers [Summer Stock). Whilst most of the musical plots are constructed around a romance, in a film like It’s Always Fair Weather there is actually no great romantic number between the male and female lead. This film unusually has a great performance with Cyd Charisse performing alone in front of a male chorus of boxers. Few women were allowed this accolade, Judy Garland in singing numbers, and notably Ann Miller with a dance like ‘Pre-historic man’ in On the Town.

In retrospect it is interesting to examine Kelly through the prism Richard’s Dyer’s Utopian categories.

Energy and Intensity – there is no doubting these qualities in Kelly’s performances. One of the most remarkable would be the Macoco pirate dance from The Pirate. The energy and intensity is there in Kelly’s dancing, in the music, in the mise en scène and in the dynamic camerawork. Romantic numbers, like the final ballet in An American in Paris, show far less energy but greater intensity. Intensity and energy also seems to have been an aspect of Kelly’s professional character. There is perfectionism and an insistent quality about the preparation and construction of the many famous sequences. And his co-stars also felt this: Leslie Caron recalls how Kelly worked with her ‘to get it right’!

Abundance is an essential part of the MGM musical. It is there quite clearly in the production values of the films. A film like Ziegfeld Follies, in which Kelly makes his only appearance partnering Fred Astaire, drips opulence in every scene, even when that scene is downtown, downmarket Chinatown. On the Town offers audiences domestically and overseas the abundance of the victorious post-war USA. Intriguingly, ten years on, It’s Always Fair Weather also offers an abundance but one that has developed a sour taste in the mouth.

Transparency is a much more problematic value in the world of Gene Kelly. His typical character has a Manichean split. In An American in Paris he is torn between his worldly wise ambition, represented by an older rich female patron Milo  (Nina Foch)and romance in the shape of sweet, innocent Lise – (Leslie Caron). These contradictory impulses fuel most of the plots of his film musicals. Kelly has to reform, represented in An American in Paris, in the final impressive ballet sequence. One of the few musicals where he lacks this cynical tendency is Brigadoon. However, in this film the negative character values appear to have been all loaded onto his friend and sidekick Jeff (Van Johnson), who is probably the most negative character in any Hollywood musical.

Gene kelly and Van Johnson – Tommy and Jeff.

Community is an important trait in the Hollywood musical. However, the scripts have to work hard to achieve this in Kelly vehicles. There is his strong tendency to solo performance as against pairings or group dances: so in It’s Always Fair Weather he and Cyd Charisse do not actually dance together at all. The films work to counteract this by providing Kelly with sidekicks, the most famous being Frank Sinatra in Anchors Away, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. And indeed in the later two films we actually get a trio of buddies centre screen.

Another plot device frequently used in Kelly films is to have a performance that involves groups of children. This works well because it taps into Kelly’s experience and skills as a dance teacher. It is a major plot line in Anchors Aweigh and recurs in Living in a Big Way (1947) and in An American in Paris where he introduces French kids to Gershwin.

Community is often a major problem in Kelly’s straight film roles. In Inherit the Wind his cyclical journalist Hornbeck is the outsider. He makes cracks both about the sincere but bigoted (Fredrick March) and also about the liberal Clive Darrow (Spencer Tracy). Marjorie Morningstar (1958) handles the problem in an interesting manner: Kelly finally relinquishes both his musical ambitions and the love of Marjorie (Natalie Wood) to return to the Summer Camp theatricals where they first met. But this is clearly an artificial community, which is divorced from life and the real world.

All these contradictions would seem to feed into Kelly’s distinctive character. But over and above this his drive and ambition meant that he experimented and innovated all through his career. The increased presence of balletic dance, the idea that men can dance and remain masculine, the willingness to site dance in any setting and to use any location or prop fed into the musicals that followed. Unfortunately dance became less central as the Hollywood musical slipped from being a mainstream genre to an occasional event film: there is not a lot of dance in Gigi (1958), The Sound of Music (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964). But Hello Dolly has great dancing sequences; the movie fails through miscasting. And when Hollywood does return to the musical from the 1970s onwards the legacy of Kelly is there: Saturday Night Fever (1977) is prepared like Kelly’s films to treat the male dancer as an object of admiration and even erotic pleasure: Fame (1980) finally emerges triumphantly into a large-scale street dancing celebration: and Mamma Mia is able to choreograph a dance around a clothes line.

These notes are taken from a course that accompanied a season of Gene Kelly films at the National Media Museum in Bradford: a student’s take on the course can be found on too.

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