Although Gene Kelly (1912-1996) established his reputation as an actor and dancer, his contribution to the Hollywood musical also embraces choreography and direction.
Gene Kelly's experiments with dance and with ways of filming it include combining dance and animation (Anchors Aweigh and Invitation to the Dance), and special effects (The "Alter Ego" number in Cover Girl and the split-screen dance of It's Always Fair Weather). His first attempts at film choreography relied on the established formulas of the film musical, but subsequently, particularly in the three films he co-directed with Stanley Donen, he developed a flexible system of choreography for the camera that took into account camera setups and movement, and editing.
Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1912, and was the middle son of five children. His father was Canadian-born and loved sports, especially hockey. Every winter Kelly, Sr., would flood the family backyard and make an ice rink for hockey. As quoted in the New Yorker, Kelly remembered how the sport would later influence his dancing: "I played ice hockey as a boy and some of my steps come right out of the game—wide open and close to the ground." At 15 Kelly was playing with a semi-professional ice hockey team. Yet, he was also influenced by his mother's love of the theater. In fact, it was she who sent him to dancing lessons.
In 1929 Kelly left for Pennsylvania State college, but because of the Great Depression, his family lost their money, and Kelly had to move back home and attend the University of Pittsburgh in order to save the cost of room and board. Eventually, all five children would graduate from that school. While at Pitt, Kelly worked at a variety of odd jobs to pay his tuition: ditchdigger, soda jerk, gas pumper. Kelly's mother began to work as a receptionist at a local dance school, and she came up with the idea of the family running its own dance studio. They did and the studio was a big success.
After graduation from the University of Pittsburgh, Kelly attended law school. After only a month, he decided that law was not the career for him. He quit and continued to teach dance for another six years. In 1937 he left for New York, and was confident enough of his talent to believe that he would find work. He was right. He landed a job his first week in New York. Kelly's big break came in 1940 when he was cast as the lead in the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. He played the part of an Irish nightclub singer who was a good-for-nothing loner.
The show was a hit and Kelly attracted the attention of producer-songwriter Arthur Freed, who convinced his boss, Hollywood studio executive Louis B. Mayer, to see the show. Mayer liked what he saw and told Kelly that he would like to have him under contract for the MGM studio. But it was Mayer's nephew, David O. Selznick, who signed Kelly to a contract in 1942. After six months, Kelly's contract was sold to MGM and he worked for MGM for the next 16 years.
His first Hollywood film was For Me and My Gal (1942), in which he starred opposite Judy Garland. Garland was only 20, but she had begun working in films at the age of 16. It was she who insisted that Kelly have the role, and she tutored him in how to act for the wide screen. "I knew nothing about playing to the camera," Kelly told Architectural Digest. "It was Judy who pulled me through." He learned quickly, however. After a couple of years doing stock musicals, Kelly made a breakthrough with Cover Girl (1944). Of his work in Cover Girl, Kelly told Interview: "[That's] when I began to see that you could make dances for cinema that weren't just photographed stage dancing. That was my big insight into Hollywood, and Hollywood's big insight into me."
Gene Kelly established his reputation as an actor and dancer, but his contribution to the Hollywood musical includes choreography and direction. His experiments with dance and with film technique include combining the two, as demonstrated in such films as Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Invitation to the Dance (1956). He also made use of special effects, as in the "Alter-Ego" number in Cover Girl (1944), where he danced with his reflection, or in the split-screen dance of It's Always Fair Weather (1957). His first attempts at film choreography relied on the established formulas of the film musical, but subsequently he developed a flexible system of choreography for the camera that took into account camera setups, movement, and editing.
Kelly consciously integrated dance into film in order to help the audience gain insight into the types of characters he played. For example, the song-and-dance man of For Me and My Gal is a common, unpretentious character, and his principal dances are tap routines—the kind of dance accessible to the general public of the era. The sailor of the "A Day in New York" sequence from On the Town is introspective and his dance is therefore more lyrical and balletic. The swashbuckler of the dream dances in Anchors Aweigh (1945) and The Pirate (1948) is an athletic performer, combining the forceful turns of ballet with acrobatic stunts.
Kelly often played a guy who feels that the best way to get what he wants is to impress people. He almost always realizes, however, that his brashness offends people, and that he will more easily succeed by being himself. The worldly wise sailor trying to impress Vera-Ellen in On the Town (1949) is really just a boy from Meadowville, Indiana. In The Pirate the actor Serafin pretends he is a treacherous pirate in order to win Judy Garland's heart, but it is the lowly actor that she really wants. In An American in Paris (1951) Kelly plays an aggressive painter, and in It's Always Fair Weather (1955) he portrays a cool and sophisticated New Yorker. Yet, underneath each of these characters' masks are the charming and clever "true" selves, which are expressed wittily through song and dance.
Though Kelly's characters are naturally high-spirited, they also have a somewhat sad aspect and tend to brood about their loneliness at key moments in the films. Kelly expresses the loneliness in dances that are almost meditations on the characters' feelings. After Gaby has lost Miss Turnstiles for the second time in On the Town, he dreams the ballet "A Day in New York." The isolation of his character is emphasized by the anonymity of the other dancers as well as the disappearance of Vera-Ellen. The ballet in An American in Paris serves a similar thematic purpose. The "Alter-Ego" dance in Cover Girl expresses Kelly's anxiety over losing his girlfriend, and the squeaky-board dance number in Summer Stock (1950) is a rumination on his new feeling for Judy Garland's character.
Kelly's performances left the impression that anyone— sailors, soldiers, ball players—could sing and dance. As he matured, his characters took on greater dimension, responding to the anxiety of city living, falling in love, and being lonely by distilling such experiences into dance.
And while most of his audiences were not really aware of Kelly's sophisticated techniques—thus the magic— virtually all found him uniquely appealing as a leading man. Nowhere was he more engaging than in 1952's Singin' in the Rain. One of the all-time great movie musicals, and perhaps the film most associated with Kelly, this comedy illustrates the late-1920s transition from silent pictures to "talkies." Singin' in the Rain showcased the considerable acting, singing, and dancing gifts of Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor, but it is Kelly who dances away with the movie. His rendition of the title song has become an icon of American entertainment; Kelly makes a driving rain his partner, communicating the joy in movement at the heart of all his performances.
Gene Kelly will always be remembered for his incredible contribution—through dance performance, choreography, and photography—to the genre of the movie musical. While he had some success in nonmusical films— Christmas Holiday, Marjorie Morningstar, Inherit the Wind—his legacy lies in dance. Kelly died on February 2, 1996.
Further Reading on Gene Kelly
Griffith, Richard, The Cinema of Gene Kelly, New York, 1962.
Springer, John, All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing, New York, 1966.
Kobal, John, Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, New York, 1970.
Burrows, Michael, Gene Kelly, Cornwall, England, 1971.
Thomas, Lawrence B., The MGM Years, New Rochelle, New York, 1972.
Knox, Donald, The Magic Factory, New York, 1973.
Hirschhorn, Clive, Gene Kelly: A Biography, London, 1974; rev. ed., 1984.
Thomas, Tony, The Films of Gene Kelly, Song and Dance Man, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1974; rev. ed., 1991.
Delameter, Jerome, Dance in the Hollywood Musical, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.
Thomas, Tony, That's Dancing, New York, 1985.
Altman, Rick, The American Film Musical, Bloomington, Indiana, 1989.
Cinema, December 1966.
American Film (Washington, D.C.), February 1979.
Film Comment (New York), November/December 1984.
American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1985.
Interview, May 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, 13 May 1994.