Thursday, August 23 marked the 100 anniversary of the birth of Gene Kelly, widely considered one of Hollywood’s greatest musical stars. To celebrate, TCM chose to air a 24-hour block of Kelly’s movies during Day 23 of their month-long celebration, “Summer Under the Stars”.
It’s interesting to note that Kelly only starred in a total of 34 feature films during his five decades in motion pictures. Even more interesting is the fact that of those films, fourteen were non-musicals. That said, it is however, those 20 musicals for which Kelly is best remembered.
Direct from Broadway’s “Pal Joey” for his 1942 big screen debut alongside Judy Garland in “For Me and My Gal”, Kelly became and instant star. He and Garland would go on to appear in another five films together. His next picture, 1943’s “Du Barry Was a Lady” sandwiched him between riotous red-heads, Red Skelton and Lucille Ball.
Kelly appeared in his first non-musical next. As Vito Alessandro, Kelly proved his acting chops in the 1943 war drama, “Pilot #5”. With Hollywood still trying to figure out if Kelly would be their next matinee idol or musical star, that same year saw him return to the big screen in another musical “Thousands Cheer”, and another war drama, “The Cross of Lorraine”.
Kelly’s next film was 1944’s “Cover Girl” co-starring Rita Hayworth. This film also marked Kelly’s first attempt at movie choreography, although he didn’t receive on-screen credit alongside the film’s official choreographers Seymour Felix and Val Raset. Kelly’s uncredited efforts weren’t the only ones. Stanley Donen and the similarly named, but unrelated Fred Kelly, also contributed to the film’s choreography.
That same year, Kelly starred in “Christmas Holiday”. Even though Kelly is cast opposite Deanna Durbin, who was Universal Studio’s big musical star at the time, and in spite of Durbin belting out two songs, including Irving Berlin’s “Always”, the film is not a musical. This rarely seen film noir gem, loosely based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1939 novel, showcases Kelly’s versatility as an actor. No song and dance routine here, he’s cast as a smooth talking murderer. It also allowed Durbin to step out of her usual ‘good girl’ as she played a less-than-pure dance hall hostess.
If there was any doubt as to which genre would allow Kelly to flourish, his Oscar nominated turn in 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh” would set the pace for a huge career in musical movies. The film would also mark the first of five times Kelly would share the screen with another of musical movies’ biggest stars, Frank Sinatra.
As if an Oscar win and a double bill of Sinatra and Kelly weren’t enough, “Anchors Aweigh” is also famous for yet another of Kelly’s duet partners in the film. The film includes a dance sequence, choreographed by Kelly, in which he trips the light fantastic with none-other-than Jerry Mouse from MGM’s famed cartoon duo, “Tom and Jerry”. Kelly’s duet with Jerry Mouse was just he first of many unique and ground-breaking ways in which the inventive dancer would dance on screen.
His next film appearance, 1945’s star-studded review, “Ziegfeld Follies”, would again re-team his with Astaire, this time in a vaudevillian song-and-dance featuring synchronized tap as only Astaire and Kelly could do.
Following 1947’s “Living in a Big Way”, a mostly forgettable film, save the Kelly-created dance sequences, Kelly would reunite on-screen with Judy Garland in 1948’s The Pirate”. Not only a reunion between two of MGM’s biggest stars, but also the first time Kelly was credited as ‘dance director’.
For his next picture, Kelly would join the stellar cast of “The Three Musketeers”. Among his co-stars: Van Heflin, Robert Coote, Gig Young, Lana Turner, June Allyson and Angela Lansbury. Even though the film was a straight action movie and not a musical, fan’s were treated to a swordplay sequences choreographed by Kelly.
1949 bought about two more musical films, Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “On The Town”, both of which co-starred Frank Sinatra. Take Me Out” also stars Ester Williams, while “On the Town” features Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen. MGM studio favorite, Betty Garrett also shared the screen with Kelly and Sinatra in both films. Garrett would go on to TV fame several years later, first as Archie Bunker’s liberal neighbor, Irene Lorenzo on “All in the Family”, then as “Laverne & Shirley”‘s landlady Edna Babish.
Kelly turned up in another film noir, 1950’s “Black Hand”, before teaming again with Judy Garland for “Summer Stock” that same year. Directed by Garland’s then-hubby, Vincente Minnelli, Garland and Kelly’s on-screen highlight comes during a barn dance sequence while the song “Portland Fancy” plays in the background, turning a friendly square dance into a heated dance-off. One of the film’s most ingenious scenes features Kelly dancing solo, to the tune of “You Wonderful You”, using the creaky boards of an old barn and a discarded newspaper for clever sound effects during his dance number. The film also introduced what would become one of Judy Garland’s signature songs, and looks. Dressed a tuxedo jacket over a black dance leotard with nylons and a fedora, Garland belts out “Get Happy” in the final moments of the film.
Again directed by Minnelli, sans Garland, Kelly co-starred in 1951 with Leslie Caron and Oscar Levant in “An American in Paris”. The undeniable highlight of his film comes near the end during a party at which all the guests are dressed in black and white. The use of black and white costuming adds not only elegance to the scene, but also beautifully compliments the seriousness of the storyline at that moment.
“It’s A Big Country” was also released in 1951. Comprised of a series of eight separate stories, ranging in theme from racism to religion, Kelly co-stars with Janet Leigh in a vignette about discourse between two families, based solely on their heritage.
The undisputed pinnacle of Kelly’s career came in 1952 with “Singin’ In The Rain”. I recently saw this film on the big screen for the first time during TCM and Fathom Events’ 60th Anniversary theatrical re-release, and I have to say, it was truly magical. I’d seen the film on TV before, but nothing compares to seeing a large-scale movie on the big screen as it was intended. Of course the film is famous for Kelly’s rain-soaked street dance, but there’s so much more to the movie than that. I was particularly struck by the fluidity of movement from the entire cast, even while simply walking, they all seem to float, no doubt a result of Kelly doubling as co-director, alongside noted choreographer, Stanley Donen.
A prime example of the actors appearing to float, rather than walk, comes during a scene when Kelly and co-star, Debbie Reynolds first feel romantic sparks outside a movie studio. While they talk/flirt, the two continually cross in front of each other, and turn to constantly remain face to face. It’s true purposeful direction at its best. Another noteworthy sequences features Cyd Charisse, Kelly, about a 100 feet of flowing fabric and industrial fans placed just off-camera. As the fabric billows around the two dancers, the audience is swept up into a dreamlike sequence that’s simply breathtaking.
Following “The Devil Makes Three”, a post-war thriller, Kelly would again dance with Charisse, this time in 1954’s “Brigadoon”. That same year, mostly as a favor to director Stanley Donen, Kelly would appear alongside Fred Kelly in a single dance sequence in “Deep in My Heart”.
1955 would not only see Kelly and Donan co-directing for a second time, but also re-team the star with Charisse once again in “It’s Always Fair Weather”. A highlight of the film occurs when Kelly, in roller-skates, tap-dances and sings “I Like Myself”. Astute fans will remember he and Judy Garland did a tap-dancing, roller-skating in “For Me and My Gal” more than a decade earlier.
1956’s “Invitation to the Dance”, written, directed and starring Gene Kelly, is, aside from 1948’s “The Red Shoes”, one of the most beautifully filmed dance movies ever made. Presented in three separate segments with no dialogue, it’s as close to attending ballet at the movie theatre, as you can get. The first vignette, ‘Circus’, presents Kelly as a clown/mime with an unrequited love for the circus’ gorgeous showgirl, played by Claire Sombert. Problem is, she’s in love with the star aerialist (Igor Youskevitch). The story contains several beautifully choreographed and executed numbers, including a fanciful clown sequence where Kelly appears draped in props, with several masks adorning his costume. As other members of the troupe emerge on screen, they pick their props and masks off of Kelly’s costume and once the dance is complete, they’re returned to his costume. Another beautiful moment comes near the end of the sequence when Kelly’s mime, in an attempt to win the affection of the girl, attempts a highwire act. When she rushes out to see him, she drops her red cape. As Kelly’s mime comes crashing down, he lands on the cape, thus creating a visualization of a pool of red blood around him.
The second segment, titled ‘Ring Around the Rosy’, features the familiar childhood tune amped up for an adult audience thanks to Kelly’s choreography and Andre Previn’s updated score. Previn even appears as the piano player in the sequence. For the story, the ‘ring’ is a bejeweled gold bracelet. During what appears to be an anniversary party, the bracelet is passes first from husband (David Paltenghi) to wife (Daphne Dale). She then offers it to an artist (danced by Youskevitch) who is in attendance to unveil a portrait he has painted of the wife. The artist then offers the bracelet to a beautiful model (Claude Bessy), who in turn gives it to the pianist (Previn), and so on. Through some clever dance-sequence storytelling, the bracelet eventually winds up back in the hands of the husband, who by the segment’s end, places it upon a grateful wife’s wrist.
The final installment in this ingenious film is a modern take on ‘Sinbad and the Sailor’. Kelly, as a sailor at port somewhere in the Middle East, winds up with a magic lamp. A quick rub and he’s joined by a pint-sized Genie (David Kasday). The young Genie is able to keep step with Kelly throughout the vignette. Expanding on what he had done in “Anchors Aweigh” with animated pal, Jerry Mouse, the Genie soon transports Kelly into a storybook world that combines animation (courtesy of Hanna Barbera) and reality. Along the way he meets a beautiful animated princess and battles and hoofs it up with two unwitting animated guards. After seeing this film, it seems obvious Disney animators were either paying homage to the film, or flat out ripping it of in recent years, due to the similarities between sequences first seen in this film and characters and segments featured years later in Disney’s “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas”.
Kelly would star in another nine films between the late fifties and his final big screen finale in 1980’s “Xanadu”. Often panned, especially after 2007’s Broadway musical adaptation, “Xanadu”, when given a second look, is nothing more than a loving homage to Kelly and the film genre he helped mold. After all, muse Kira (Olivia Newton-John) and her would-be love, Sonny (Michael Beck) are little more than modern versions of Garland and Kelly in their first film, “For Me and My Gal”. Heck, they’re even on roller-skates! Something else I hadn’t realized until the recent aforementioned big-screen viewing of “Singin’ in the Rain”, the scene in “Xanadu” were Sonny takes Kira to the studio where he magically transforms lights and a wind machine into a romantic balcony…straight out of “Singin’ in the Rain” when Kelly does the exact same thing while giving Debbie Reynolds a look at the movie studio. Casting Kelly in the role of Danny McQuire, who lost his muse back in the 40s was simply genius casting and a loving homage to one of American cinema’s most beloved acting/singing/dancing treasures.
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