Few other performers can claim the title of “triple threat” so handily as Gene Kelly did with MGM in the 1940s and ’50s as an actor, a singer, and, of course, a dancer. But his career wasn’t limited to only those three titles; throughout the course of his professional life, he was also a producer, a director, a writer, a choreographer, and, all the while, an athlete. For a studio that claimed “more stars than there are in heaven,” Kelly was one of their brightest, an indelible association with the genre MGM took to new heights: the movie musical.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kelly’s father was a traveling phonograph salesman, and his mother worked as a bookkeeper for a local dance academy, where Kelly was enrolled for lessons with his brothers and sisters at a young age. When the Great Depression hit, Kelly earned extra money as a gymnastics instructor at the YMCA, and performed vaudeville numbers (like tap-dancing on roller skates) with his brother Fred at local amateur nights. In 1930, his mother opened her own dance school where Kelly worked as an instructor, helping to put on revues and variety shows that were hugely popular in the local community, and beginning to cultivate his own on-stage career and choreography techniques. By 1932, the academy was renamed the Gene Kelly School of Dance, opened a second branch, and had cultivated a reputation as one of the premiere studios in the area. Though he had an opportunity at RKO in 1935, the screen test proved unsuccessful, and Kelly returned to the east coast determined to make a mark on Broadway instead.
On the stage, Kelly toiled in small roles, but quickly made a name for himself by going above and beyond: from simple chorus boy in Cole Porter’s Leave It To Me he moved to being one of six costars in the revue One For the Money; when that show went on tour, he not only continued to perform his own role, but also coached the new players. He played comedian in The Time of Your Life for 20 weeks, choreographed a revue at the New York’s World Fair and another musical starring June Allyson, and during all that, found the time to marry his first wife, Betsy Blair, all by 1941. His Broadway success as the lead role in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, once again caught the attention of Hollywood, albeit with different results this time.
Though he’s most remembered as an MGM poster boy, it was actually David O. Selznick who ultimately brought the theatrical actor to Los Angeles from New York—under Kelly’s condition that he would not have to take a screen test. Yet upon arriving in Hollywood, he languished, unused, for much of his early contract. Selznick agreed to loan him to MGM for what would become Kelly’s film debut: For Me and My Gal, alongside Judy Garland. Kelly said that he knew nothing about playing to the camera, and credited the veteran actress with pulling him through the picture. The film proved enough of a success that MGM picked up the rest of his contract, and began testing him in a variety of parts, including a few musicals, but also a few dramas and war pictures that seem odd and out of place now. But these were not the meaty or innovative or particularly memorable roles that he’s remembered for today.
Once again, it came down to a studio loan to take his career to the next level; this time, an agreement with Columbia Pictures gave him the starring role in Cover Girl, opposite Rita Hayworth. It’s a fun picture, perhaps most notable (in Kelly terms) for the incredible “Alter Ego” dance number, in which Kelly and a ghostlike superimposition of his conscience (also Kelly) dance together within the same frame. It was an incredibly technically complicated scene, in which Kelly and Stanley Donen had to choreograph both the dance itself as well as the camera movements. It would’ve been easier, of course, to film the number with a stationary camera, but the final result would not have been nearly as impressive.
Back at MGM, Kelly would complete his first film with future repeat partner Frank Sinatra, this time the sailor musical Anchors Aweigh. We see another innovation here with Kelly’s partner dance with an animated Jerry the Mouse (though they’d originally wanted to use Mickey Mouse—but Disney, shockingly, refused to release the critter’s likeness to a rival studio). They reteamed for Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which Kelly cowrote and choreographed, directed by Busby Berkeley; and On the Town, another sailor musical, and one of the greatest outputs of Arthur Freed’s famed musical film unit at MGM. That film, codirected and cochoreographed by Kelly with Donen, was innovative too, though it might not be so apparent today—but the decision to use on-location filming was a unique choice, especially given Sinatra’s celebrity at the time. To minimize the effect of shrieking crowds affecting the filming, they transported him on the floor of a taxi cab, covered with jackets—maybe not quite the accommodations Sinatra was used to, but he did what he had to do to complete the movie.
Around that time, Kelly also teamed up again with Judy Garland for The Pirate (1948) and Summer Stock (1950). The Pirate was an imaginative musical with the benefit of Cole Porter music and the acrobatic dance stylings of the Nicholas Brothers. But it failed with audiences. Summer Stock was a fairly standard backstage musical, and not particularly inventive—especially considering he was about to make two of the biggest, most classic movie musicals of all time—but Kelly felt a loyalty to the woman who had helped ignite his film career. Summer Stock did contain two iconic numbers for both of the stars, though: Garland’s “Get Happy” performance, with the tuxedo jacket, hat, and nylon outfit that would be a cornerstone of her further image; and Kelly’s rhythmic newspaper ripping dance for “You Wonderful You.” Though classic and beautiful on screen, this was certainly one of those moments that helped establish Kelly’s reputation as a perfectionist and a bully—he deemed only one year of one newspaper’s printing to be the appropriate consistency to create the appropriate effect… so the production had to gather stacks and stacks of that particular newspaper, and hope that it would be enough. (It was, thankfully, and it made for an incredible moment on screen.)
Soon after, Kelly starred in Vincente Minnelli’s remarkable An American in Paris (1951), a thoughtful musical that featured the young Leslie Caron, whom Kelly had discovered himself in the Paris ballet. The film is a great example of Kelly’s ability to perform both the “high” and the “low;” we get both an incredible 17-minute ballet set to a classical Gershwin orchestration, as well as a hoofing number with a bunch of French kids to “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Both elements are necessary in understanding Kelly’s appeal—Bob Fosse once described that audiences liked him because he was “like a guy in their bowling team—only classier.”
Kelly’s final film within MGM’s so-called golden musical era was the one that, to many, still defines him—and to a greater extent, the movie musical itself—Singin’ in the Rain. With music successfully repurposed from earlier Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown collaborations, just about every number in the movie is a classic, and even with such lofty competition, Kelly’s performance of the title song is a moment of pure movie magic. Production on the film was rough for all of the cast members—Debbie Reynolds, who was not a dancer, was repeatedly criticized by Kelly and danced until her feet bled; Donald O’Connor had to be hospitalized for breathing problems after “Make ‘Em Laugh;” Kelly filmed the iconic rainy dance number with a 103° fever. But that’s why movies can be such a transcendent experience, as, even knowing those trivial facts, it’s hard to remember them with the pure joy of what is happening on screen.
The rest of Kelly’s time at MGM wasn’t particularly happy, with box office duds like the high-concept all-ballet film Invitation to the Dance (1955) and the goofy Brigadoon (1954), sadly confined to sound stages instead of the Scottish highlands. He bristled at not being able to convince the studio to loan him out for Guys and Dolls (1955), which would have paired him with Sinatra again, or Pal Joey (1957), the Broadway role that had brought him to stardom. Kelly’s final film with Arthur Freed was It’s Always Fair Weather, a heady, serious musical about the passage of time and friendship; his last musical overall at MGM was Les Girls, a breezy romp directed by George Cukor. Though they’d reached such heights only a few years prior, movie musicals had fallen too far out of favor to salvage at that point. Kelly’s last film with MGM was The Happy Road, which he starred in, produced, and directed.
Kelly’s image within the movie musical community was always inextricably entangled with the idea of masculinity; after his death in 1996, choreographer Twyla Tharp noted that he was “rightly credited with bringing a massive and much needed dose of vitality, masculinity and athleticism to American dance.” His muscular build alone set him apart from the sleeker, slimmer bodies of dancers like Fred Astaire; as he described, he was the Marlon Brando of film dance, as opposed to Astaire’s more refined Cary Grant. In comparison to other performers like Gower Champion and Van Johnson, Stanley Donen described, a bit more coarsely, that Kelly “was the only song-and-dance man to come out of that period who had balls.” It’s certainly a loaded, oft-repeated concept, fraught with a misguidedly limited perspective on the right way to be a man, but Kelly did work hard to be perceived as an everyman, as opposed to a “dancer”—as though those two concepts were diametrically opposed.
In person, Kelly could be “cold, egotistical, and very rough” (Stanley Donen) but on screen, he was “devastatingly appealing” (Lewis Segal of the LA Times). But that’s Hollywood for you—the public doesn’t really care how you act in your personal life, as long as you can make the magic happen on screen. And Gene Kelly certainly knew how to create those magical movie moments, innately aware of the audience experience, choreographing for the camera as much as he was for the cast. He was an incredible driving force for innovation in the movie musical, and left behind an incomparable body of work that’s just as magical and joyful today as it was on its release.
This post is a part of Silver Scenes Blog’s MGM Blogathon, a celebration of the landmark studio’s 90th anniversary. Check out the rest of the entries here.