August 23, 1912 – Gene Kelly:
“Any man who looks like a sissy while dancing is just a lousy dancer.”
I am a Fred Astaire guy, but my husband comes down squarely in the Gene Kelly camp. It doesn’t really matter. Kelly’s dance artistry and his taut, supple buttocks are perfection, and he could tap dance on roller skates. Really. I have seen it! Tap dancing on roller skates! Here, watch:
Eugene Curran Kelly‘s nearly camp masculinity, athleticism and classical ballet technique transformed the film musical. He boldly blended solo dancing, mass movement and offbeat camera angles to tell a story in purely visual terms. He changed the way dance was filmed just as Astaire did before him.
From all the information that I have gathered, it seems that Kelly and Astaire were friendly towards one another and respected each other as professionals. They didn’t hang out together, they each had their own circle of close friends. There was very little rivalry, they understand clearly the differences in their approach. Dancing star Cyd Charisse said:
“You are dancing from a lower, more athletic place with Kelly, where with Astaire it is a higher, lighter center of gravity.”
I think that was the main difference. Charisse said that her husband, singer Tony Martin, always knew whom she had been dancing with. Charisse:
“If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.”
I really like both of their singing voices. Astaire recorded two jazz albums with Oscar Peterson in the 1950s, and a dozen albums of standards and originals. I wish Kelly had taken on projects like that, he didn’t have much of a recording career.
Kelly’s work on film still thrives and still thrills.
His choreography and his performances are relaxed but compelling, innovative but accessible, and, ultimately, rather magical. A creative genius fueled by single-mindedness, a volatile temper and a touch of narcissism, his need for perfection was uncompromising. For his masterpiece Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Kelly would push his fellow cast members to terrible extremes by a grueling rehearsal schedule, that left 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds so weak that her doctor demanded she be given a break from filming, fearing for her health. MGM producer Arthur Freed had the studio doctor give them special vitamin shots, the same “vitamins” that ruined Judy Garland. While filming the famous title song sequence, Kelly had a fever of 103°F, and chain-smoking Donald O’Connor was sick for days after his Make ‘Em Laugh number, only to be told the footage had been accidentally destroyed: dragging himself back to the studio, he had to re-shoot the whole sequence again.
At odds with MGM during his time under contract, Kelly fought to expand the concept and reach of film musicals, aware that he was beginning his film career when he was past his prime as a dancer.
Having seen him on stage, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer assured Kelly that the studio would sign him without a screen test, yet when he arrived in Hollywood, a screen test was requested. Kelly refused, accusing Mayer of duplicity. Kelly turned down the counteroffer, beginning a lifetime of acrimony between the two men. Ironically, Kelly accepted a contract with Selznick International from Mayer’s son-in-law David O. Selznick, who had no interest in producing musicals and thought Kelly could work as a dramatic actor. Yet, for his first assignment, Kelly was loaned to MGM to co-star with Garland in For Me And My Gal. The film was a hit and Selznick sold his contract to MGM.
Kelly was loaned to Columbia Pictures for Cover Girl (1944) with Rita Hayworth, which firmly established him as a star. With songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, the film was directed by Charles Vidor, and was one of the most popular musicals of the World War II era. His “alter ego” musical sequence, where he partnered with himself, was revolutionary. With Stanley Donen working as his assistant, Kelly created an integrated storytelling never seen before in a Hollywood musical.
Realizing what they had, MGM refused to ever loan Kelly out again, ruining his chance to star in the film versions of Guys And Dolls and Pal Joey, with the leads going to Frank Sinatra, his costar in Anchors Aweigh with its innovation of placing himself in a cartoon to dance with Jerry the Mouse.
Kelly was a lifelong Democrat. In 1947, he was part of the Committee for the First Amendment, a delegation that flew to Washington DC to protest the first hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAAC). When United Artists, who had cast his wife Betsy Blair in a role in the film Marty (1955), were considering firing her under pressure from the conservative American Legion for being a communist sympathizer, Kelly used MGM’s influence on United Artists by threatening quitting It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) unless his wife stayed in the role.
As the Blacklist Era picked up steam, Kelly along with Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, Danny Kaye and a group of Hollywood professionals created a whistle-stop tour of the country to present their views to the public prior to their appearance before HUAAC. Their press conference deteriorated into a fiasco and forced many of the stars to return to Hollywood and focus on personal damage control.
He used his position on the board of directors of the Writers Guild to mediate disputes between unions and the Hollywood studios. In 1947, when the Carpenters Union went on strike, Hollywood studios chose Kelly as their intermediary. He traveled back and forth from Los Angeles to union headquarters in Chicago for two months, mediating a strike that was really costing the studios a lot of money. When a settlement was finally reached, the studios felt it was unfair and that they had been cheated by Kelly siding with the strikers. Kelly’s efforts resulted in widening his riff with Mayer.
Kelly’s frustrations mounted, yet he continued refining his unique appeal and approach, and in 1948 he staged standout numbers in two MGM musicals: The Pirate and Words And Music. Determined to differentiate himself from Astaire, Kelly incorporated less ballroom dancing and more American athleticism into his choreography. He was set to star in Easter Parade with Garland, but Kelly broke his ankle playing volleyball in his backyard and, ironically, had to turn the film over to Astaire.
In 1949, Kelly and Donen were assigned to co-direct On The Town. In just five days of shooting selected sequences, they “opened up” the project and became the first film musical shot on location. Followed by An American In Paris, with its 17-minute ballet sequence, and Singin’ In The Rain, Kelly was an icon by the time he was 40 years old.
The television series OMNIBUS invited Kelly to create a documentary about the relationship between dance and athletics. He gave them Dancing: A Man’s Game (1960), where he complains about widespread effeminacy in male dancing which he felt stigmatized the art form, alienating boys from entering the field. Kelly:
“Dancing does attract effeminate young men. I don’t object to that if they don’t dance effeminately. I just say that if a man dances effeminately he dances badly. Unfortunately, people confuse gracefulness with softness. John Wayne is a graceful man and so are some of the great ball players. But, of course, they don’t run the risk of being called sissies. One of our problems is that so much dancing is taught by women. You can spot many of these male dancers by their arm movements: they are soft, limp, and feminine.”