Ballet Dancer and Swaggering Tough
“There is about him and his artistry the wonderment of childhood, the sad searching loneliness which seeks companionship in the fairyland of the imagination. It is an abiding, cherished faith in make-believe…”[i]
Gene Kelly, flashing his famous smile
The above quote, penned in 1946 by a columnist for Photoplay magazine, seems inapplicable to a man who, according to screenwriter Adolph Green, had a “wordly, hard quality,”[ii] and had the propensity to come across as “cocky” and “jaw-jutting.”[iii] Even more alien to a land of make-believe was the man’s appearance. If judged by the hairline scar on his left cheek, his muscular, compact build, or his reedy tenor voice that bore traces of his urban Pittsburgh roots—one might assume he was wise to the streets but to nothing else. He invariably dressed in khakis, t-shirts or sweatshirts, loafers, and a baseball cap pulled over his slick black hair. Even when dressed in top hat and tails, he, in his own words, still looked “like a truck driver.”[iv] Once provoked, his brown eyes could shoot “a lethal glance that packs a wallop.”[v]
However, when in good company, “there [was] a certain gentleness about him…he’s a kind man, a sincere and honorable person. A gentleman.” He was the type who, when ladies were present in an elevator, removed his cap. The moment he grinned, his lethal glance, his worldly hardness, vanished. His teeth were perfectly white, his eyes crinkled at the corners. Suddenly, he had about him a “mischievous likeability …His eyes twinkle and you forgive him anything.” [vi] Pair his smile with the impromptu, balletic pirouettes or athletic jigs he was inclined to do at any given moment and one might be convinced this man could cross into the “fairyland of imagination.”
Equally adept at ballet and straight hoofing, he was also a formidable a player of nearly every American sport. Additionally, he was a master choreographer and actor, could speak several languages, and spend hours discussing politics, philosophy, and American history. He called himself an Average Joe, but he was anything but ordinary for more reasons than his remarkable intellect: he single-handedly made dance one of America’s favorite pastimes. Melding his athletic prowess with his balletic training, he altered the notion that dancing was only for women or effete males.
His name was Eugene Curran Kelly, known today simply as Gene Kelly. Dancer Peter Evans articulated that “Kelly smashed the system. He wasn’t a skinny, elegant, long legged hero.”[vii] Gene went so far as to call his brand of dancing “a man’s game.” He explained: “I knew I couldn’t stay with straight classical ballet. I had to create something of my own…I had to express manliness and strength and Cokes and hot dogs and football and basketball and jazz. You can’t do it with a port de bras.”[viii] He perfected his art into a uniquely American style—one that combined rhythms from Harlem to Ireland— that was so broad in scope that it not only appealed to men but also to women and children. In his lifetime and in new generations, he remains one of the few stars “adored by young people and old, men and women.”[ix] Gene’s wife of fifteen years, Betsy Blair, concluded that he wanted to “democratize dance. He wanted to bring it to the whole world.”[x]
From 1942 to 1956, Gene Kelly came to symbolize the American Dream and the confidence and optimism of the postwar nation. Through his films, he spread more happiness and hope than any other dancer of his time. In Cover Girl (1944), he urged audiences to “make way for tomorrow” while skipping down a Brooklyn street. In Anchors Aweigh (1945), he banished worry from a somber cartoon kingdom through song and dance. As a sailor on twenty-four hour leave, he cavorted through Manhattan in On the Town (1949). He tapped through bistros in An American in Paris (1951) and laughed at clouds while splashing through a storm in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). More than anything else, his mass appeal stemmed from his ability to transform the commonplace into the spectacular. A rain puddle, a mop, or a newspaper could all be art when utilized in dance. As well as dance with anything, Gene could dance with anyone: girl-next-door Judy Garland, femme fatale Cyd Charisse, Jerry the Mouse, a group of French children, and even himself in his double-exposure “alter ego” routine in Cover Girl (1944).
Gene was arguably the most winning screen personality of the twentieth century—a man “men wanted to be and women wanted to be with”[xi] and who immediately put children at ease. But, he was a man of unusual complexity. He shunned Hollywood society, studio politics, and glamour yet fumed at those who scorned the film industry that had made them rich. In spite of the wealth he amassed in Hollywood, he maintained a humble lifestyle and raised his children himself. He refused to hire nannies and servants and performed his own handy work around the house. Wary of any sort of regimentation, Gene questioned set religious and political beliefs but still called himself a Catholic and a Democrat. Yet, “whatever the subject, [he] supports an open mind without for a moment yielding his own convictions.”[xii]
Gene’s complexity only grows upon further examination. Though willing to hear all viewpoints and espousing that prejudice was akin to cowardice, he was exclusive when it came to who he did and who he did not accept into his social circle. In order to gain Gene’s acceptance, one had to possess both talent and intelligence. Gene made his home a haven for ex-New Yorkers or any creative who was in but not of Hollywood. At these parties, oftentimes he sat back and drank whiskey, only performing if others performed. Contrarily, the “cocky, jaw jutting” side of his personality emerged. He would engage in fiercely competitive games of charades or, on Sunday afternoons, volleyball. Gene, who once said that to him second best was nothing, could not abide losing. He was unafraid to show his temper when such losses occurred. Film historian Rudy Behlmer stated that “Kelly could be difficult” but reasoned that “he was not alone, good people, really good people, could be difficult on occasion.”[xiii]
Gene rarely became difficult unless he was dissatisfied with himself. His co-director Stanley Donen stated that “he was aware that he had a very special gift and that he wanted to show it in the best possible way. He drove himself very hard. He was very nervous about his singing voice though, and would get hoarse from nerves when he had to record.”[xiv] As hard as he was on himself, he was equally hard on his colleagues. He had little patience for amateurs, something that earned him the reputation as a task master. MGM musical director Johnny Green observed that “…Gene is easygoing as long as you know exactly what you are doing when you’re working with him…If you want to play on his team you better love hard work too. He isn’t cruel but he is tough.”[xv] Despite his unyielding demands, his goal was to see that those around him reach their full potentials. Debbie Reynolds and Frank Sinatra, two “amateurs” who experienced his exacting nature firsthand, later admitted that if not for his high demands, they would not have made it as far as they did in their respective careers.
Though Gene’s screen presence is nearly always ebullient, his intensity could not help but come through, particularly in his solo numbers. The dances he choreographed himself possessed a dimension of introspection that numbers by other musical performers of the era lacked. For instance, at the close of his “Alter Ego” number in Cover Girl (1944), he smashes a window to rid himself of his argumentative reflection. Other notably meditative routines include a tap dance in a barn in Summer Stock (1950) and portions of the cinematic ballets he designed for On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). During these sequences, he stands alone in darkness, suddenly separated from a merry crowd or amidst people and things he feels are unobtainable. Betsy Blair stated that he “wanted to express the simplest but also the most complex emotions”[xvi] through dance.
Gene was subject to just as much introspection off screen. Columnist John Maynard described him as “given to sudden brief lapses into depression when he will drop clean out of a conversation to stare darkly ahead…”[xvii] This being said, his eldest daughter Kerry claimed Gene was the only adult she ever knew who was never in analysis. For Gene, the process of creating was his therapy. Staging dances was essentially a way for him to make sense of both his own personal demons and the greater problems of the world. “Dancing is much more than mere exhibition. It’s a complete art in itself, both visually and emotionally,”[xviii] Gene asserted.
Gene and Vincente Minnelli behind the camera
Gene did succeed in making dance more than exhibition; indeed, he was a pivotal player in the creation of the integrated film musical. Because he worked at the greatest studio of Hollywood’s golden era, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and was part of the studio’s most prestigious production unit led by producer Arthur Freed, Gene had ample opportunity to innovate. He combined his talent with those of directors such as Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and Charles Walters and composers and screenwriters including Alan Jay Lerner, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green. At the height of his success at MGM, he had become, according to composer Johnny Green, “the Neil Armstrong of MGM. He enjoyed great respect and admiration, and in [producer] Arthur Freed he had a powerful ally. It was almost a father-son relationship with the father having a near-reverence for the son.”[xix]
Freed’s career long goal was to change the formulaic stories and stage bound look of musicals. He found in Gene an enthusiastic avenue through which to do it. Interviewer Graham Fuller stated in 1994 that “Kelly’s streetwise, Everyman figure” did most “to liberate the [musical] genre from its ‘putting on a show’ tradition.”[xx] Gene brought the musical into the real world; the plots of his films took on more weight and the characters had more dimension. It was at his insistence that On the Town be the first musical to be filmed on location. Aside from adding authenticity to the settings of his pictures, Gene changed the look of musicals by creating dances that could not be replicated on the stage—a technique now known as cine-dance.
Today, the breadth of Gene Kelly’s work is largely unknown, overshadowed as it is by the singular image of a euphoric man “dancin’ and singin’ in the rain.” Similarly, Gene Kelly’s life and achievements, specifically after he left MGM in 1956, are all but forgotten. He was a man who wore as many hats professionally as personally. He was a choreographer, director, comedian, dramatist, singer, ballet dancer, and tap dancer. He was a father, husband, devoted son, naval lieutenant, political activist. He has been variously described as a brutally competitive sportsman and a pensive intellectual, an egotist and a shy, self-deprecating man. No matter what hat he wore, Gene’s overarching goal in whatever endeavor he undertook—personal or professional—was to make the world a place where fascination, idealism, and sincerity were not just for children.
“If you’re making musicals for a mass audience, with few exceptions your goal is to bring joy,” Gene explained. “And if you can lift the audience and make them happy for a few minutes, then the dance has done its work.”[xxi] It is telling that Gene, in spite of his social conscience, quick temper, and occasional dark moods, chose not one of his own works or a weighty, moralizing picture as the ideal musical. The picture to hold that title was Vincente Minnelli’s nostalgic work, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a story told through the eyes of an impish five year-old child. “That is a picture that is seamless, touching, marvellous—the wedding of song and story,”[xxii] Gene told interviewer Michael Singer.
Gene and his first onscreen dance partner, Judy Garland
Gene Kelly’s life, remarkably scandal free, was a highly private one, thus presenting a unique challenge for biographers looking to reveal his many dimensions. He never stopped believing in the fantasies of boyhood, but at the same time he was grounded in reality by a deep-seated compulsion to push himself and others to achieve a perfection he claimed never to have found. Little wonder it is, then, that his daughter Kerry noted the resolution of any story in her father’s life and work “always takes place through fantasies and dreams.”[xxiii] And yet, what made Gene Kelly a true original was his ability to take the world of imagination and make one believe it was tangible. He was a dreamer, a realist, and, as actor Stanley Tucci concluded: a “ballet dancer and swaggering tough.”[xxiv]
–Sara and Cynthia Brideson for Classic Movie Hub
Sara and Cynthia Brideson are avid classic movie fans, and twin authors of Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer and Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965. They also are currently working on comprehensive biographies of Gene Kelly and Margaret Sullavan. You can follow them on twitter at @saraandcynthia or like them on Facebook at Cynthia and Sara Brideson.