“Gotta dance … gotta dance!”
That’s a good a way as any to sum up Gene Kelly’s continued appeal. Even though his career mixed straight roles with musical ones, he’ll always be remembered as a superb song-and-dance man.
Kelly was born in 1912 to Irish Catholic immigrants. The stock market crash, plus his father’s issues with alcohol, required that he work to support the family, first by performing dance routines with his brother Fred and then by helping his mother run a dance studio she had taken over. Dancing also helped pay his way at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied economics.
In 1938, Kelly headed to New York for a shot at Broadway. A few theater roles, most notably the lead in Pal Joey, brought him to the attention of MGM head Louis B. Mayer. Thanks to a communications snag, Kelly ended up signing with David O. Selznick instead, even though the latter had no plans for a musical. Ironically, Selznick then loaned Kelly to MGM for his movie debut, Me and My Gal with Judy Garland.
More roles with MGM followed (the studio bought his contract after Me and My Gal), but it was a Columbia picture, Cover Girl, that provided Kelly’s first hit. Not only did he get to sing and dance with Rita Hayworth, but he also collaborated with Stanley Donen on the choreography. The following year, he and Frank Sinatra starred together for the first time, in Anchors Aweigh, which featured Kelly’s famous duet with Jerry the cartoon mouse.
Four years and some forgotten pictures later, Kelly hit his stride with a series of well-received musicals: Take Me Out to the Ballgame and On the Town, again co-starring Sinatra; An American in Paris, with Leslie Caron; and his crowning achievement, Singin’ in the Rain. As an actor, he brought grace, athleticism and energetic dancing to all these roles; as a director and/or choreographer, he contributed imaginative staging as well.
After 1951, Kelly’s film career tailed off; he was still making musicals, but none of the caliber of Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. It didn’t help that by the late 1950s MGM was moving away from the genre. The studio also reportedly refused to make Kelly available to other studios, which may have kept him from getting the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (Marlon Brando played the part instead). Kelly subsequently asked for, and received, his release from MGM.
Kelly wound down his career by returning to theater (directing Flower Drum Song), making TV appearances, and directing the occasional film. But his run of spectacular musicals during the late 1940s and early 1950s cemented his place in movie history for all time. Numerous film organizations gave him lifetime achievement awards, including an honorary Academy Award for his “extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography.” Three years after his death in 1996, the American Film Institute ranked Kelly #15 on its “Greatest Legends” list — and he won’t be coming off it anytime soon.
— A. Wu