Gene Kelly: Profile of a Dance Master
“Gene Kelly created his own style. He was the most athletic, the most exciting, the most masculine, the most commercial dancer of his time. He created a technique. He was his own technique.” – Kenny Ortega, producer, director, choreographer
One of the most successful dancers to ever tap, twirl, sway, or otherwise boogie his way across the silver screen, Gene Kelly is certainly not the first actor (or the fifth – or the 25th) to come to mind when you think of film noir performers. And he arrived in Hollywood about a decade too late to take advantage of the pre-Code era. So how does Kelly fit in here, in the midst of our silky darkness? Well, in the early 1940s, before MGM stopped loaning Gene Kelly to other studios, the actor starred in his sole film noir, portraying a disturbed killer in Universal’s Christmas Holiday. And that’s quite enough, in honor of Kelly’s 100th birthday, to earn this fine performer a spot among the shadows and the satin.
I hope you’ll enjoy the following profile of the life and career of this most awesome entertainer, and that it will spur you to discover (or re-discover), as I have, some of his many creative, inspired, and unforgettable performances. Here goes . . .
Eugene Curran Kelly entered this world on August 23, 1912, the third of five children born to James and Harriet Tracy Kelly of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. All of the Kelly children participated in dance and music lessons from the time they could walk (sometimes performing as The Five Kellys) and, spurred by his sports-loving father, Gene excelled at ice hockey from the age of four. He was accident-prone, though; when he was six, he earned the small scar that can be seen the left side of his face – while riding a tricycle without handlebars, he fell on an exposed piece of cast iron. He was also rather sickly, and after a bout with pneumonia at the age of seven, his uncle suggested that his lungs would recover more quickly if he took up gymnastics. Slowly, but surely, the building blocks that would form the graceful athleticism of the future dancer were being put into place.
By high school, Gene had started to demonstrate his prowess as a performer in a variety of productions, which had the fringe benefit of attracting the notice of his distaff classmates: “Normally, those girls wouldn’t have given me a second look if I hadn’t been such a hit in the school shows, but the fact that I was made all the difference,” Gene said. “Some of them thought I was bloody marvelous, and pretty soon I began to believe them.”
After graduating, Gene headed off to college, enrolling at Penn State and later at the University of Pittsburgh, and earning extra money by dancing in local theatres and clubs, and working as a soda jerk and a bricklayer. Also in the late 1920s, the Kelly family went into the dance school business – at the time, the youngest Kelly, Fred, was taking lessons at a local dance school run by one Lou Bolton. However, Bolton was a lousy businessman, and Harriet Kelly was no fool. In exchange for free lessons for Fred, Harriet volunteered to serve as the school’s receptionist, and in 1929, when the stock market crash led to the loss of James Kelly’s job as a phonograph salesman, Harriet convinced Bolton to expand his business by opening a second location in Johnston, Pennsylvania. Serving as teacher and promoter, Gene began to take an increasingly larger role in the Johnston studio, and eventually, the Kellys bought the business from Bolton, renaming the schools The Gene Kelly Studios of the Dance. After receiving a degree in economics from the University of Pittsburgh, Gene enrolled in law school, but he was only there a few months when he dropped out and returned to teaching dance.
“Our studio came to be visited by many professional acts who came through town, and I became sort of an act doctor – they’d say, ‘Can you give me a stronger finish for my act?’ or ‘Why is the act sagging in the middle?’” Kelly recalled years later. “And I got tremendous experience in doctoring acts or even staging whole new acts, and in doing this, I had enough confidence to think I could go to New York and get a job as a choreographer.”
Gene didn’t exactly light up Broadway as a choreographer, but it didn’t take long for him to land a role in his first Broadway production, Leave it to Me, which opened in November 1938. Also in the cast was future star Mary Martin, who later said of Gene: “He was so talented, had so much drive. Of all the boys, he was the one who came into the theater every day of his life to work for hours and hours and hours on the stage. From the beginning, I knew he was going to be somebody very great.”
Next, Gene further honed his skills and boosted his reputation by appearing in One for the Money, which required him to perform in eight numbers and gave him his first speaking part; working as resident choreographer at the summer stock company in Westport Connecticut; appearing as a hoofer in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life; and serving as dance director for Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe revue, where he met his future first wife, actress Betsy Blair. (Blair would later appear in such films as The Snake Pit  and Another Part of the Forest  and earn an Oscar nomination for her performance in Marty ). But it was his next job, playing the title role in Pal Joey, that would transform Gene into an overnight star. In a 2002 documentary on Gene’s life and career, Blair recalled the production as “revolutionary and such a success . . . [it was] a sensational, exciting time.”
Gene’s performance in Pal Joey led to a contract offer from MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who promised that Gene would not have to make a screen test. When Mayer went back on the screen test promise, Gene fired off a scathing letter, letting him know that he was no longer interested. Luckily, Mayer’s son-in-law David O. Selznick, stepped in with a seven-year contract offer – no test required – which Gene accepted. (Interestingly, Selznick later sold the contract to MGM.)
Before making the move to Hollywood, Gene and Betsy Blair were married in Philadelphia – their daughter, Kerry, would be born the following year. Once in Hollywood, the couple would become known throughout the community for their frequent social gatherings, featuring highly competitive bouts of charades known as “The Game,” and spirited games of volleyball.
In 1942, Gene made his screen debut in For Me and My Gal opposite Judy Garland, whom he later called “the quickest, brightest person I ever worked with.” Betsy Blair agreed.
“She was fantastic,” Blair said of Garland. “And Gene always said how wonderful she was . . . always gave her all the credit for the fact that he felt comfortable. She gave him all the little helpful hints that someone who’d been in movies all her life could tell someone who came from the New York theater . . . and also she made it fun, and easy.” Gene would remember – and return – Garland’s kindness years later.
After roles in such MGM productions as DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) with Lucille Ball and Thousands Cheer (1943), which contained an exhilarating number where Gene’s “partners” included a mop and a push broom, Gene was loaned to Columbia for Cover Girl (1944), opposite Rita Hayworth. For this film, Gene was hired as both co-star and choreographer, and brought with him his 19-year-old assistant, Stanley Donen. A highlight was the “alter ego” number where Gene is seen dancing with his shop window reflection, and the film turned Gene into a full-fledged movie star; after its release, Columbia studio head Harry Cohn tried to capitalize on the film’s success by re-teaming Kelly and Hayworth for the film version of Pal Joey. Sensing another potential hit, and to Gene’s great disappointment, Louis B. Mayer refused the loan-out, and for the next 14 years, MGM never again loaned Gene to another studio. However, between the end of Cover Girl’s shooting, and the film’s release, Gene was loaned out once more by MGM – to Universal for his sole film noir appearance, Christmas Holiday (1944).
This deceptively named feature tells the story of a world-weary singer, played by Deanna Durbin, married to Gene’s charming, weak-willed gambling addict with a hair-trigger temper, a mother complex, and a tendency toward homicide. Both Durbin and Kelly were surprisingly effective – from her days as an enthusiastic, chubby-cheeked child star, Durbin had blossomed into a beautiful young woman with an impressive acting ability, and Gene erased any lingering thoughts of his jovial characters in Thousands Cheer and Cover Girl with his portrayal of the psychopathic killer. The film’s success is also a testament to its director, Robert Siodmak, who helmed several other noirs, including Phantom Lady, The File on Thelma Jordon, Criss Cross, and Cry of the City. (If you’ve never seen Christmas Holiday, find it!)
Back at MGM, Gene was next seen with Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh (1945), an entertaining musical about a couple of sailors on leave. One of Gene’s dance numbers was the first to combine live action with animation, which featured Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry fame.
“It was the idea to have Mickey Mouse, but we couldn’t get Mickey Mouse,” Stanley Donen said in a 1996 interview. “Walt Disney said, ‘Mickey Mouse doesn’t work at MGM – he only works for me.’” After the release of this box-office smash, Gene was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor (he lost to Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend), and earned a special citation from the Academy that read: “Gene Kelly’s innovation in film dancing has done more than anything else in many years to yank movie musicals out of their accustomed rut.”
Gene’s next film, Ziegfeld Follies (1945) provided his sole on-screen pairing with Fred Astaire (with the exception of their appearance decades later in the That’s Entertainment series) – the two danced to “The Babbit and the Bromide.” Although it was generally held that there was a great rivalry between the two dance masters, Gene unequivocally denied this claim. “While I personally was proud of the comparison, because there was no one to touch Fred when it came to popular dance, we felt that the film critics of the time should have made more of an effort to differentiate between our two types,” Gene said. “My approach was completely different from his and we wanted the world not to lump us together like peas in a pod. If we had any resentment, it was not with each other, but with the journalists who talked about two highly individual dancers as if they were one person. We were never rivals.” Gene also spoke of his experience working with Astaire on the film: “I never worked with a gentler or nicer man. That isn’t to say Fred isn’t very tough. He can be hard as nails, and I’ve seen him be that way, but only because he wants his dances as good as they can be.”
When shooting ended on Ziegfeld Follies, Gene enlisted in the Navy; after training, he was assigned to the Navy Photographic Service as a cameraman. His assignments included a propaganda film designed to prove that submarine life did not have to be claustrophobic (although, ironically, Gene was), and a documentary about the survivors of the USS Benjamin Franklin. He was discharged in May 1946. His first film after his release was a forgettable comedy, Living in a Big Way, which was designed to promote Marie “The Body” McDonald. Gene described her as a triple threat: “She could neither sing nor dance nor act.” Following this feature, Gene was slated to star with Judy Garland in Easter Parade, but he broke his ankle and was unable to take the role. (Stories differ as to how the accident occurred – one version claims that he broke it playing volleyball with some children from the neighborhood, another that he was playing touch football, and still another that he was so annoyed at the inept game play of his colleagues during one of his famed Sunday volleyball games that he stamped his foot in anger, resulting in the broken bone.) Regardless of the cause, it is a fact that Gene immediately called Fred Astaire, who’d recently retired, and asked him to take over the part. He did. Instead, Gene was seen next with Garland in The Pirate (1948), a spoof of the swashbuckling films of the 1930s, which featured the unbelievably energetic “Be A Clown” number with the Nicholas Brothers. However, while Gene later described the shooting as one of his most rewarding professional experiences, the film was not well-received. “About five and a half people seemed to get the gist of what we had set out to do,” Gene later explained. “We just didn’t pull it off. . . . The sophisticates grasped it, but the film died in the hinterlands. It was done tongue in cheek and I should have realized that never really works.”
But there were better times ahead – later that year, Gene choreographed and danced the seven-minute “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet sequence in Words and Music (1948), and he was seen with Van Heflin, Lana Turner, and Gig Young in The Three Musketeers (1948), which he termed his favorite non-musical film. And the following year he was in back-to-back films with Frank Sinatra – the first, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), was notable primarily for the discovery of an eccentric comedian in a small role. That comedian was Jules Munshin, who was picked to star with Gene and Sinatra in their second film of the year, On the Town, which was directed by Gene and Stanley Donen. Shot on location in New York, On the Town told the story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in Manhattan, and provided Gene with another smash hit.
In 1950, Gene starred in The Black Hand, replacing Robert Taylor, who had to drop out of the film – in it, he played a vicious gangleader; he was reportedly so convincing in the role that many believed his origins were not Irish but Italian. Later that year, he was again teamed with Judy Garland in what would be her MGM swan song, Summer Stock, but by now Garland – who’d recently lost her role in Annie Get Your Gun to Betty Hutton – was demonstrating a spate of personal problems that caused the shoot to be “a ghastly, hideous experience,” Gene recalled. Despite the difficulties, however, Gene remained a staunch Garland supporter and friend: “I loved her, understood what she was going through, and had every reason to b e grateful for all the help she had given me in better times.” Also, the film did contain two memorable numbers – “Come On, Get Happy,” which featured Garland in a tuxedo jacket, nylons, and fedora, and was filmed two months after shooting wrapped, after the actress had sought the help of a hypnotist and lost 20 pounds, and “You Wonderful You,” where Gene performs a solo dance using a creaking board and a sheet of newspaper as props. Gene later described it as his favorite routine.
“It was weeks and weeks of experimenting with newspapers, and folding them and wetting them, and trying all different ways to do it, in order to make that number work,” Gene’s daughter, Kerry, recalled. “All of that behind-the-scenes part to make it look fortuitous and easy.”
Gene’s two best musical films were still to come – An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The former, about an American expatriate living in Paris, was praised by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, who wrote, “Count a bewitching French lassie by the name of Leslie Caron and a whoop-de-doo ballet, one of the finest ever put on screen, as the most commendable enchantments of An American in Paris, which is spangled with pleasant little patches of amusements and George Gershwin’s tunes. It also is blessed with Gene Kelly dancing and singing his way through minor romantic complications in the usual gaudy Hollywood gay Paree.” The film went on to win six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and a special Oscar for Gene.
Years after the release of the film, Leslie Caron recalled her experience with An American in Paris.
“The film took eight months to rehearse and shoot,” Caron wrote in the foreword for Gene Kelly: A Celebration, Pavillion Books, 1996). ”The gossip around the studio was that Gene had gone crazy designing a twenty-minute ballet – the whole of Gershwin’s piece named “An American in Paris” – just near the end of the film. I think that Arthur Freed, the producer, gave him free reign, and I think it was [director] Vincente Minnelli’s idea to do the different segments in the style of his favorite painters. But, once again, Gene was laying his repuation on the line. Every time I see the film, I marvel at his fabulous use of space, his knowledge of the camera and his step inventions.”
And Singin’ in the Rain – like On the Town, directed by Gene and Stanley Donen, and written by the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green – would turn out to be one of the most popular musicals ever made. Co-starring Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, and Jean Hagen, the film provided a look at the advent of sound in the motion picture industry, and featured a bevy of standout numbers, including “Moses Supposes,” “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Good Mornin’,” and, of course, the title song performed by Gene.
Playing her first starring role, Debbie Reynolds was only 19 years old when the movie was filmed. Although she was a gymnast and could do “a little soft shoe,” Reynolds stated that she was “certainly not trained.”
“You did it Gene’s way – Gene’s steps, Gene’s style. Gene was a real taskmaster because he had to be in order for a young girl to learn that much – it’s almost impossible,” Reynolds recalled. “I learned a lot from Gene. He is a perfectionist and a disciplinarian – the most exacting director I’ve worked for. And he has a good temper. Every so often he would yell at me and make me cry. He worked me hard, but he taught me so well that I’m still in the business 52 years later because of his teachings.”
Unfortunately, Singin’ in the Rain would turn out to be the pinnacle of Gene’s career – after the film’s release, his career began a downward slide from which it would never significantly recover. First, ostensibly to take advantage of a law that provided tax breaks to any American living outside of the U.S. for more than 18 months, Gene, Betsy, and daughter Kerry moved to Europe at the end of 1951. However, the move also provided a way to escape the Communist “witchhunt” in Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee – which threatened to engulf Betsy Blair as a result of her support for a number of left-wing causes.
“Whatever it was, if it was on the left, I was signing it,” Blair said. (As it turned out, Blair was eventually blacklisted anyway, and was off screen until 1955, when she co-starred with Ernest Borgnine in Marty. And she reportedly only landed this highly acclaimed role because Gene threatened to never direct or star in any productions by Universal or Hecht-Lancaster, which produced the film, unless Betsy was given the part. Interestingly, several sources state that Betsy got the role because Gene said he’d stop working for MGM if she didn’t, but I’m not convinced how that could be an effective bargaining tool, since Marty was not made by MGM.)
Gene’s first two films in Europe – The Devil Makes Three (1952) and Crest of the Wave – originally titled Seagulls Over Sorrento (1954) – were flops. And the third, Gene’s dream project, was an all-ballet film called Invitation to the Dance that was shelved for four years before its release to poor reviews and worse box-office. When the Kelly family returned to Hollywood in 1953, Gene began filming on Brigadoon, about two American businessmen who stumble upon a magical village in Scotland that only materializes for one day every 100 years. Unfortunately, Gene was unable to convince the studio that the film should be shot on location in Scotland, and while he was assured that the picture would be shown in the widescreen CinemaScope, it turned out that most movie houses were not equipped for this format, which spoiled the effect of much of the choreography. The film was a disappointment at the box office and critics panned it; in a typical review, the critic for Newsweek wrote, “Despite the resurgence of good film, Hollywood can still put its worst foot forward, and does so in Brigadoon.”
Gene’s next picture, Deep in My Heart (1954), was notable only because it contains the only screen appearance of Gene and his younger brother, Fred, who danced to a number called “I Love to go Swimmin’ with Wimmen.” The following year, he was supposed to be cast as gambler Sky Masterson in Samuel Goldwyn’s Guys and Dolls, but according to Gene, “Although I was born to play Sky the way Gable was born to play Rhett Butler, those new bastards at MGM refused to loan me out.” Later that year, work began on It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), the third musical directed by Gene and Stanley Donen and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The film was about three wartime pals who reunite after 10 years – a kind of updated On the Town – but instead of Frank Sinatra (who by now was too big of a star) and Jules Munshin (whose career hadn’t gone anywhere after the original film), Fair Weather co-starred Dan Dailey and dancer-choreographer Michael Kidd, who’d worked on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Bandwagon. By all accounts, the shoot was a tense affair, with Gene clashing with cast, crew, and especially his longtime collaborator, Donen. Although the picture contained two impressive dance numbers – the “dustbin-lid” dance and a number with Gene on roller skates, Fair Weather was released to poor reviews and marked the end of the relationship between Gene and Donen, who was reportedly champing at the bit to emerge from Gene’s shadow and strike out on his own. (There were also more personal reasons for the split between the longtime friends, but more on that a bit later.)
In 1957, Gene’s last major musical was released – Les Girls, which was shot in Europe and directed by George Cukor. One of my personal favorites, Les Girls tells the story of an American dancer and his relationship with three vaudeville performers, and was the last film under Gene’s MGM contract. Another ending came that year as well. After 15 years of marriage, Betsy Blair filed for divorce from Gene; the two had led increasingly separate lives for several years, but decades later, Blair seemed hard-pressed to come up with a concrete reason for the split. “There was no reason that’s evident to me – even today. It’s impossible to explain exactly what I needed – or even what he needed,” Blair said. The actress moved to London after the divorce and in 1963 married producer/director Karel Reisz, to whom she remained married until his death in 2002.
Meanwhile, after the divorce, Gene became involved with Jeanne Coyne, his longtime assistant choreographer who he’d first met when she was seven years old at his dance academy in Pittsburgh. Incidentally, Coyne had also been married for three years to Stanley Donen – the two had divorced in 1951, but apparently Jeanne had been in love with Gene for many years, and Stanley had similar feelings for Betsy. “We were all very close, and Gene once said that it was probably rather incestuous,” Blair said. The actress also provided more illumination into the reasons behind the split between Gene and Donen: “I have to admit that I was aware of Stanley being in love with me, but I somehow thought that he was actually in love with both [me and Gene]. He was in love with Gene’s talent and Gene’s success – it was Gene that was on the screen, it’s Gene that everybody sees, so that even when Stanley made the great contribution, or was equally creative, it was Gene that was there, so I think it was impossible for him.” Jeanne moved in with Gene following his divorce and the two were married in 1960. They had two children together, Tim and Bridget, and by all accounts, the union was a happy one but, sadly, it would end with Jeanne’s death from leukemia in 1973.
Back on screen, Gene starred opposite Natalie Wood in Marjorie Morningstar (1957), based on the best-selling Herman Wouk novel; not long after shooting wrapped on the film, Gene went on a family skiing vacation in Switzerland and tore the cartilage in one of his knees when he slipped and fell on some slush. “This really was the end of serious dancing for me,” Gene said.
During the next decade, Gene stayed busy on a variety of projects; he directed his first and only Broadway production, The Flower Drum Song; taught Yves Montand to dance for his co-starring role opposite Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love (1960); hosted a live hour-long television show called Dancing: A Man’s Game that illustrated the relationship between dance and athletics; served on the jury of the 1959 Cannes Film Festival; portrayed journalist H.L. Mencken in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960); appeared in the short-lived television series, Going My Way, based on the popular Bing Crosby film; and directed Jackie Gleason in the so-so Gigot (1962), Walter Matthau in the well-received A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Barbra Streisand in the disastrous Hello, Dolly! (1969), and Henry Fonda and James Stewart in The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), Gene’s final outing as a film director.
After the death of Jeanne Coyne in 1973, Gene devoted his time to raising his two young children; he only accepted work that would keep him close to home, such as guest appearances on television shows. And in 1974, Gene was asked by Jack Haley, Jr., then Director of Creative Affairs at MGM, to participate in That’s Entertainment, a big-screen production featuring compilations from MGM’s greatest musicals. Eventually, several more editions were produced (That’s Entertainment II , That’s Dancing , and That’s Entertainment III ). Gene and Fred Astaire served as co-hosts of That’s Entertainment II, for which Gene was able to create the duo’s final on-screen dances.
Unfortunately, Gene bid his final adieu to the silver screen by appearing in a pair of undeniable clunkers – Viva Knievel (1977), in which he played the mentor of famed daredeveil Evel Knievel, and Xanadu (1980), starring Olivia Newton-John. The latter was a musical (if you can call it that) which featured Gene singing and dancing on roller skates. (You really have to see it to believe it. And you still might not believe it.) Even Gene conceded that the film was not exactly a stellar swan song: “I have to admit that was a simply terrible picture. It could have been made in a third of the time at a third of the cost, but nobody had the faintest idea what they were doing, and it showed me how depressingly little today’s crop of youngsters actually know about making musicals.”
Throughout the 1980s, Gene appeared in a variety of stage plays and musicals, and traveled the United States and Europe accepting a flood of honors and awards for his body of work. These included the Legion of Honor, the Kennedy Center Honors Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. He suffered a major setback in 1983 when his house caught fire; he was pulled from the blaze by his son, Tim, but countless photographs, awards, and other personal memorabilia were lost. When asked what he would do, the ever-resilient Gene simply replied, “Rebuild, of course,” and he did.
Then, in the mid-1980s, Gene hired a young journalist, Patricia Ward, to help him write his memoirs. After a few weeks, Ward had moved into the poolhouse on Kelly’s property and in 1990, Gene and Patricia were married. (The wedding, incidentally, was not attended by any of Gene’s three children, and the couple reportedly lived in separate residences throughout their marriage.) Although he continued to make frequent public appearances (his last major appearance was on July 16, 1994, when he took a bow at a Three Tenors concert at Dodgers Stadium), Gene’s health declined over the next few years and, after a series of strokes, he died on February 2, 1996. The following evening, in his honor, theater lights were dimmed on Broadway.
Gene Kelly was talented, loyal, exacting, vain, imaginative, creative, and stubborn. He was a showman. A perfectionist. A visionary. A star. He enjoyed a profession that spanned nearly 50 years and earned a place in the annals of film and dance that will not soon, if ever, be forgotten. But Gene himself once put his career into perspective, encapsulated into a succinct, simple observation:
“I took it as it came and it happened to be very nice.”
This post is part of the week-long Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please stop by and read the many excellent posts being offered as a tribute to this outstanding song-and-dance man.
You only owe it to yourself! (You really do!)