Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly

Arguably the most influential and innovative screen dancer after Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly's effortless physicality and extraordinary vision for the Hollywood musical resulted in some of the most enduring screen song-and-dance films of the 20th century, including "An American in Paris" (1951) and "Singin' in the Rain" (1952). Born Eugene Curran Kelly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Kelly's initial dream was to play shortstop for his hometown baseball team, the Pirates, and he was dismayed when his mother enrolled him and his brother, James, in dance classes. He quit after being bullied by neighborhood toughs, and resumed his focus on sports until high school, when he found that he could earn money in local dance contests and through teaching dance at his family's studio, which opened in 1931. The studio provided him and his family with support during his undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he pursued a degree in economics; Kelly might have gone on to become a lawyer had the family's school not proven so successful, prompting him to move to New York and try his hand at acting in New York. His first attempt, in 1937, yielded no jobs, so Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, where he choreographed and performed in a production of "Hold Your Hats" the following year. After seeing his work in Pittsburgh, dancer and choreographer Robert Alton invited Kelly to perform in the Broadway run of Cole Porter's "Leave It To Me!" This led to his own choreography and dancing in 1939's "The Time of Your Life" and "Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshow" (1939), where he met and married fellow cast member Betsy Blair, and finally, top billing in Rodgers and Hart's "Pal Joey" in 1940. A graceful but unquestionably athletic dancer who also possessed a capable singing voice, comic timing and movie star charisma, it was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling, and after signing with David O. Selznick in 1941, he was loaned out to MGM for his first feature, "For Me and My Gal" (1942), which starred Judy Garland. A box office success, it led to supporting roles in "Christmas Holiday" (1944) and his first lead, opposite Lucille Ball, in "Du Barry Was a Lady" (1943), which was soon followed by his first screen choreography assignment in "Thousands Cheer" (1943), where his humorous routine with a mop drew critical praise. But with his next picture - a loan-out to Columbia for "Cover Girl" (1944) with Rita Hayworth - Kelly established himself as a new and innovative force in screen dance and musicals, one that hinged equally on technique and skill as it did on visual effects and cinematography. In "Cover Girl," Kelly, in collaboration with choreographer Stanley Donen, created indelible dance routines - using superimposition to suggest Kelly dancing with himself in the "Alter Ego" sequence - and would top these efforts with his next picture, "Anchors Away" (1945), which found him dancing opposite MGM's cartoon star Jerry Mouse. Both films were huge hits, and "Anchors" earned Kelly an Oscar nod for Best Actor; by the following year, his status was such that he was partnered with the reigning king of screen dance, Fred Astaire, to perform and collaborate on a route for "Ziegfield Follies" (1946). Recognizing that they had an assured box office draw in Kelly, MGM kept him in regular rotation as an actor/dancer and choreographer for its musicals, including "The Pirate" (1952) with reunited him with Garland, and two successful team-ups with Frank Sinatra in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949) and the Oscar-winning "On the Town" (1949), which brought the screen musical out of the soundstage in and into real-life locations like the streets of New York City. Despite these laurels, Kelly wanted to direct his own vision of a Hollywood musical, and in 1951, he earned the chance with "An American in Paris." A stunning, Impressionistic effort that crystallized his style of dance - a combination of ballet, tap and modern dance captured in fluid, always moving camerawork and editing - "Paris," which featured a 17-minute dream ballet sequence, won six Oscars, including Best Picture and an honorary Oscar to Kelly for his contributions to musicals and choreography. Its reputation as Kelly's best film effort has been largely eclipsed by its follow-up, the effervescent "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), the most streamlined union of comedy, music and romance conceived by Kelly and co-director Donen, and featuring what is arguably one of the most iconic screen moments in the title sequence. But the film was not as successful with critics and audiences as its predecessor, and it would mark the beginning of the end of Kelly's tenure with MGM and as its leading purveyor of screen musicals. Audiences' interests in musicals had begun to wane, and Kelly's efforts were growing increasingly more artistic in their scope: the ballet-fueled "Invitation to the Dance" (1956) was an expensive flop, and "Brigadoon" (1954) and "It's Always Fair Weather" (1956) were hampered by studio interference and disinterest. He would complete one last musical for MGM, "Les Girls" (1957), before focusing his attention behind the camera. He could still be called upon to appear on screen - most notably in a dramatic turn as acerbic reporter Hornbeck in the 1960 film version of "Inherit the Wind," and he was memorable in Jacques Demy's "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" (1967), which paid tribute to Kelly's MGM work - but he found more rewarding work as a producer/director for television. He earned an Emmy nomination for a 1958 episode of "Omnibus" (CBS/NBC/ABC, 1952-1961) in which he worked with sports greats like Mickey Mantle and Sugar Ray Robinson, and won the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Programming with a 1967 production of "Jack and the Beanstalk" which, like "Anchors Aweigh," skillfully integrated live action and animation. One of his biggest theatrical successes of the period was a comedy, "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), which gave Kelly the clout to direct a film version of "Hello, Dolly!" (1969). Though popular, and the recipient of three Oscars, the film was so expensive that it failed to recoup its massive costs. Kelly's final projects were a mixed bag - the Western comedy "The Cheyenne Social Club" (1970) was a flop, but his participation in the MGM compilation film "That's Entertainment!" (1974), which included several song and dance duets with a 77-year-old Fred Astaire, received glowing reviews. He would appear in a handful of features and television episodes, most of which hinged on his screen image - the surreal musical "Xanadu" (1980) showed that he could still carry out dance sequences - and numerous tributes, including Kennedy Center Honors in 1982. A Health issues, including a stroke in 1994, would bring to a close his storied career, and after a second stroke in 1995 left him impaired, Kelly would die in his home in Beverly Hills, California, on February 2, 1996 at the age of 83. Quincy Jones paid tribute to Kelly at the Academy Awards that year with Savion Glover's rendition of Kelly's dance from "Singin' in the Rain."