Spotlight: Gene Kelly

Today was the end-of-year concert (photos to come), which means the studio is officially closed for the summer - but I'm still here, so here's Spotlight Saturday, on American dancer and Hollywood film star Gene Kelly.

Kelly was born Eugene Curran Kelly on 23 August 1912, the son of James Kelly and Harriet Curran. When Gene was 8, his mother enrolled him and his older brother James in dance lessons. Neither boy enjoyed it very much, getting into fights with the neighbourhood kids after being called 'sissies'. Gene didn't dance again until he was 15.

In 'Anchors Aweigh' with Jerry the mouse

Originally intending to become a journalist, he entered Pennsylvania State College until the Wall Street crash of 1929 forced him to find work and support his family. He and his younger brother Fred choreographed and performed their own dance routines, performing in talent shows and nightclubs for extra money. The Kelly family opened a dance studio in Pittsburgh, which was renamed The Gene Kelly School of Dance in 1932. They opened a second studio in 1933. Gene searched for work as a choreographer in New York before returning to Pittsburgh. He served as choreographer for the Charles Gaynor musical revue Hold Your Hats in April 1938.

In 'On the Town'

His first Broadway appearance was in November 1938, in Cole Porter's Leave It To Me!, followed in 1939 by an appearance in One for the Money. But his big breakthrough came in The Time of Your Life, which opened on Broadway on 25 October, 1939, using his own choreography for the first time. Soon after, he was hired as a choreographer for a Broadway show, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. He dated a cast member, Betsy Blair, and they married on 16 October 1941.

In 1940, he got the lead in Pal Joey, the role which lead to his stardom. Offers began to arrive from Hollywood, but Gene lingered in New York, finishing his run of Pal Joey and choreographing Best Foot Forward. His first Hollywood film was For Me and My Gal (1942), co-starring with Judy Garland. He made a number of films in quick succession, Pilot No. 5 (1943), Christmas Holiday (1944), Cole Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) - opposite Lucille Ball - and Thousands Cheer (1943).

In 'An American in Paris'

His major breakthrough as a dancer came in Cover Girl (1944), opposite Rita Hayworth. In the film, he created a dance with his own reflection. His next film, Anchors Aweigh (1945), became one of the most successful films of the year and led to his only nomination for an Academy Award. Ziegfeld Follies followed in 1946, with the famous collaboration of Kelly and Fred Astaire.

With Fred Astaire

His next film, Living in a Big Way (1946), was a black-and-white picture that Kelly saved with several dance numbers. This success led to his casting in The Pirate, opposite Judy Garland. The film had songs by Cole Porter and a dance collaboration between Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers. It originally flopped at the box office, but is now regarded as a classic. His next films, in 1948, were The Three Musketeers and Words and Music. He was due to play the lead opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade, but broke his ankle; he convinced Fred Astaire to take over the role. Once Kelly recovered, he made Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), and the self-directed On the Town, both with Frank Sinatra.

In 'Singin' in the Rain'

He then took the lead in a straight acting role for the early mafia drama film Black Hand (1950). After this was Summer Stock (1950), also Judy Garland's last film with MGM. There followed the two musicals Kelly is famous for: An American in Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), which Kelly also co-directed. An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Kelly received an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to the Hollywood musical.

Kelly then signed a contract with MGM which sent him to Europe for 19 months. This has generally been seen as a mistake on his part; the only musical he produced during that time was his pet project, Invitation to the Dance. The film was beset by delays and technical difficulties, and when finally released in 1956 was something of a flop. When Kelly returned to Hollywood, MGM was already feeling the threat from television. The studio cut the budget for his next film Brigadoon (1954), with Cyd Charisse. The studio then refused to loan him out for Guys and Dolls and Pal Joey, putting further strain on his relationship with the studio. He negotiated an exit from his contract, involving the making of three last films for MGM. These were It's Always Fair Weather (1956), Les Girls (1957), and The Happy Road.

Kelly then returned to the stage, directing the Rogers and Hammerstein musical play Flower Drum Song in 1958. In 1960, he was invited to create a modern ballet for the Paris Opera Ballet. The result, Pas de Dieux, is based on Greek mythology and danced to George Gershwin's Concerto in F; the ballet was a resounding success. He received the French Legion d'Honneur for the work. Though he continued to make occasional film appearances, such as in Inherit the Wind (1960), he mainly stayed on the other side of the camera. He directed Gigot (1962), which was drastically cut and flopped; another effort, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), was popular in France but flopped in America.

He appeared frequently on television in the sixties, including the series Going My Way. He also appeared in three television specials: New York, New York (1966), The Julie Andrews' Show (1965), and Jack and the Beanstalk (1967), the latter of which he directed. In 1965, he signed on with 20th Century Fox, directing A Guide for the Married Man (1967), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). He made another special in 1970, Gene Kelly and 50 Girls, followed by directing The Cheyenne Social Club (1970). He worked with Frank Sinatra once again for Magnavox Presents Frank Sinatra (1973). That's Entertainment! and That's Entertainment, Part II followed in 1974 and 1976; Kelly managed to persuade the 77-year-old Fred Astaire out of retirement for the latter.

He continued to appear on television and starred in several films that flopped, including the highly theatrical Xanadu (1980), with Olivia Newton-John. His final film was the animated Cats Don't Dance, completed in 1994 but released posthumously in 1997. His health declined rapidly in the 1980s, and he suffered a stroke in July 1994 that led to a seven-week hospital stay, followed by another stroke in 1995. It left him close to bedridden; he died on 2 February, 1996 at the age of 83. He was cremated without funeral or memorial service.

Kelly was instrumental in the creation of both modern dance and the 'Hollywood' musical picture. Though he is remembered as a dancer, he also guided the development of a classic genre through choreography and direction. His work will remain a classic example of the Hollywood golden age.

Here's Kelly in the famous scene from Singin' in the Rain:

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Mikhail Fokine.

- Selene

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