Eugene Curran Kelly (August 23, 1912 February 2, 1996) was an American dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, and director. You may remember him as the guy who performed a whimsical ditty in inclement weather.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Kelly began his career on stage, dancing in such Broadway shows as Leave It to Me, One for the Money, The Time of Your Life, and Pal Joey. It was while starring in the latter that he was signed by film producer David O. Selznick, who took him to MGM. There, Kelly became a megastar by appearing in a string of famous musicals, often doing his own choreography. His biggest successes in the post-war period were An American in Paris, On the Town, and his iconic role in Singin' in the Rain (he also co-directed the latter two with Stanley Donen).
Though he usually tended to play "heels", Kelly's performances gave the impression that anyone — be they athletes, sailors, or Joe Sixpack — could sing and dance. (As he once put it, "Fred Astaire represented the aristocracy, I represented the proletariat.") This quality was further evidenced by his trademark outfit, which consisted of a polo shirt, white socks and loafers. The white socks were handy for protecting his feet; Kelly later shared this tip with Michael Jackson, which led to the singer's trademark look.
His biggest ambition lay not in acting, however, but in dance choreography and he developed a style which looked and felt as if he were making up the moves in the moment. This improvisational style is famously seen in Summer Stock, in which Kelly's character creates music out of a squeaky floorboard and a sheet of newspaper. He also revolutionized the way dance numbers were filmed by having the camera not just pan from side-to-side but move forward and backward, as well, and incorporating those camera movements into his choreography. This technique gave his routines a visual depth and kinetic energy that had never been seen before and is still being used to this day.
Kelly was among the many creative influences to whom Michael Jackson paid tribute in his "Beat It" and "Bad" videos. Paula Abdul also included a Shout-Out to him in her "Opposites Attract" video, in which she dances with an animated cat. Kelly was impressed by this and invited Abdul over for tea, sparking a friendship that lasted until his death.
Gene Kelly's work provides examples of:
- Dream Ballet: His best-remembered movies tend to have a dream sequence. Paris had that acid-trip ballet which closes out the movie. Singin' has Kelly pitching a musical to the studio boss ("Broadway Melody"), featuring Cyd Charisse as an evil flapper. Charrisse was trained in ballet, and while her dance in the speakeasy is more famous, she has another scene in the dream which is a ballet dance. On the Town is an odd example because his character (Gabey) had a dream sequence in the stage musical, but it was cut from the film. (For some reason, they replaced all but one of Leonard Bernstein's high-brow songs with original ones, none of which were popular.) Of course, MGM arranged for Gabey to dance with Jerry the Mouse, which was cutting-edge at the time. In Cover Girl, Kelly has a Dance-Off with his reflection in a shop window, before hurling a trashcan at his doppelganger and shattering it. His swan song, Xanadu, had a sequence of Kelly dancing with a past incarnation of Olivia Newton-John from World War II.
- The Everyman: The famous sweater-loafer combo came about as a result of him trying to wear a tux like Astaire. With his build, however, Kelly still looked like a longshoreman even in tails.
- Hostility on the Set: Kelly's perfectionism was infamous among co-stars and colleagues, over whom he ruled as absolute overlord. Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor both bore the brunt of this while shooting Singin' in the Rain; Reynolds basically had to mimic Kelly's every move (despite not being a trained dancer) in heels, whereas O'Connor got shouted at whenever Kelly was irritated with Reynolds, since Kelly didn't feel justified in punishing a novice. Reynolds, an octogenarian who kept working up until her death in December 2016, attributed her longevity to Kelly's hellish training. Later in his career he admitted that he might've crossed the line a few times with his particular 'style' of directing and apologized to some actors whom he thought bore the worst of it, including O'Connor and Reynolds. In fact, Reynolds was shocked that Kelly considered her a friend and was amicable, as she was under the impression he despised her.
- Production Posse:
- He was close to Fred Astaire, who came from the generation of performers before his, and eagerly took every opportunity to work with his idol and friend. The pair didn't dance together often, sadly. Their styles have been likened to Astaire skittering across the stage like a waterbug on a pond, while Kelly stomped holes in the floorboards.
- Judy Garland was his mentor on the set of Me and My Gal; Kelly would later claim she taught him everything he knew about the business. Years later, when Garland came out of rehab, Gene requested her for Summer Stock.
- Real Men Wear Pink: Easily the manliest ballet dancer next to Patrick Swayze.
- Tom Hanks Syndrome: Kelly's career fizzled in the 1950s, and he didn't make much of an impression as a dramatic actor. (He played E.K. Hornbeck, a nod to H. L. Mencken, in the 1960 film version of Inherit the Wind.) However in a case of Early Installment Weirdness, Gene Kelly did appear in the little known Film Noir Christmas Holiday (opposite Deanna Durbin), where he plays a proto-Norman Bates killer. The film has a cult status among noir afficionados.
- Kelly made big splash as Joey Evans in Pal Joey... and basically played the same role for fifteen years.
- He always gets the girl... but not before having a few drinks thrown at him first. Kelly excelled at playing the cad.
- What Could Have Been:
- Kelly originally suggested doing a dance with Mickey Mouse instead of Jerry the mouse, but Disney was going through serious financial problems during the early 40's, and couldn't afford to outsource animation to other studios.
- Not only was he competitive at work, he was a rabid competitor in sports, as well. Kelly was all set to play the lead in Easter Parade, but broke his ankle during a volleyball game (not caused by the game itself, but by stamping his foot in frustration when his teammates started goofing off). Astaire ended up filling in for him, playing opposite Judy Garland. As it was originally meant for Kelly, the role is significantly darker than the boy scouts Astaire was known for playing—and that's after it was lightened quite a bit from the original draft of the script.
- Working-Class Hero: His appeal was mainly built around this trope, playing regular characters in musicals. He claimed his aim was to show working-class guys that they could also sing and dance. And he could walk the walk, too - in '47 he was on the anti-HUAC Committee of the First Amendment, he was a strong supporter of unions and he left the Catholic church over their support for Francisco Franco and the poverty he saw in countries like Mexico.
Gene Kelly on TV Tropes:
- Harry Palmer in For Me and My Gal (1942) - His first feature film.
- Danny McGuire in Cover Girl (1944)
- Joseph Brady in Anchors Aweigh (1945 Academy Award nominee for Best Actor). Best known for a fantasy sequence with the cartoon character, Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry.note
- Gentleman in Ziegfeld Follies (1945) (1945)
- Serafin in The Pirate (1948)
- D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1948)
- Gabey in On the Town (1949)
- Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris (1951 Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor)
- Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
- Tommy Albright in Brigadoon (1954)
- Ted Riley in It's Always Fair Weather (1955)
- E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind (1960)
- Pinky Benson in What a Way to Go! (1964)
- Andy Miller in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
- Hello, Dolly! (1969) — Kelly directed by did not appear onscreen
- The Cheyenne Social Club (1971) — Kelly directed but did not appear onscreen
- Billy Boylan in 40 Carats (1973)
- Will Atkins in Viva Knievel! (1978)
- Danny McGuire (possibly the same Danny McGuire as in Cover Girl) in Xanadu (1980)
- The Time of Your Life (1939), stage play which featured Kelly as Harry the dancer in the original 1939 Broadway production