Sunday, 23 August 2015

Happy Birthday, Gene Kelly!

The greatest male dancer who has ever lived, also known as Gene Kelly, was born Eugene Curran Kelly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 23, 1912. He was the third son of James Patrick Joseph Kelly, an Irish-Canadian travelling gramophone salesman, and his wife Harriet Catherine Curran, a "strong-willed, stage-struck" woman who encouraged all of her five children to take lessons in music, dance and French. Although Gene excelled at dance, he far preferred playing sports; in fact, he once said, "I never wanted to be a dancer. [...] I wanted to be a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates," a baseball team from his hometown. After graduating from Peabody High School in 1929, Gene entered Pennsylvania State College as a journalism major, but the Great Depression forced him to quit his studies and seek employment to help with the family's finances. In addition to teaching gymnastics at a YMCA camp near Pittsburgh, he and his younger brother Fred developed a hoofing act that they displayed at local dance contests and nightclubs in order to earn money.

Gene's 1933 yearbook photo
When he made enough money, Gene returned to his schooling, this time at the University of Pittsburgh, where he graduated in 1933 with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics. While at Pitt, he joined the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity, served as vice-president of the French Club and became involved with the Cap and Gown Club, which staged original musical productions. Gene began law school in the fall of 1933, but soon realized that dancing was his true career. He dropped out of classes and began teaching in the Pittsburgh dance school where he had studied as a child. During this period, he also worked at the family's dance studio, which had been renamed The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance in 1932. Under Gene's direction, the reputation and fortunes of the studio grew, enabling the Kellys to open a branch location in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was at this time that Gene realized, "As much as I loved classic ballet, I had to face the fact that my style of dancing was more modern."

Meanwhile, Gene and Fred continued their dance teaming; they performed at local clubs and were part of children's theatre unit during the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 to 1934. In the summer of 1935, while the Kellys were visiting relatives in Los Angeles, Gene got the chance to do a screen test at RKO Pictures, where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing stars. Unfortunately, the test proved unsuccessful. Two years later, he was offered the chance to coreograph an upcoming Broadway show. When he arrived in New York, however, he discovered that he was wanted only to appear in one dance number. Disappointed, he chose to return to Pittsburgh, but went back to New York in August 1938, "encouraged by his mother not to be so prideful this time around."

Gene with Betsy and Kerry in 1942
In November 1938, Gene joined the chorus of Cole Porter's Leave It to Me!, supporting Mary Martin in the number "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." He had been hired by Robert Alton, who had recently staged a show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where he was impressed by Gene's teaching skills. When Alton moved to coreograph the revue One For the Money, he invited Gene along to act, sing and dance in a total of eight routines. His first career breakthrough came in October 1939, when he was chosen to play the comedic role of Harry the Hoofer in William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life in which, for the first time on Broadway, he danced to his own coreography. While coreographing Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe Revue at the New York's World Fair in 1940, Gene met a 16-year-old dance named Betsy Blair, whom he eventually married in October 1941. They remained together for sixteen years and welcomed a child, daughter Kerry, before their divorce in 1957.  

Impressed by his work in The Time of Your Life, composer Richard Rodgers offered Gene the leading role in his and Lorenz Hart's new Broadway musical, Pal Joey, based on John O'Hara's eponymous novel about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day 1940, the show ran for 270 performances and finally propelled Gene Kelly to stardom. John Martin of The New York Times wrote of Gene: "A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique." Van Johnson, who was Gene's understudy in Pal Joey, recalled the dancer's utter perfectionism and dedication to his craft: "I watched him rehearsing, and it seemed to me that there was no possible room for improvement. Yet he wasn't satisfied. It was midnight and we had been rehearsing since eight in the morning. I was making my way sleepily down the long flight of stairs when I heard staccato steps coming from the stage [...] I could see just a single lamp burning. Under it, a figure was dancing [...] Gene."

With Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal
Gene's success in Pal Joey soon caught the attention of MGM, who displayed interest in signing him. However, when studio chief Louis B. Mayer demanded that he do a screen test after Gene had been promised he would not have to he refused to proceed. A few months later, independent producer David O. Selznick offered Gene a contract with no audition required; this time he accepted. Selznick believed Gene would be ideal for the lead of a missionary priest in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), but he ultimately decided to abandon this concept. (The part was eventually played by another newcomer, Gregory Peck, who received his first of five Academy Award nominations for his performance.) Instead, Gene was loaned out to MGM for his motion picture debut, Busby Berkeley's For Me and My Gal (1942), a musical set during World War I co-starring Judy Garland and George Murphy. Although Gene had "an awful feeling that [he] was a tremendous flop," the film was a great critical and commercial success. 

Selznick then negotiated a deal with MGM for the studio to take over half of Gene's seven-year contract; in the face of much internal resistance, the other half was subsequently picked up by Arthur Freed, who had produced For Me and My Gal. Unsure of what to do with their new song-and-dance man, MGM next ordered Gene into George Sidney's World War II drama Pilot #5 (1943), which reunited him with Johnson. After appearing opposite Red Skelton and Lucille Ball in Roy Del Ruth's Technicolor musical DuBarry Was a Lady (1943), he was assigned to Sidney's star-studded "morale booster" Thousands Cheer (1943), where he got his first opportunity to perform to his own coreography in a mock-love dance with a mop.

With Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl
Gene's breakthrough as a dancer on film arrived when MGM loaned him out to Columbia Pictures to serve as Rita Hayworth's leading man in Charles Vidor's Cover Girl (1944), a lavish musical featuring songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Initially, studio head Harry Cohn insisted Gene was wrong for the part: "That tough Irishman with his tough Irish mug! You couldn't put him in the same frame as Rita!" Cohn eventually relented and Gene's role as the proprietor of small Brooklyn club made him a bona fide movie star. Cover Girl also marked the first time he collaborated with Stanley Donen, a young dancer who had appeared as a chorus boy in Pal Joey. The result was the memorable "Alter Ego" number, in which Gene danced with his own reflection. 

After Cover Girl proved that Gene had potential as a musical comedy matinee idol and was able to coreograph his own films, MGM gave him free rein to devise a series of dance routines for his next starring vehicle, Anchors Aweigh (1945). As a sailor on shore leave in Hollywood, Gene performed "The Mexican Hat Dance," shared a soft-shoe routine with Frank Sinatra in "I Begged Her" and danced with Jerry Mouse in the celebrated fantasy sequence "The Worry Song," which cost $100,000 to make. Anchors Aweigh eventually became one of the most successful films of the year and earned Gene his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He lost to Ray Milland for Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), the Best Picture winner that year.

Gene in his uniform in August 1945
Meanwhile, Gene collaborated with Fred Astaire in the famous "The Babbit and the Bromide" dance routine for the all-star musical Ziegfeld Follies (1946) produced in 1944 and enlisted in the United States Naval Air Service. Commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade, he was stationed in the Photographic Section in Washington D.C., where he was involved in writing and directing a range of propaganda films. In addition, he visited several Navy and Army hospitals, performed in USO shows, attended bond rallies and joined the Presidential Citizen's Food Committee. He was also one of the many Hollywood celebrities who lent their services to the Hollywood Canteen, the historic club on Cahuenga Boulevard created by Warner Bros. contract players Bette Davis and John Garfield to provide free entertainment to service men and women of all Allied nations. Gene was "deeply disappointed" that he did not get send overseas "to entertain the boys at the front" before being discharged from active duty in May 1946. 

Upon his return to Hollywood, MGM used Gene to "add box-office appeal" to a stalled vehicle for Marie McDonald, Gregory La Cava's Living in a Big Way (1947), directed by Gregory La Cava. Despite Gene's presence and the dance routines he and Donen created, the film was one of Metro's biggest disasters of that year. Next, he was again paired with Garland in The Pirate (1948), directed by her then-husband Vincente Minnelli. Gene played a flirtatious entertainer named Serafin, co-coreographing with Alton the athletic "The Pirate Ballet" and the vaudeville-inspired "Be a Clown." Although The Pirate is now highly regarded by critics and fans alike, it "was too sophisticated to succeed with the general public" at the time of its release.

With Vera-Ellen in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"
After demonstrating that he could be as acrobatic as Douglas Fairbanks playing D'Artagnan in the lavish swashbuckler The Three Musketeers (1948)  which he considered one of his favorite non-musical projects Gene asked MGM to do a musical version of Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac. However, the studio hired him instead to coreograph the ballet sequence "Slaugher on Tenth Avenue" for Words and Music (1948), wherein he danced with Vera-Ellen. Next, he partnered with Sinatra for two additional musicals: Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), a period piece he co-wrote and coreographed with Donen, in which he payed homage to his Irish heritage in the routine "The Hat My Dear Father Wore Upon St. Patrick's Day"; and On the Town (1949), which Gene co-directed and co-coreographed with Donen as part of the Arthur Freed-MGM musical film unit. The first musical to be shot entirely on location in New York, On the Town was a instant critical and commercial success and eventually became Gene's favorite picture. 

The early 1950s were arguably the highest point in Gene's career. His performance as a young Italian-American seeking revenge on the mobsters who killed his father in the turn-of-the-century drama Black Hand (1950), one of his few "straight" roles, earned him excellent reviews from critics for his dramatic acting skills. After a third and final collaboration with Garland in Summer Stock (1950), Gene appeared played the title role in Minnelli's An American in Paris (1951), notable for its lavish seventeen-minute ballet sequence set to George Gershwin's music. Co-starring French ballerina Leslie Caron in her screen debut, An American in Paris was a massive success, winning six Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture. That year, Gene also received an honorary Oscar, "in appreaciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and especially for his brilliant achievement in the art of coreography on the film."

Publicity still for Singin' in the Rain
Next, Gene starred opposite Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen in what is probably the most popular and admired of all film musicals, Singin' in the Rain (1952), which he again co-directed and co-coreographed with Stanley Donen. This was a "robust, snappy and fun" satirical story which depicted Hollywood in the late 1920s, with the four stars playing performers caught up in the transition from silent films to "talkies." Singin' in the Rain also provided Gene with his signature screen moment of "dancing jubilantly in the rain."

To take advantage of the new U.S. income tax law that benefited Americans who worked abroad for eighteen months or more, Mayer next sent Gene to Europe to make use of frozen MGM funds. He made only three pictures during this period: The Devil Makes Three (1952), an unsuccessful post-war thriller shot in Germany with Pier Angeli as his leading lady; Invitation to the Dance (1956), an "arty, all-ballet" anthology film produced in England in 1952, but not released until four years later, when it was a massive box-office failure; and Crest of the Wave (1954), a British war drama that did not appeal to American audiences. 
 
 

By the time Gene returned to Hollywood in 1953, the film musical was already beginning to feel the pressures from the emergent medium of television. An economy device demanded by the new MGM studio boss, Dore Schary, forced Freed to cut the budget for Gene's next picture, Brigadoon (1954), co-starring Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. As a result, Gene had to shoot the film on the Metro back lot instead of on location in Scotland, where Brigadoon is set. At that point, Gene's relationship with MGM started to deteriorate; Schary's refusal to loan him out to independent producer Samuel Goldwyn for Guys and Dolls (1955) and to Columbia for Pal Joey (1957) strained it further. His final picture for the Freed-MGM unit was It's Always Fair Weather (1955), which also marked the end of Gene's professional association with Donen. To end his MGM contract, he appeared in George Cukor's Les Girls (1957) and then directed The Tunnel of Love (1958), a sex comedy with Doris Day and Richard Widmark.

As E. K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind
After leaving MGM, Gene was hired by Warner Bros. to play opposite Natalie Wood in Irving Rapper's Marjorie Morningstar (1958), based on the novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. He then returned to Broadway to direct the musical Flower Drum Song (1959) for Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Meanwhile, Gene began a relationship with his coreographic assistant Jeanne Coyne, whom he had known since their youth in Pittsburgh. They wedded in August 1960 and had two children: Timothy, born in 1962, and Bridget, born in 1964. He remained married to Jeanne until her death from leukemia in 1973.

Gene began the 1960s with a dramatic role, that of an idealistic newspaperman in Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind (1960), co-starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. That year, he also wrote and coreographed the ballet Pas de Duex, set to George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F Major, which was presented by the Paris Opera company. Based on Greek mythology, the show was a major success and led to Gene being honored with the Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur by the French government. In France, he additionally directed Gigot (1962), a Jackie Gleason vehicle released through 20th Century Fox. 
 
 

Although Gene found the small screen medium "too limiting," he accepted the lead role in ABC's weekly television series Going My Way (1962-1963), based on the Bing Crosby 1944 hit film of the same name. However, the show failed to bring in an audience mostly due to competition with CBS's The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)  and was cancelled after one season. He returned to the big screen to appear opposite Shirley MacLaine in the black comedy What a Way to Go! (1964), in which he dance in and coreographed the musical routine "Happy Houseboat." He next returned to France to film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), an homage to the MGM musical directed by Jacques Demy and starring Catherine Deneuve. The picture was hugely popular in its native country, but performance poorly elsewhere.

Gene directing Hello, Dolly!
By the late 1960s, Gene was more concentrated on producting and directing. During this period, he helmed A Guide for the Married Man (1967), a successful bedroom farce starring Walter Matthau and featuring a large number of cameos, including Gene's former co-stars Lucille Ball and Phil Silvers, who had appeared in Cover Girl and Summer Stock. Two years later, 20th Century Fox hired him to direct Hello, Dolly! (1969), a musical set in the 19th century, co-starring Matthau and Barbra Streisand. The film was one of the top five biggest moneymakers of the 1960-1970 season and went on to win three Academy Awards, in addition to four other nominations, including Best Picture. In the interim, Gene also produced and directed the well-received NBC special Jack and the Beanstalk (1967), again combining cartoon animation with live dance, for which he received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program.  

Gene began the 1970s directing veteran actors James Stewart and Henry Fonda in the "pedestrian Western" The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), which made a small profit despite being poorly received by critics. Two years later, he was asked to helm Cabaret (1972) in Germany, but had to turn it down to care for his wife Jeanne, who was already dying of leukemia. He did accept a few days' work acting in Columbia's romantic comedy 40 Carats (1973) because he could go to the studio and be home in twenty minutes. Around the same time, Gene also re-teamed up with his old pal Frank Sinatra for the crooner's Emmy-nominated NBC special Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back (1973), where they sang and danced together a series of energetic routines.

With Astaire in That's Entertainment, Part II
The following year, Gene appeared as one of the many special narrators in the surprise hit That's Entertainment! (1974), a compilation film released by MGM to celebrate its 50th anniversary. This led to his being invited to perform, direct and coreograph the introductory segments in the critically acclaimed sequel That's Entertainment, Part II (1976). His partner in these song and dance duets was the 77-year-old Fred Astaire, who, having long since retired from dancing, had to be coaxed by Gene into taking the job.

A few years later, Gene was drawn out of semi-retirement to act and dance opposite Olivia Newton-John in the musical fantasy Xanadu (1980), an expensive commerical failure which has since attained a cult following. Wanting to keep active in the industry in whatever capacity he could, he accepted an invitation from Francis Ford Coppola to recruit a production staff for Zoetrope Studios' One For the Heart (1982). The director's intention was for Gene to establish an Arthur Freed-type unit, but the film's failure soon ended his relationship with Coppola and the studio.

Turning 70 in 1982, Gene announced his retirement from dancing, stating, "When you get to that age, you can dance, but it's not very exciting. I can't swing from lamp posts anymore." He did continue to make occasional acting appearances on television, including two period miniseries: North and South (1985), about the American Civil War; and Sins (1986), set during World War II. In the early 1980s, Gene also had to deal with the devastating blaze  caused a Christmas tree catching fire that destroyed his Beverly Hills home and memorabilia, including his honorary Oscar.

Gene in the mid-1980s
From the mid-1980s on, Gene was the focal guest of several retrospectives honoring his long career. Already a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, he was the thirteenth performer to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in March 1985. At the gala, he discussed his past career and admitted, "It was a lot of work, but we had fun. We had the best of times. It was because we all thought we were trying to create some sort of magic and joy." In December 1988, he became the twenty-fifth recipient of the Screen Actors Guild's Achievement Award for "fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession." In April 1989, he received the Pied Pier Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his contribution to the music industry. In between, Gene served as executive producer, director and co-host of yet another compilation of musical filmmaking, That's Dancing! (1985).

In July 1990, Gene married Patricia Ward, his girlfriend of five years; she was 44 years his junior. The union caused a rift between between Gene and his three grown children, but the dissention was finally mended in July 1994, when he suffered a life-threatening stroke that resulted in a seven-week hospital stay. This happened shortly after he co-hosted the compilation That's Entertainment! III (1994), produced to celebrate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 70th anniversary. In early 1995, Gene suffered another stroke, which left him mostly bedridden in his new Beverly Hills home. He eventually died in his sleep on Febuary 2, 1996, at the age of 83. His final film project, the animated feature Cats Don't Dance (1997) made for Warner Bros. in 1994 was released posthumously and "dedicated to our friend and collaborator, Gene Kelly."

A few years before he passed away, Gene told a reporter: "Kids talk to me and say they want to do musicals again because they've studied the tapes of the old films. We didn't have that. We thought once we had made it, even on film, it was gone except for the archives. Now, when I look at TV, I see a lot of my old steps being used and I'm delighted."

GENE KELLY 
(August 23, 1912 February 2, 1996)
You dance love, and you dance joy, and you dance dreams. And I know if I can make you smile by jumping over a couple of couches or running through a rainstorm, then I'll be very glad to be a song and dance man.


____________________________ 
SOURCES: 
Hollywood Songsters: Singers Who Act and Actors Who Sing, 2nd edition by James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts (2003) | The Mythology of Dance by Harry Eiss (2013) | Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume 1 by Frank Cullen (2004) | Gene Kelly during the war

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