Kelly, Eugene Curran (“Gene”)
Kelly, Eugene Curran (“Gene”)
(b. 23 August 1912 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; d. 2 February 1996 in Beverly Hills, California), dancer, actor, director, and choreographer who helped invent and extend the possibilities of the Hollywood musical.
Kelly was the third of five children born to James Patrick Joseph Kelly and Harriet Curran, second-generation Irish-Americans. The family lived in East Liberty, a working-class section of Pittsburgh. James Kelly was a $75-a-week traveling salesman for the Columbia Phonograph Company and was home only on weekends. He was an affable man of careful habits who adored his family and demanded their respect. Harriet Kelly taught her children the value of thrift and was strongly committed to their success. At the age of eight Kelly enrolled in a dance school where his mother worked as a receptionist. He was a good athlete. He enjoyed skating, played hockey, and loved baseball, gymnastics, and swimming. Small for his age, and annoyed with a “girl’s name,” Gene groused that dancing was “a girl’s game.”
Encouraged by their mother, the five Kelly children appeared in local talent shows. A younger brother, Fred, loved the limelight, but Kelly dreamed of becoming a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. At age ten he did a tap dance to the song “Toyland,” from Victor Herbert’s operetta Babes in Toyland, at the St. Raphael School and reluctantly took violin lessons. A respectable student at Peabody High School, Kelly performed in school shows and discovered at age fifteen that “girls loved dancers.” He debated well and wrote for the school paper. In 1929 he enrolled at Pennsylvania State College, planning a career in journalism.
The stock market crash in the fall of 1929 cost James Kelly his job and brought Kelly home from college. The Kelly children went to work to keep the family financially afloat. Kelly dug ditches, laid bricks, pumped gas, and danced nights with Fred at local clubs and speakeasies. Audiences threw coins onto the stage. He found it humiliating, but it was a way to make $10. As a camp counselor during the summer he taught dance and earned $150, enough to continue his education at the University of Pittsburgh. On weekends, beginning in 1931, he agreed to help his mother at a dance school she had started in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, sixty-five miles from Pittsburgh. Lessons cost fifty cents apiece, but some parents paid in potatoes and bread loaves. His debut as a choreographer came at Pittsburgh’s Beth Shalom Synagogue with a production of Revue of Revues that made the temple $1,100. Students flocked to the classes he started at the synagogue.
The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance opened in Johnstown in 1932 and developed a brisk business. One hundred fifty students, ages four to eighteen, danced the Black Bottom and Big Apple in summer shows that became a regional attraction. Apache dances and tap solos filled the seats. James Kelly ran the box office and Harriet kept the books. In 1933 Kelly graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in economics and planned to begin law school. But his dance schools in Pittsburgh and Johnstown were flourishing. In the summer of that year he returned to Chicago, studied dance with a protégé of a Russian master, and danced at the city’s World’s Fair. He entered law school but left in less than one month. His enthusiasm for dance had become too great.
Over the next five years Kelly’s dancing schools grew to 350 pupils. He performed with them at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and with his brother Fred in cap and gown shows with college players staged at the University of Pittsburgh. Gene’s enthusiasm for ballet grew, but he turned down an offer to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo because “I couldn’t see doing Swan Lake for the next twenty years of my life.” In the summer of 1937 he accepted an offer to choreograph a dance number on Broadway in New York City but returned to Pittsburgh when he found the producers only wanted him for the male chorus. A year later he took the advice of the choreographer Robert Alton and tried again.
Kelly’s Broadway debut came in the chorus line of Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me. He danced while Mary Martin sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” He had a bigger role in Harold Rome’s One for the Money. In the summer of 1939 he worked as a choreographer with a Connecticut stock company and made friends with future collaborators Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who found the twenty-seven-year-old “outgoing, earthy, with something extra hidden away.” He was a hit as Harry the Hoofer in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which opened at the Booth Theater in October. Saroyan credited Kelly’s tap dancing with helping to win the play a twenty-two-week run. For Kelly it was the beginning of realizing the common man through dance. The role won him the job of a choreographer at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe dance club, where he met the sixteen-year-old dancer Betsy Blair, whom he married on 24 September 1941.
Meanwhile, however, Christmas Eve 1940 saw the Broadway opening of Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, starring Kelly as the sleazy song-and-dance man Joey Evans, a portrait critics found an exercise in “theater art.” Kelly’s “characterization through dance” included a classical ballet in the first act, followed by a Spanish tap dance in tango rhythm. Kelly’s confident athleticism made a deep impression on audiences, and Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), was impressed enough to offer Kelly a Hollywood contract, which he rejected in a disagreement over a screen test. Privately, Kelly wondered whether he was ready for films. He continued to star in the 270-performance run of Pal Joey by night while choreographing Best Foot Forward by day. Kelly eventually signed a contract with the independent Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and arrived in Hollywood on 11 November 1941.
For five months Kelly sat, because Selznick thought of Kelly as a dramatic actor. “Selznick didn’t want to make musicals,” Kelly recalled, and the young dancer had no interest in becoming a dramatic actor. Arthur Freed, a musical producer at MGM, had seen Kelly on Broadway and persuaded him to star opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942), playing a character not unlike that of Pal Joey’s Evans. The plot was thin but Kelly’s dancing and Garland’s singing made the film a hit. MGM bought Kelly’s contract from Selznick at $1,000 a week for seven years. An added delight for Kelly was the birth of a daughter in October 1942.
Kelly’s next four films at MGM (all 1943) were undistinguished. He supported Franchot Tone in a World War II drama, Pilot No. 5, backed up Red Skelton’s slapstick in DuBarry Was a Lady, danced with a mop in Thousands Cheer, and was overly earnest in The Cross of Lorraine. MGM did not know how to cast him. And Kelly himself had not yet discovered what worked. “I fell in love with dancing for the movies,” he observed, but quickly found that “what I did on stage didn’t work in films.” He wanted “to do something new in dance,” to lift it out of being “a musical interlude,” enabling it to “further the plot emotionally” by “expressing what the character felt in dance in a way that had meaning for the camera.” Dance exploited three dimensions but film had only two. He found a way to attack the problem in Cover Girl (1944) by dancing a duet with his conscience, transforming a simple movie moment of lost love into a scene that expanded the limits of film art. Kelly and his doppelgänger start in unity and end in violent, competing leaps, jumps, and turns. Critics and audiences were equally enthusiastic. The film historian Tony Thomas summarized their sense that it marked “a major turning point in the history of the Hollywood musical.”
Back at MGM and working with Stanley Donen, Kelly in a sailor suit danced memorably with Jerry the Mouse, a cartoon character, in Anchors Aweigh (1945), combining animation and live action in a performance that won him an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Costar Frank Sinatra got a dose of Kelly’s “insane insistence on hard work” and was never better. In November 1944, with the film in post-production, Kelly joined the navy, serving eighteen months in special services without seeing combat. When he returned to Hollywood, the film Ziegfeld Follies (1946) was in release, featuring a dance duet he had done with Fred Astaire before enlisting. It highlighted the charming grace of one and the robust athleticism of the other. Kelly’s dance creations with kids failed to make Living in a Big Way (released in 1947) a hit but won him praise from Martha Graham, whose work had long inspired him. Kelly broke an ankle while filming Easter Parade (1948) with Judy Garland, and Astaire was brought in to replace him. Kelly starred again with Garland in the period musical The Pirate (1948), directed by her husband, Vincente Minnelli. Critics praised Kelly’s bravura performance, but audiences, Kelly realized, liked him better as a hoofer. His dance duet with Garland received raves, but the film did not do well at the box office. “You couldn’t give it away with dishes,” he later observed, after the film had become a cult classic. A similar swashbuckling style in The Three Musketeers (1948) did better at the box office.
Frustrated in his desire to bring Cyrano de Bergerac to the screen, Kelly instead brought modern ballet to a Hollywood film, when he and Vera-Ellen did “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in the star-studded Words and Music (1948). Kelly came up with the idea for Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) as a salute to the national pastime. He was reunited with Comden and Green as well as Sinatra. Kelly’s steps in “Where Did You Get That Hat?” celebrate the Irish experience in America, and the number was one of his personal favorites. The ensemble was happily reunited in On the Town (1949), Kelly’s directorial debut with Donen and the first movie musical to be shot on location. The outcome was an exuberant evocation of postwar American enthusiasm as it followed three sailors on a twenty-four-hour leave in New York City. Kelly’s quick cutting captured the optimism of Leonard Bernstein’s “New York, New York,” while transforming the narrative possibilities of the movie musical. It liberated the musical from the studio back lot and became Kelly’s favorite film.
Kelly’s favorite dance was his highly inventive duet with a spread sheet of newspaper, ably accompanied by a squeaky floorboard, in Summer Stock (1950), his last film with Judy Garland. Arthur Freed’s idea of linking Gershwin standards to the romantic life of an artist living abroad became An American in Paris, which won the Academy Award for best film of 1951 and was the most honored movie musical of its time. Highlights included Kelly’s time-step shim-sham with Parisian street children to the tune of “I Got Rhythm” and his romantic pas de deux with Leslie Caron along the Seine to the strains of “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” A seventeen-minute finale, staged by Kelly and director Minnelli, combined elements of modern and classical ballet, tap, and jitterbug. Kelly’s creativity was recognized in a special Academy Award for furthering the art of filmmaking.
The brilliance of Kelly’s next film, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), was not immediately recognized because of its close proximity to An American in Paris. Kelly rated it below On the Town, but the affectionate send-up of Hollywood’s conversion to sound, codirected by Kelly and Donen, has only grown in reputation over the years, making it almost certainly the most admired film musical ever made. Kelly thought his semiautobiographical “Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!” would stop the show. Instead, it was the title tune, shot in a day and a half, which became the all-time best-loved dance on film. The movie’s record-shattering success at the box office should have signaled a golden age in making musicals, but in fact that age was nearly over. Threatened by television and stripped by court order of their profitable theaters, Hollywood studios were forced to cut back on production schedules. The teams that made musicals were quietly disbanded. Kelly spent eighteen months abroad, making three films that were quickly forgotten. A tight budget and an indifferent public doomed the Kelly-Minnelli collaboration in Brigadoon (1954). Kelly’s collaboration with Donen and Comden and Green in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), complicated by the wide-frame CinemaScope, did little better. Les Girls (1957) would be Kelly’s last starring role in a major musical.
Kelly’s personal and professional life after the late 1950s was a long, if never fully satisfying, postscript. On 3 April 1957 his fifteen-year marriage to Betsy Blair ended in divorce. He married Jeannie Coyne, a longtime coworker from his MGM days, on 6 August 1960. They had two children. Coyne died of leukemia on 10 May 1973. In July 1990, Kelly married Patricia Ward, a scriptwriter.
Inherit the Wind (1960) was a good dramatic part for Kelly. He directed Gigot (1962) to good reviews and Hello, Dolly! (1969) to indifferent ones. Occasional television appearances in the 1960s and 1970s were affectionately received. After Forty Carats (1973) and Xanadu (1980) he stopped working as an onscreen actor. His appearances in That’s Entertainment! (1974), That’s Entertainment, Part 2 (1976), and That’s Dancing! (1985) celebrated the history of the movie musical in which he had played a leading role. On 7 March 1985 he received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute for “advancing the filmmaking art” and for work that “has stood the test of time.” He told interviewers that, from the first, he had attempted to dance “the love, joy, and dreams” of the common man. The creative work of collaboration was his greatest joy. His only regret was that “dance careers are so short” he never had the chance “to do the many dances I still have up in my head.” Weakened by a series of strokes in the mid-1990s, he died with his legacy firmly fixed as the great architect of the movie musical in the golden era of film.
A fire in 1983 at Kelly’s Beverly Hills home destroyed many of his personal papers. Materials on his life are in the Gene Kelly Archives in the Department of Special Collections at Boston University. Kelly was interviewed at length by Clive Hirschhorn for Gene Kelly: A Biography (1974). Extensive interviews also are in Tony Thomas, The Films of Gene Kelly, Song and Dance Man (1974), and Jerome Delamater, Dance in the Hollywood Musical (1981). Retrospectives include Rudy Behlmer, “Gene Kelly Is One Dancer Who Can Also Act and Direct,” Films in Review (Jan. 1964); David Shipman, The Great Movie Stars: The International Years (1972); Jeanine Basinger, Gene Kelly (1976); and Alvin Yudkoff, Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams (1999). Contextual works on Kelly’s career and its significance include Lee Edward Stern, The Movie Musical (1974); Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (1982); and Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 Feb. 1996). He was interviewed in 1974 for “An Evening with Gene Kelly,” a joint production of the British Broadcasting Company and MGM, and again in 1994 for Reflections on the Silver Screen, a series produced by the Library of Congress.
Bruce J. Evensen