Gene Kelly excelled at so many things over the course of his lengthy career, it seemed like he could have successfully tackled virtually any aspect of motion picture performing or production. His remarkable talents as a dancer were justifiably legendary. From his early days in Broadway hits like "Pal Joey" (1940-41), it was clear that Kelly possessed extraordinary prowess and also proved to be a particularly adept choreographer. In classic Golden Age musicals like "Cover Girl" (1944), "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949), "On the Town" (1949), "An American in Paris" (1951), and, most famously, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), Kelly dazzled and delighted audiences worldwide by often creating technical innovations that made his performances even more astounding, particularly his dance with animated partner Jerry Mouse in "Anchors Aweigh" (1945). Kelly's technical skills also made him an astute director. In addition to co-directing some of his best MGM outings, Kelly did further work in that capacity later in life, helming such pictures as "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967) and "Hello Dolly!" (1969). When traditional musicals fell out of favor in the late 1950s, Kelly switched genres and proved to be a fine dramatic actor in fare like "Inherit the Wind" (1960). While he had several contemporaries who possessed dancing and singing skills that were comparable to his own - rival Fred Astaire being the most notable - there were precious few, if any, performers who could match Kelly when it came to the total package.
A native of Pittsburgh, PA, Eugene Curran Kelly was born on Aug. 23, 1912. At his mother's insistence, Kelly took dance classes from the age of eight, but as the boy preferred sports like hockey, he did not take the art form seriously until his teens. By that point, Kelly was such an accomplished hoofer that he supplemented the family's income by routinely winning dancing contests. Like most everyone else, the Kellys were financially impacted by the Great Depression and after a few years of performing odd jobs, the family opened the Gene Kelly Dance Studio, which served a steady stream of clientele. Kelly graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with the intention of earning a law degree, but decided to continue working as a dance instructor. He eventually headed to New York City and made his Broadway debut as a dancer in the Cole Porter show "Leave it to Me!" (1938-39). That production was followed in close succession by parts in two other shows, "One for the Money" (1939) and "The Time of Your Life" (1940), with Kelly also handling choreography on the latter. Kelly's big break came when he won the title role in the Rodgers and Hart musical "Pal Joey" (1940-41). The show was a smash and Kelly was offered a movie contract. During that time, he married fellow dancer Betsy Blair, who would later go to an acting career of her own, and the couple relocated to Hollywood with high hopes.
The handsome Kelly made his film debut as the second male lead in MGM's "For Me and My Gal" (1942), a vehicle for Judy Garland, who was reportedly responsible for the studio taking an interest in him. While on loan out to Columbia, he starred opposite Rita Hayworth in "Cover Girl" (1944). Hoping to compete with the musical spectaculars MGM was known for, Columbia boss Harry Cohn gave Kelly considerable freedom with the choreography and the star's imagination resulted in an incredible sequence where Kelly danced with himself. This required two separate shoots, with Kelly doing both parts and having to perfectly hit predetermined marks for the illusion to work. A thrilling scene, it remained amazing to view even years later when such things would be accomplished digitally. A huge hit, "Cover Girl" greatly elevated Kelly's status as a viable leading man and his return vehicle for MGM, "Anchors Aweigh" (1945), also broke new ground technically with a number where the actor danced with cartoon star Jerry Mouse from MGM's popular "Tom & Jerry" series. Kelly's charm and athleticism were arguably at their height here and he won his only Best Actor Academy Award. "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946) was a somewhat uneven, all-star extravaganza, but Kelly shared the screen for the first and last time with Fred Astaire for a memorable duet; the pairing of film's two greatest male dance titans delighted fans.
Following the completion of "Ziegfeld Follies" in 1944, Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Naval Air Service, where he was involved in the production of some military short features. He reunited with Judy Garland for the Cole Porter outing "The Pirate" (1948), which included a ballet sequence, a dance form that would return in some of Kelly's later work. The actor also turned up as one of "The Three Musketeers" (1948), a colorful if rather odd MGM take on the classic Alexandre Dumas novel. The combination of Kelly and Frank Sinatra had scored previously with "Anchors Aweigh," so they were reunited for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949), a tribute to the Great American Pastime, set in the early 20th century. Kelly had been sidelined for a time with a broken ankle, but fully recovered and moved with every bit of his customary grace and agility in the film. Kelly and Sinatra worked together again that same year in the even more impressive "On the Town" (1949). Having gained some experience directing while in the service, Kelly both starred in and made his directorial bow with "Town," sharing helming duties with Stanley Donen, a talented, young choreographer who had previously worked with Kelly on "Cover Girl" and "Anchors Aweigh." The two first-time directors picked a production that had more than the usual challenges, in that the customary studio work was complemented by some New York City location shooting at various Big Apple landmarks. This was a very rare occurrence for musicals of the time, which were almost always lensed on the studio back lots under closely controlled conditions, and helped to enhance the film's appeal.
"Black Hand" (1950) offered Kelly an unusual change of pace role as an Italian immigrant battling the Mafia in New York City, but he quickly returned to familiar territory with "Summer Stock" (1950), his final collaboration with a then very troubled Judy Garland. After the inclusion of a ballet sequence in "The Pirate," "An American in Paris" (1951) successfully incorporated a beautifully staged and shot routing that ran a then-unheard of 18 minutes. The multiple Oscar-winning production also introduced Kelly's discovery Leslie Caron, who took the lead role when Cyd Charisse dropped out due to pregnancy. As fine as "An American in Paris" was, Kelly's next film was the crown jewel in MGM's musical catalogue and widely regarded as the greatest musical of all time. Set during the time when talking pictures were being introduced in a post-silent era Hollywood, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) was a delightful, rollicking tribute to moviemaking. Kelly's remarkable choreography, including his show-stopping "Moses Supposes" tap dancing number with Donald O'Connor and, of course, Kelly's performance of the title song, performed on a rain swept street complete with an umbrella as prop, helped make this one of the most beloved musicals ever produced. Although the movie was inexplicably shut out at the Oscars, Kelly and Donen shared a Director's Guild of America Award for their efforts and Kelly received a special Academy Award that year in recognition of his amazing achievements both on and off the silver screen.
While not as well known as many MGM musicals, the company's adaptation of the Broadway smash "Brigadoon" (1954) had plentiful charm and offered the first chance for audiences to see Kelly glide his way across the wide CinemaScope frame. Originally planned as a direct follow-up to "On the Town," "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955) was slightly darker that most of Kelly's musicals from this time, with the relationship between its three protagonists strained for part of the running time, but still ended in very upbeat fashion. Kelly co-directed once again with Donen, and the show-stopping sequence came early on, with Kelly and fellow leading men Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd dancing on, around and through a taxi cab, and finally adding grace to garbage by tap dancing with trash can lids attached to their feet. Kelly directed solo on "Invitation to the Dance" (1956), an ambitious project that sought to tell three stories solely through dance (including one starring Kelly and featuring him interacting again with animation) and no dialogue. However, the project, which started filming in 1952, experienced any number of problems, and had been greatly reworked by the time it finally appeared four years later. Although it was a success overseas, "Invitation to the Dance" failed domestically, a signal that audiences had started to tire of this sort of fare.
After 15 years and numerous hits for MGM, the following year's "Les Girls" (1957) was Kelly's last musical for the company. The actor's marriage to Blair also ended that year. An outspoken liberal, Blair ended up blacklisted, but was able to find some work thanks to Kelly's intervention, including "Marty" (1955), which earned her an Oscar nomination. In later life, Blair described Kelly - who was also a progressive liberal - as a hardworking, attentive and near perfect husband, but divorced him because she desired her freedom. With MGM no longer producing musicals, Kelly directed and starred in "Marjorie Morningstar" (1958) opposite a young Natalie Wood and "The Tunnel of Love" (1958), as well as helming a successful run of "Flower Drum Song" (1958-60) on Broadway. In 1960, he married dancer Jeanne Coyne and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Stanley Kramer's acclaimed drama about the real-life controversy generated by the teaching of evolution in schools during the 1920s, "Inherit the Wind" (1960) found Kelly in fine dramatic form as a journalist based on famous writer H.L. Mencken. Kelly also explored series television with "Going My Way" (ABC, 1962-63), a network version of the hit 1944 feature, with Kelly assuming the Father O'Malley role originated by Bing Crosby. The hour-long comedy failed to click with viewers, however, and was cancelled after one season.
By this time, directing became Kelly's primary occupation. In addition to theatrical features like "Gigot" (1962), "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967) and "The Cheyenne Social Club" (1970), he also directed and starred in an Emmy Award-winning adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk" (CBS, 1967). His main accomplishment at this time was "Hello Dolly!" (1969), a big-budget version of the Broadway hit that helped to solidify Barbra Streisand as a major box office attraction. Kelly returned to television as host of "The Funny Side" (NBC, 1971), a comedy series that included song and dance numbers. Although the program garnered an Emmy Award, it was gone from the air waves after only four months. Coyne died of leukaemia at the young age of 50 in 1973, and aside from a supporting role in the comedy "40 Carats" (1973), Kelly was mostly inactive throughout the 1970s. However, his talents were seen on movie screens around the world once again when MGM scored a surprise hit with "That's Entertainment!" (1974), a collection of memorable sequences from their library of classic musicals, which included clips from such Kelly outings as "Singin' in the Rain" and "An American in Paris" as well as new footage of the star in bookend segments. The studio also tapped Kelly to direct linking sequences and/or do additional hosting duties for the follow-ups "That's Entertainment, Part II" (1976), "That's Dancing" (1985), and "That's Entertainment III" (1994).
It was a shame these compilation extravaganzas were not released at the end of Kelly's motion picture career, as his final two original entries in his filmography were simply embarrassing. "Viva Knievel!" (1977) was a ludicrous attempt to create a motion picture career for the charmless (and frequently unsuccessful) daredevil Evel Knievel, with Kelly wasted in a nothing role as his alcoholic mechanic. Even more unfortunate was the disastrous Olivia Newton-John musical fantasy "Xanadu" (1980) in which he played a character bearing the name of his leading man from "Cover Girl," but that was where any resemblance between the two productions ended. Despite its critical drubbing, "Xanadu" did provide Kelly with his final onscreen dance with Newton-John, giving the roller disco musical its one touch of class. Kelly earned his final acting credits in a pair of miniseries, the Civil War epic "North and South" (ABC, 1985) and "Sins" (CBS, 1986), and accepted Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Film Institute and the Screen Actors Guild in 1985 and 1989, respectively. In 1990, the star married his third wife, Patricia Ward, and they remained together until Kelly passed away on Feb. 2, 1996 from complications brought about by a pair of strokes he had suffered. It was safe to say that with the death of Astaire in 1987 and Kelly nine years later, the two greatest dance innovators in cinema history officially brought the curtain down on the Golden Age of movie musicals.
By John Charles