I must admit that this film was not high on my list of films to purchase, but we found a copy and I sat down one night with low expectations. Afterwards, I can remember sitting on the couch mumbling, “wow.” It was a masterpiece from beginning to end, and for weeks afterward I would start conversations with my wife or anyone that would listen about how brilliant Gene Kelly was. Obviously, I was a little late to the party.
In the Spring 1989 the Disney News ran an article showcasing Gene Kelly. The piece, written by Leonard Shannon, is full of fantastic anecdotes and wit and glimpses into history, and shows what an impact he has had on the film industry and Disney, right up to and through the current High School Musical phenomenon. Which means it is definitely worth a look.
About once a month, as he’s done for several years, Gene Kelly lock the front door of his house and sets out to entertain a thousand or so of his fans. They’re waiting for him at colleges and conventions all over the country, ready to spend an evening watching clips from his movies, listening to him talk about his life and good times, and finally peppering him with questions.
“It keeps me in touch with the public,” Kelly explains. “I address a very general audience. Older people. Movie buffs. People who are interested in musicals and dance. Lots of college kids study studying dance and film and theater.
“I can expect to be asked the easy questions, like ‘Who’s your favorite leading lady?’ (Truth is, my leading ladies were cast for their poise. That’s how they got into the picture – not by being favorites.) ‘Who played love scenes best?’ (Fact is, kissing scenes are disliked by most actors and actresses. They tend to ruin makeup and draw bad looks from the people who have to redo the lady’s hair and lipstick – and often the man’s, too.) ‘Who’s your favorite dancing partner?’ (Jerry the Mouse. He was always on time, and worked his little tail off.)
“Then there are complex questions, like ‘Why don’t they make musicals like they used too?’ (Music has changed, and society has changed. Romance has gone from both music and dance. People don’t dance the way they used to in everyday life, with their arms around each other. Now they just break away at the discos, doing their own thing.)”
Inevitably, Kelly says, the questions get around to his signature number in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“It was an easy dance, but very tough on the photographer. We rehearsed it for six days and shot the whole number on the MGM backlot in a day and a half. The water was lukewarm as it came from the pipes, but I was concerned about catching pneumonia with all that stuff pouring down on me. I had a temperature of 103 degrees, and kept rushing outside into the sun to keep warm whenever I could.”
The result, of course, has proven to be his most famous dance in what is widely regarded as the best movie musical ever made.
“At the time,” Kelly recalls, “we had the title and the song, but no dance. The song had been around MGM for years. Cliff Edwards sand in it ‘The Hollywood Revue’ of 1929. Jimmy Durante had a go at it in the 1930s, and Judy Garland did it her way in the 1940s.
“I wondered where, or how, to introduce the number into the picture. It had to be raining, I had to be singing, I had a glorious feeling, and I was going to be happy again.
“What else? Then I got the idea. I added two words to the lyric, so that it ran ‘I’m singin’ and dancin’ in the rain.’ Then, instead of just singing the number, I could dance as well. After that, everything fell beautifully into place.”
“Singin’ in the Rain” was the eighteenth of 26 movies Kelly made for MGM. Seventeen of them were musicals, putting him on a par with Fred Astaire and inviting comparisons that still abound.
“My dance style was plebian, and Fred’s was aristocratic,” Kelly says. “I used to kid Fred, and I kidded him before he got his award at the American National Theatre and Academy. I said, ‘Well, I see again you’re playing the rich fellow. Helen Hayes is going to come out and give you the award. If it were me, it would probably be Bette Midler.’
“When I came to the movies, I wanted to dance in T-shirts and blue jeans. Some critics claim that’s my only contribution, and maybe it is. But if I put on an evening suit, I look like I’m dressed up for the Plumber’s Ball. Fred Astaire, now, looked so good in evening clothes, you’d think he’d invented them.
“Fred’s ballroom style of partnership was never mine. I never wanted to be part of a team. What I wanted was the role, and I think I brought girls like Leslie Caron, Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse along by casting them in a role. Neither Fred nor I were like the guys in dance companies. He was sophisticated. You could call me a song-and-dance man.”
From Broadway to Hollywood
Kelly came to MGM for the Broadway stage, where he had worked his way up in numerous shows from choreographer on “Best Foot Forward” to co-star of “Pal Joey.” During his 15-year tenure at the studio, he choreographed, directed, produced and starred in some of the liveliest, loveliest, and often most innovative musicals to come out of Hollywood. They include “An American in Paris,” “On the Town,” “Invitation to Dance,” “Summer Stock,” “The Pirate,” and “Anchors Aweigh.”
It was “Anchors Aweigh,” in which Kelly performs a hornpipe with Jerry, the cartoon mouse, that led to his long friendship with Walt Disney.
“If it hadn’t been for Walt, I wouldn’t have gotten that number on the screen,” he says. “The MGM people didn’t believe it was possible. I told them to call Walt. He said, ‘send Gene over here.’ I went to the studio, and Walt was trying to lick the same problem himself, experimenting with live action and cartoon characters in ‘The Three Caballeros.’ He agreed that my dance with the mouse could be done and phoned MGM to that effect, which was all they needed to hear. Walt and I became very good friends after that.”
Kelly left MGM in 1957 to embark on a multi-faceted career embracing (to date) 16 motion pictures and 41 television shows. While never really hanging up his dancing shoes for good, he broke new ground for himself in dramatic, romantic, and light comedy roles. He furnished the love interest for Natalie Wood in “Majorie Morningstar,” played a cynical newspaper reporter in “Inherit the Wind,” and although he “officially” quit dancing more than a decade before, he couldn’t resist sharing a short tap dance routine with Olivia Newton-John in the 1980 musical “Xanadu.”
“It’s the last time you’ll ever see me dancing in a movie,” he says. “So in that respect, I guess ‘Xanadu’ occupies a special place in my career.”
In another respect as well, “Xanadu” occupies an important place in Kelly’s present activities. The musical numbers were choreographed by Jerry Trent and Kenny Ortega. When the picture was finished, Kelly was signed by producer/director Francis Ford Coppola to head up a team of creative filmmakers recruited for the lavish, imaginative musical “One from the Heart.” Among them was Kenny Ortega, and as time went on the young choreographer became Kelly’s protégé. They are collaborating on an original musical film which Ortega would direct and Kelly would produce. They plan to shoot it at the DISNEY-MGM Studios in Florida.
Kelly may have stopped dancing, but he hasn’t stopped working. He receives offers to direct and a steady stream of scripts, “…very few of which I even consider. They’re not my cup of tea.”
Television, once the mortal enemy of motion pictures and which helped kill off the kind of musicals that he, Fred Astaire and others made, has become Kelly’s friend. For nearly every one of the past 30 years, he has been involved in major TV productions as a creator, writer, producer, director, actor, dancer, host, guest star, or narrator – and sometimes in several of those capacities at once.
“But I’m more or less through performing,” Kelly says. “It’s not that exciting anymore. I do an occasional guest shot. That’s enough to keep me busy.”
He revived an old friendship with the Disney organization last year by introducing a series of American movie classics, “The Best of Hollywood,” on The Disney Channel. He also permitted Walt Disney Imagineers to create an Audio-Animatronics likeness of himself for The Great Movie Ride attraction opening this spring at the DISNEY-MGM Studios Tour at Walt Disney World. The scene shows Kelly clinging to the lamppost during his memorable dance in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
I’m reminded of an incident that happened while I was visiting London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II,” he says.
“I was in chapel Street, walking toward Hyde Park corner. It was raining, and the streets were packed with millions of people who had come from all over England to see the Queen. It was cold, and I had my head pulled down in my coat. I was feeling kind of miserable, actually.
“Suddenly a voice came over a loudspeaker system and said, ‘Good morning, folks. Let’s cheer it up like Gene Kelly, with ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ ’ And out of everywhere came my song, millions of voices strong. And I was standing right in the middle of it, unrecognized, unsure of how to react.
“it was, and still remains, the biggest thrill of my life.”
“The Luckiest Mick in the World”Kelly is writing his autobiography, to be published this year. He can look back on triumphs in every aspect of the entertainment industry. Summing up his lifelong career, Kelly says, “Most of the thrill of being in show business is to do well, to get satisfaction, to share love. That’s our common goal. In that regard I’ve been the luckiest Mick in the world.”
In 1951, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer.”
The citation on his American Film Institute Award (1985) honors him “as one of the premiere dancers, choreographers and directors in the history of world cinema.”
But during that presentation, one distinguished colleague disagreed with Kelly’s version of how his best-known dance originated.
“I remember in the early 1950s,” said Steve Martin (who would have been about eight years old at the time. “I was visiting the set of ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ Kelly was complaining that he couldn’t continue shooting due to the incessant rain.
“I said, ‘shoot it anyway.’ Gene said, ‘Get outta here.’ But then he said, ‘What the heck, we’ll do what Steve says. We’ll shoot it anyway, if we can just get this lamppost out of here.’ I said, ‘Leave the lamppost.’ Gene said, “What do I do when I get to the lamppost?’ I said, ‘Just swing around it a couple of times.’
“And the name of that movie, folks- I’ll never forget it – was ‘On the Town!’ ”
Nobody laughed harder than Gene Kelly.