Anyone who has ever experienced one of his films understands the magic of Gene Kelly. Few of Hollywood's screen greats have endeared themselves to their audiences as much as Gene did during his long career. More than fifty years after he first appeared on the screen, his performances continue to win new fans, extending his popularity to new generations of movie lovers. It was his arrival at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1942 that began a screen career that would earn him an unparalleled place in the annals of entertainment. It was there that he brought a new sensibility and vitality to the movie musical, and specifically to dance on film.
Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Gene's childhood was relatively devoid of show business. Born Eugene Curran Kelly on August 23, 1912 as the third of five children, Gene dreamed of a career in ice hockey or professional baseball. But Harriet Kelly had a great love for the performing arts and encouraged her son to attend dancing school. In subsequent years, Gene frequently performed and taught in his hometown of Pittsburgh, but chose college over dance when he entered Penn State in 1929 as a journalism major.
When the crash hit later that year, Gene contributed to the family's finances by participating in amateur dance contests with his brother Fred. By the time he transferred to the University of Pittsburgh to major in economics, he had developed a genuine love for performance and frequently participated in the school's student musicals. After a short flirtation with law school, Gene formally devoted himself to his art and made the inevitable trip to Broadway.
Gene's first break came when he was cast in the chorus of Cole Porter's Leave it to Me in 1938. Wrapped in an Eskimo-suit, he was one of several potential suitors who were told by Mary Martin that her heart belonged to Daddy. Following Leave it to Me, Gene took the dramatic route and landed leading roles in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1939) and Rodgers & Hart's Pal Joey (1940).
It was Gene's outstanding performance in Pal Joey that made him a Broadway sensation and caught the attention of Hollywood. A contract offer from David O. Selznick brought him to Los Angeles in early 1942, but after six months of working for Selznick, he had still not been cast in a single picture. Selznick wanted him to focus on drama, while Gene, not really interested in performance that did not involve dance, wanted more.
It was at this time that Arthur Freed was hitting his stride as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's eminent producer of musical films. It was Freed who arranged for M-G-M to "borrow" Gene from Selznick to co-star opposite Judy Garland in his WW I musical For Me And My Gal (1942). While filming was underway, Kelly's star quality was so obvious and impressive to Freed that he convinced Louis B. Mayer to buy out Gene's contract with Selznick.
For Me And My Gal not only marked Gene's entrance into the musical genre, but was also the first picture in which Judy Garland played an adult lead role. Although barely 20 years old when the film was released, Judy was a seasoned pro and went out of her way to help make the experience a successful one for Gene. The film's director, Busby Berkeley, also assisted Gene with the ins and outs of staging and shooting dance on film.
Despite his critically acclaimed performance and the film's financial success, M-G-M continually cast Gene in films which did not showcase his many talents: Thousands Cheer (1943), Pilot No. 5 (1943) and The Cross of Lorraine (1943). The studio did, however, allow their competitors to sublease his services, and in 1944, poverty-row studio Columbia capitalized on Gene's artistic genius when they cast him opposite Rita Hayworth in the wartime glamour musical Cover Girl. Granted carte-blanche to create a specialty dance number, Gene used various optical effects to devise and choreograph the now-classic ALTER EGO routine in which he dances with a superimposed image of himself. The phenomenal success of Cover Girl guaranteed Gene a position of greater prominence with M-G-M executives.
Now fully realizing Gene's talents, the studio immediately cast him alongside Fred Astaire in the all-star production Ziegfeld Follies. Gene and Fred's performance of THE BABBIT AND THE BROMIDE (a number Fred and his sister Adele had introduced on the stage nearly 20 years earlier) eventually became a classic. Although filmed in 1944, production problems delayed the picture's release until 1946, by which time Gene had already starred in producer Joe Pasternak's mammoth success Anchors Aweigh (1945).
Gene was third billed after Frank Sinatra and Kathyrn Grayson, but Anchors Aweigh was clearly a showcase for his multitude of talents. In addition to providing him with a wonderful role, Pasternak and director George Sidney allowed Gene to devise and choreograph his own dance sequences. The film was a massive financial success and garnered Gene his first -- and only -- Best Actor* Oscar¨ nomination. (The film was also nominated for Best Picture.*)
By the time Anchors Aweigh was released, Gene had entered the U.S. Navy and was on active duty. Upon his return, the studio cast him opposite their new would-be sex symbol Marie McDonald in the low-budget comedy Living in a Big Way (1947). Although not particularly thrilled with the non-musical assignment, Gene welcomed the chance to work with director Gregory La Cava who had helmed such classics as My Man Godfrey and Stage Door. Once Gene had been cast in the film, however, a few musical selections were inserted into the screenplay, and one of these numbers, the charming FIDO AND ME, remains one of his personal favorites. (Two excerpts from Living in a Big Way can be found on Side Eight of this collection.)
Produced by Arthur Freed, directed by Vincente Minnelli and co-starring Judy Garland, Gene's next film, The Pirate (1948), again provided him with the opportunity to choreograph his own dances , resulting in such routines as the dazzling PIRATE BALLET and the rough-and-tumble BE A CLOWN (performed with the Nicholas Brothers). His swashbuckling exploits in The Pirate paved the way for his performance as D'Artagnan in George Sidney's all-star production of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers (1948), and it was while cavorting through Musketeers that Gene and his young associate Stanley Donen -- a friend since Gene's Pal Joey days -- developed a story idea for a musical about three baseball players who moonlight as vaudevillians. With the help of Arthur Freed, this idea became the phenomenally successful Take Me Out to the Ballgame (begun in 1948 but not released until 1949) starring Gene, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin.
Freed's next assignment, Words and Music (1948), provided Gene with his first chance since Anchors Aweigh and The Pirate to create progressive dance sequences. It was for this film that he developed and choreographed a new ballet to Richard Rodgers' orchestral SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE, which he performed with first-time partner Vera-Ellen.
By this time, Gene was undeniably one of the studio's biggest stars, and his extensive creative involvement in projects had catapulted him far beyond the status of an average performer. Having naturally progressed towards direction, he finally received the chance: Together with Donen, Gene took up the directorial reigns in 1949 with On the Town.
ased on the 1944 Broadway hit, On the Town is the story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City. A tremendously enjoyable film, On the Town pairs Gene with his Ballgame buddies Sinatra and Munshin and also stars Betty Garrett, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen. The first musical to be filmed without a "chorus," On the Town was also the first to feature on-location filming. Kelly and Donen implored the studio to film the whole picture in Manhattan, but were granted only three days in the Big Apple, and it was during this incredibly short period that Kelly and Donen shot the spectacular opening number NEW YORK, NEW YORK.
Released just before New Year's Day, 1950, On the Town broke box-office records at RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL in New York and was an unqualified smash. With that picture wrapped, M-G-M cast Gene against type in a small film noire about organized crime entitled The Black Hand (1950). All but forgotten today, Gene's performance was highly impressive and one of which he remains very proud. Concurrent with The Black Hand, Gene agreed to co-star with Judy Garland in Joe Pasternak's backstage musical Summer Stock (1950). The project was originally developed as a reunion for Garland and Mickey Rooney, but with Gene's box-office potential growing daily, he became the preferred lead. While Summer Stock did nothing to speak of to advance the form of musical filmmaking, it did turn out to be first-class entertainment. More importantly, it allowed Gene and Judy one more opportunity to illustrate their exceptional on-screen chemistry. Gene's next project, however, was a musical milestone -- the incomparable An American in Paris (1951).
Produced by Freed and inspired by the Gershwin orchestral "tone poem," An American in Paris is a virtual Who's Who of the musical genre: Gene starred and choreographed, Minnelli directed, Alan Jay Lerner wrote the original screenplay, and Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin undertook the massive task of musical direction. Gene's character, Jerry Mulligan, is the archetype of his on-screen persona -- enormously likable, charming, sensitive and romantic -- and the film's simple story provided ample opportunities for Freed to insert one wondrous Gershwin song after another.
The undeniable highlight of An American in Paris, however, is the massive closing ballet sequence which epitomizes the artistic genius of Kelly and Minnelli and cost nearly $500,000 (25% of the film's overall budget!). Most everyone at Metro (and throughout the industry) thought Gene & Co. were crazy to end a film with a 17-minute ballet, but the enormous success of the film vindicated the bold new conceptions of its creators, and remains the consummate example of M-G-M's dream factory at work.
An American in Paris won six 1951 Academy Awards¨ including Best Picture. In addition, Gene was honored with a special Oscar¨ for his contribution to the art of choreography on film. Although the award was not specifically attributed to Gene's work in An American in Paris, the honor was clearly a result of the stupendous response to the film's incredible ballet finale.
The only drawback to the phenomenal success of An American in Paris was that it overshadowed Gene's next picture, which today is considered by most to be the greatest of all film musicals -- Singin' in the Rain (1952). Although critics sang hosannas for the picture, it was considered more formulaic than the bold An American in Paris, which was experiencing its Oscar¨-laden glory at the very time Singin' in the Rain was released. It was not until many years later that the film earned its justly-deserved place within screen history.
Arthur Freed had been building most of his hit musicals around the catalogs of various composers' works. Having already covered Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin, he now wanted to feature the songs that he himself had written with Nacio Herb Brown at the beginning of the sound era at Metro. Comden and Green joined Gene and co-director Donen, and using Freed's songs as the cornerstone, built the story around Hollywood's transition from silents to talkies. The result is a non-stop array of stunning visuals, crackling dialogue, and arguably some of the best musical numbers ever filmed. Of course Gene's brilliant rendition of the title song is legendary, but every other number in the film is also exceptional. Of particular note is Gene's sensual and scintillating routine with Cyd Charisse in the BROADWAY RHYTHM portion of the film's BROADWAY MELODY ballet.
Prior to the release of Singin' in the Rain , audiences enjoyed Gene's "guest" performance in the studio's all-star patriotic effort It's a Big Country (1951). Immediately after Singin' in the Rain wrapped, he played a dramatic role in the film The Devil Makes Three (1952). Although not particularly interested in the role, Gene's contractual obligations left him with little choice. But later that year, his creative talents were given an outlet when Freed gave him the opportunity to direct, choreograph and star in Invitation to the Dance (1956).
Despite incredible contributions from all involved, Invitation to the Dance -- an all-dance picture relying heavily on ballet -- never really came together. Shelved for many years, its eventual release met with only a tepid response. Gene, however, remains proud of his achievement, particularly the CIRCUS sequence which is featured in this collection.
After yet another unfulfilling dramatic role -- this time in the WW II picture Crest of the Wave aka Seagulls over Sorrento (1954) -- Gene began work as leading man and choreographer in Freed's adaptation of the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederic Loewe Broadway hit Brigadoon (1954). Minnelli directed, and Cyd Charisse (fresh from her stunning work in the 1953 smash The Band Wagon) and Van Johnson co-starred.
The story of an enchanted Scottish town which comes to life for only one day every 100 years, Brigadoon was slated to be filmed largely on location in Scotland. That country's undependable weather, logistics, and variables were too much of a risk, however, and the entire film was shot instead in Culver City where M-G-M's mammoth stage 15 was transformed into a 360 degree panorama with a 600-foot-long, 60-foot-high backdrop surrounding its entire interior!
Brigadoon went through many script changes, and several sequences were cut before its final release. The lovely ballad COME TO ME, BEND TO ME and the SWORD DANCE were both considered too theatrical, and eventually deleted as was Gene's rendition of THERE BUT FOR YOU, GO I. As their characters said good-bye, Gene and Cyd Charisse (her vocals dubbed by Carol Richards) sang FROM THIS DAY ON and followed their swan song with one last dance. In the editing process, the song was deleted but the dance was re-scored as a reprise of THE HEATHER ON THE HILL.
Gene had long wanted to collaborate with Comden and Green on a totally original picture, one in which they would write both lyrics and screenplay. Upon the successful release of The Band Wagon, the studio signed the team to a new three-picture deal, and it was on their cross-country train ride from New York to Los Angeles, that the idea for It's Always Fair Weather (1955) was born.
A story about three WW II buddies who reunite ten years after combat only to discover that they no longer have anything in common, It's Always Fair Weather was an unusual concept for a musical, but one for which Gene was extremely enthusiastic. Former Twentieth Century-Fox star Dan Dailey and celebrated choreographer Michael Kidd were cast opposite Gene with Donen once again sharing the directorial duties. Broadway sensation Dolores Grey was cast as a glamorous television star, and Cyd Charisse reprised her status as Gene's beautiful and talented leading lady.
Comden and Green's screenplay gave all three male leads a solo turn: Gene's was the now-classic roller skate number I LIKE MYSELF, Dailey's was the satirical SITUATION-WISE, and Kidd's was an outlandish re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk entitled JACK AND THE SPACE GIANTS.
It's Always Fair Weather also boasted a rich and witty -- but largely forgotten -- original score by Andre Previn. Even less known are two songs written for the film but eliminated from the final version: LOVE IS NOTHING BUT A RACKET and I THOUGHT THEY'D NEVER LEAVE.
The years following the completion of It's Always Fair Weather were particularly frustrating for Gene. The popularity of the genre was waning and few new musicals ever reached production. Finally, he was cast alongside the seductive Tania Elg, the beautiful Kay Kendall, and the effervescent Mitzi Gaynor in the frothy delight Les Girls (1957).
Although Les Girls was enjoyed by critics and audiences alike, it was obvious that movie musicals were no longer in demand. Longing for new challenges and experiences, Gene completed his contractual obligations to M-G-M as director of the Doris Day/Richard Widmark comedy The Tunnel of Love (1958), and found himself a free agent for the first time in sixteen years!
In the ensuing years, Gene directed for both the stage and screen, frequently appeared on television, and occasionally popped up in a film or two -- most notably Stanley Kramer's classic Inherit The Wind (1960). In 1965, he joined forces with Hanna-Barbera to create a combination live-action/animated version of Jack and the Beanstalk, and in 1967, French director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) cast him in his "homage" to the American musical entitled The Young Girls of Rochefort. Shortly thereafter, he began his biggest project in several years as director of Twentieth Century-Fox's mammoth musical Hello, Dolly!
In 1974, M-G-M celebrated its 50th anniversary with the release of That's Entertainment! -- Jack Haley, Jr.'s thrilling compendium of the studio's greatest musical moments. Gene served as one of the film's hosts, and returned two years later to share the co-hosting duties with Fred Astaire for That's Entertainment, Part 2. These critically acclaimed features brought the phenomenon of the M-G-M musical -- and Gene's enormous contribution to it -- to laudatory national attention. Gene not only directed new sequences for Part 2, but also choreographed a few soft-shoe routines which he and Fred performed as an introduction to the footage.
During the 1980s, Gene's stature as one of the undeniable legends in the annals of film was confirmed time and time again. He was the recipient of countless awards and tributes, including Kennedy Center Honors and the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Still promoting the joys of dance, he served as Executive Producer and co-host for the 1985 film That's Dancing!, and returned to M-G-M in 1994 to serve as the opening and closing host of That's Entertainment! III.
The greatest honor that can be bestowed on Gene Kelly is that his body of work thrives, and jubilantly so. Thrilling loyal fans and ever winning new ones, Gene's films are now easily accessible via home video and cable television to audiences around the world. His art is timeless, his talent limitless, and the gift he gave his public beyond compare. For this, we will always be grateful to the singer, dancer, actor, choreographer, director and legend...the incomparable Gene Kelly.