- Category : Actor
- Type : MGE
- Profile : 6/2 - Role Model / Hermit
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : LAX Industry 2
Eugene Curran Kelly (August 23, 1912 – February 2, 1996), better known as Gene Kelly, was an American dancer, actor, singer, director, producer, and choreographer.
Kelly was a major exponent of 20th century filmed dance, known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks and the likeable characters that he played on screen. Although he is probably best known today for his performance in Singin' in the Rain, he dominated the Hollywood musical film from the mid 1940s until its demise in the late 1950s. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Kelly among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking at No. 15.
Gene was the third son of James Kelly, a phonograph salesman, and Harriet Curran, who were both children of Irish Roman Catholic immigrants. He was born in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA and, at the age of eight, was enrolled by his mother in dance classes, along with his older brother James. They both rebelled, and, according to Kelly:" We didn't like it much and were continually involved in fistfights with the neighbourhood boys who called us sissies...I didn't dance again until I was fifteen." Kelly returned to dance on his own initiative and by then was an accomplished sportsman and well able to take care of himself. He graduated from Peabody High School in 1929. He enrolled in Pennsylvania State College to study journalism but the economic crash obliged him to seek employment to help with the family's finances. At this time, he worked up dance routines with his younger brother Fred in order to earn prize money in local talent contests.
In 1931 Kelly enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), to study economics where he joined the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in 1933. In 1930, his family started a dance studio on Munhall Road in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In 1932, it was renamed The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance. A second location was opened in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1933. While still an undergraduate student and later as a student at Pitt's School of Law, Gene was a teacher at the dance studio. Eventually, though, he decided to pursue his career as a dance teacher and entertainer full-time and so dropped out of law school after two months. He began to focus increasingly on performing, later claiming: "With time I became disenchanted with teaching because the ratio of girls to boys was more than ten to one, and once the girls reached sixteen the dropout rate was very high." In 1937, having successfully managed and developed the family's dance school business, he moved to New York City in search of work as a choreographer.
After a fruitless search, Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, to his first position as a choreographer with the Charles Gaynor musical revue Hold Your Hats at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in April, 1938. Kelly appeared in six of the sketches, one of which, "La Cumparsita", became the basis of an extended Spanish number in Anchors Aweigh eight years later.
His first Broadway assignment, in November 1938, was as a dancer in Cole Porter's Leave It to Me as the American ambassador's secretary who supports Mary Martin while she sings "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". He had been hired by Robert Alton who had staged a show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and been impressed by Kelly's teaching skills. When Alton moved on to choreograph One for the Money he hired Kelly to act, sing and dance in a total of eight routines. His first career breakthrough was in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life, which opened on November 11, 1939, where for the first time on Broadway he danced to his own choreography. In the same year he received his first assignment as a Broadway choreographer, for Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. His future wife, Betsy Blair was a member of the cast, they began dating and were married on October 16, 1941.
In 1940, he was given the leading role in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, again choreographed by Robert Alton, and this role propelled him to stardom. During its run he told reporters: "I don't believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand. While I am a hundred percent for ballet technique, I use only what I can adapt to my own use. I never let technique get in the way of mood or continuity." It was at this time also, that his phenomenal commitment to rehearsal and hard work was noticed by his colleagues. Van Johnson who also appeared in Pal Joey recalls: "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."
Offers from Hollywood began to arrive but Kelly was in no particular hurry to quit New York. Eventually, he signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood at the end of his commitment to Pal Joey, in October 1941. Prior to leaving he also choreographed the stage production of Best Foot Forward.
Kelly did not return to stage work until his MGM contract ended in 1957, and in 1958 he directed Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical play Flower Drum Song. Early in 1960 Kelly, an ardent Francophile and fluent French speaker, was invited by A. M. Julien, the general administrator of Paris Opera to select his own material and create a modern ballet for the company, the first time an American received such an assignment. The result was Pas de Dieux, based on Greek mythology combined with the music of George Gershwin's Concerto in F. It was a major success, and led to his being honored with the Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur by the French Government.
1941-1944: Becoming established in Hollywood
Selznick sold half of Kelly's contract to MGM and loaned him out to MGM for his first motion picture: For Me and My Gal (1942) with Judy Garland. Kelly was "appalled at the sight of myself blown up twenty times. I had an awful feeling that I was a tremendous flop" but the picture did well and, in the face of much internal resistance, Arthur Freed of MGM picked up the other half of Kelly's contract. After appearing in the B-movie drama Pilot no. 5 he took the male lead in Cole Porter's Du Barry Was a Lady opposite Lucille Ball. His first opportunity to dance to his own choreography came in his next picture Thousands Cheer, where he performed a mock-love dance with a mop.
He achieved his breakthrough as a dancer on film, when MGM loaned him out to Columbia to play opposite Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944), where he created a memorable routine dancing to his own reflection. In his next film Anchors Aweigh (1945), MGM virtually gave him a free hand to devise a range of dance routines, including the celebrated and much imitated animated dances with Tom and Jerry, and his duets with Frank Sinatra. This role garnered him his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) - which was produced in 1944 but not released until 1946 - Kelly teamed up with Fred Astaire - for whom he had the greatest admiration - in the famous "The Babbitt and the Bromide" challenge dance routine before leaving the studio for wartime service. Throughout this period Kelly was obliged to appear in straight acting roles in a series of cheap B-movies, now largely forgotten.
At the end of 1944, Kelly enlisted in the United States Naval Air Service and was commissioned as lieutenant, junior grade. He was stationed in the Photographic Section, Washington D.C., where he was involved in writing and directing a range of documentaries, and this stimulated his interest in the production side of film-making.
1946-1952: The glory years at MGM
On his return to Hollywood in the spring of 1946, MGM had nothing lined up and used him in yet another B-movie: Living in a Big Way. The film was considered so weak that Kelly was requested to design and insert a series of dance routines, and his ability to carry off such assignments was noticed. This led to his next picture with Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, the film version of Cole Porter's The Pirate, in which Kelly plays the eponymous swashbuckler. Now regarded as a classic, the film was ahead of its time and was not well received. The Pirate is now best remembered for the teaming of Kelly with The Nicholas Brothers - the leading African-American dancers of their day - in a dance routine of astonishing virtuosity. Although MGM wanted Kelly to return to safer and more commercial vehicles, he ceaselessly fought for an opportunity to direct his own musical film. In the interim, he capitalised on his swashbuckling image as one of The Three Musketeers and appeared with Vera-Ellen in the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet from Words and Music (1948). There followed Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), his second film with Sinatra, where Kelly paid tribute to his Irish heritage in The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick's Day routine. It was this musical film which persuaded Arthur Freed to allow Kelly to make On the Town, where he teamed for the third and final time with Frank Sinatra, creating a breakthrough in the musical film genre which has been described as "the most inventive and effervescent musical thus far produced in Hollywood".
With On the Town, Stanley Donen, who Kelly had brought to Hollywood as his assistant choreographer, received co-director credit. According to Kelly: "...when you are involved in doing choreography for film you must have expert assistants. I needed one to watch my performance, and one to work with the cameraman on the timing..without such people as Stanley, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne I could never have done these things. When we came to do On the Town, I knew it was time for Stanley to get screen credit because we weren't boss-assistant anymore but co-creators." Together, they opened up the musical form, taking the film musical out of the studio and into real locations, with Donen taking responsibility for the staging and Kelly handling the choreography. Kelly went much further than before in introducing modern ballet into his dance sequences, going so far in the "Day in New York" routine as to substitute four leading ballet specialists for Sinatra, Munshin, Garrett and Miller.
It was now Kelly's turn to ask the studio for a straight acting role and he took the lead role in the early mafia melodrama: The Black Hand (1949). There followed Summer Stock (1950) - Judy Garland's last musical film for MGM - in which Kelly performed the celebrated "You, You Wonderful You" solo routine with a newspaper and a squeaky floorboard. In his book "Easy the Hard Way", Joe Pasternak singles out Kelly for his patience and willingness to spend as much time as necessary to enable the ailing Garland to complete her part.
There followed in quick succession two musicals which have secured Kelly's reputation as a major force in the Americal musical film, An American in Paris (1951) and - probably the most popular and admired of all film musicals - Singin' in the Rain (1952). As co-director, lead star and choreographer, Kelly was the central driving force. Johnny Green, head of music at MGM at the time, described him as follows: "Gene is easygoing as long as you know exactly what you are doing when you're working with him. He's a hard taskmaster and he loves hard work. If you want to play on his team you'd better like hard work too. He isn't cruel but he is tough, and if Gene believed in something he didn't care who he was talking to, whether it was Louis B. Mayer or the gatekeeper. He wasn't awed by anybody and he had a good record of getting what he wanted".. An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, in the same year, Kelly was presented with an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film musicals and the art of choreography. The film also marked the debut of Leslie Caron, who Kelly had spotted in Paris and brought to Hollywood. Its dream ballet finale, lasting an unprecedented thirteen minutes was the most expensive production number ever filmed up to that point and was described by Bosley Crowther as being "whoop de doo ... one of the finest ever put on the screen". Singin' in the Rain featured Kelly's celebrated and much imitated solo dance routine to the title song, along with the famous "Moses Supposes" routine with Donald O'Connor and the "Broadway Melody" finale with Cyd Charisse, and while it did not initially generate the same enthusiasm as An American in Paris, it subsequently overtook the latter film to occupy its current pre-eminent place among critics and filmgoers alike.
1953-1957: The decline of the Hollywood musical
Kelly, at the very peak of his creative powers, now made what in retrospect is seen as a serious mistake. In December of 1951 he signed a contract with MGM which sent him to Europe for nineteen months so that Kelly could use MGM funds frozen in Europe to make three pictures while personally benefiting from tax exemptions. Only one of these pictures was a musical, Invitation to the Dance, a pet project of Kelly's to bring modern ballet to mainstream film audiences which was beset with delays and technical problems and wasn't released until 1956, when it flopped. When Kelly returned to Hollywood in 1954, the film musical was already beginning to feel the pressures from television, and MGM cut the budget for his next picture Brigadoon (1954), with Cyd Charisse, forcing the film to be made on studio backlots instead of on location in Scotland. This year also saw him appear as guest star with his brother Fred in the celebrated "I Love To Go Swimmin' with Wimmen" routine in Deep in My Heart. MGM's refusal to loan him out for Guys and Dolls and Pal Joey put further strains on his relationship with the studio. He negotiated an exit to his contract which involved making three further pictures for MGM.
The first of these, It's Always Fair Weather, (1956) co-directed with Donen, was a musical satire on television and advertising, and includes his famous roller skate dance routine to "I Like Myself", and a dance trio with Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey which allowed Kelly to experiment with the widescreen possibilities of Cinemascope. A modest success, it was followed by Kelly's last musical film for MGM, Les Girls (1957), in which he partnered a trio of leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, fittingly ending, as he had begun, with a Cole Porter musical. The third picture he completed was a co-production between MGM and himself, the B-movie The Happy Road, set in his beloved France, his first foray in his new role as producer-director-actor.
1958-1985: Years of perseverance
Although Kelly continued to make some film appearances, most of his efforts were now concentrated on film production and directing. He directed Jackie Gleason in Gigot in Paris, but the film was subsequently drastically re-cut by Seven Arts Productions and flopped. Another French effort, Jacques Demy's homage to the MGM musical: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) in which Kelly appeared, also performed poorly.
His first foray into television was a documentary for NBC's Omnibus, Dancing is a Man's Game (1958) where he assembled a group of America's greatest sportsmen - including Mickey Mantle, Sugar Ray Robinson and Bob Cousy - and reinterpreted their moves choreographically, as part of his lifelong quest to remove the stigma of effeminacy which surrounds the art of dance, while articulating the philosophy behind his dance style. It gained an Emmy nomination for choreography and now stands as the key document explaining Kelly's approach to modern dance.
Kelly also frequently appeared on television shows during the 1960s, but his one effort at a TV series: as Father O'Malley in Going My Way (1962-1963) was dropped after one season, although it subsequently enjoyed great popularity in Catholic countries outside of the US. He went on to make two major TV specials: New York, New York (1966) and produced and directed Jack and the Beanstalk (1967) which again combined cartoon animation with live dance, winning him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program.
In 1963 Kelly joined Universal Pictures for a two year stint which proved to be the most unproductive of his career to date. He joined 20th Century Fox in 1965 but had little to do - partly due to his decision to decline assignments away from Los Angeles for family reasons. His perseverance finally paid off with the major box-office hit A Guide for the Married Man (1967) where he directed Walter Matthau and a major opportunity arose when Fox - buoyed by the returns from The Sound of Music (1965) - commissioned Kelly to direct Hello Dolly! (1969), again directing Matthau along with Barbara Streisand, but which unfortunately failed to recoup the enormous production expenses.
In 1970 he made another TV special: Gene Kelly and 50 Girls and was invited to bring the show to Las Vegas, which he duly did for an eight-week stint - on condition he be paid more than any artist had hitherto been paid there. He directed veteran actors James Stewart and Henry Fonda in the comedy western The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) which performed very well at the box-office. In 1974 he appeared as a narrator in the surprise hit of the year That's Entertainment! and subsequently directed and co-starred with his friend Fred Astaire in the sequel That's Entertainment, Part II (1976). It was a measure of his powers of persuasion that he managed to coax the seventy-seven year old Astaire - who had insisted that his contract rule out any dancing, having long since retired - into performing a series of song and dance duets, evoking a powerful nostalgia for the glory days of the American musical film. He continued to make frequent TV appearances and in 1980, appeared in an acting and dancing role opposite Olivia Newton John in Xanadu (1980), a bizarre and expensive flop which has since attained a cult following. In Kelly's opinion "The concept was marvellous but it just didn't come off".In the same year he was invited by Francis Ford Coppola to recruit a production staff for American Zeotrope's One from the Heart (1982). Although Coppola's ambition was for Kelly to establish a production unit to rival the legendary Freed Unit at MGM, the film's failure put paid to this idea. His last major film assignment was as executive producer and co-host for That's Dancing! (1985) - a celebration of the history of dance in the American musical.
Kelly was married to Betsy Blair for 16 years (1941 - 1957) and they had one child, Kerry. She divorced Kelly in 1957. In 1960, Kelly married his choreographic assistant Jeanne Coyne who had divorced Stanley Donen in 1949 after a brief marriage. He remained married to Coyne from 1960 till her death in 1973 and they had two children Bridget and Tim. He was married to Patricia Ward from 1990 until his death in 1996.
Gene Kelly was a lifelong Democratic Party supporter with strong progressive convictions, which occasionally created difficulty for him as his heyday coincided with the McCarthy era in the US. In 1947, he was part of the Hollywood delegation which flew to Washington to protest at the first official hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His first wife, Betsy Blair, was suspected of being a Communist sympathiser and when MGM, who had offered Blair a part in Marty (1955), were considering withdrawing her under pressure from the American Legion, Kelly successfully threatened MGM with a pullout from It's Always Fair Weather unless his wife was restored to the part. He used his position on the board of directors of The Writer's Guild of America on a number of occasions to mediate disputes between unions and the Hollywood studios, and although he was frequently accused by the Right of championing the unions, he was valued by the studios as an effective mediator.
A gregarious and highly articulate individual, he retained a lifelong passion for sports and relished competition. With his wife, he organised weekly parties at his Beverly Hills home which were renowned for an intensely competitive and physical version of charades.
Kelly died on February 2, 1996, in Beverly Hills, California, after suffering two strokes, at the age of 83.