Eugene Curran “Gene” Kelly (Pittsburgh, August 23, 1912 – Beverly Hills, February 2, 1996) was an Academy Award-winning American dancer, actor, singer, director, producer and choreographer.
A defining figure in 20th century dance films, he was known for his energetic, athletic dancing style, handsome looks and the endearing and beloved characters he played in the movies. Although he is probably best known for his performance in Singin” in the Rain, his personality was also a defining figure in the Hollywood musical world from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him 15th in its list of “greatest male actors of all time”.
Gene was the third child in the family. His father, James Kelly, was a phonograph salesman, and his mother, Harriet Curran, were both Irish Roman Catholic immigrants. He was born in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of eight, he enrolled in dance lessons with his older brother James, courtesy of his mother. They were both rebels, as Gene says: “We didn”t really like it and we were constantly fighting with the neighborhood kids who called us wimps… I didn”t dance again until I was 15.” Kelly later returned to dancing on her own accord. He graduated from Peabody High School in 1929 and enrolled at Pennsylvania State College to study journalism, but the Depression forced him to seek a job that would help improve the family”s meagre finances. Around this time, he danced a lot with his younger brother Fred to earn some money in local competitions, but they also performed in local nightclubs.
In 1931, Kelly enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to study economics, where he joined Phi Kappa Theta fraternity and graduated in 1933. In 1930, his family opened a dance studio on Munhall Road, Squirrel Hill, near Pittsburgh. In 1932, it was renamed the Gene Kelly Dance Studio. The second was opened in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1933. Gene taught dance classes at his studio until he received his degree and later while a student at Pittsburgh Law School. Eventually he decided he would rather be a dance teacher, so he quit law school after 2 months. He began to concentrate more and more on his lectures, as he later stated, “Over time I became disillusioned with teaching because the ratio of girls to boys was more than 1:10, and as girls turned 16, the dropout rate got higher and higher.” In 1937, after successfully developing the family dance studio, she moved to New York to find work as a choreographer.
After an unsuccessful search, Gene Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, where he worked as a choreographer in Charles Gaynor”s musical revue, Hold Your Hats, at the Pittsburgh Theatre in April 1938.
Her first Broadway engagement came in November 1938 as a dancer in Cole Porter”s Leave it to me!, in which she plays the secretary to the American ambassador and sings My heart belongs to Daddy with Mary Marttin. Kelly was hired for the role by Robert Alton, who was impressed with Gene”s performance, teaching and knowledge at the Pittsburgh theatre. When Alton was looking for a choreographer for One for the Money, he asked Kelly to act, sing and dance. The first big break of her career was the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Time of Your Life. The play premiered on November 11, 1939, and for the first time in Broadway history, someone danced to his own choreography. That same year, he received his first Broadway commission as choreographer in Diamond Horseshoe. His future wife, Betsy Blair, was also a company member of this play. They began dating and were married on October 16, 1941.
Hollywood offers kept coming, but Kelly didn”t want to leave New York so soon. She finally signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood after Pal Joey in October 1941. Before leaving, he choreographed the film Best Foot Forward.
Kelly did not return to the theatre until his contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer expired in 1957, when he directed the musical Flower Drum Song in 1958. In the early 1960s, Kelly was invited by A. M. Julien, administrator of the Paris Opera, to choose his own style and create a modern ballet for the company. It was the first time an American had been asked to do this. The result was Pas de Dieux, based on Greek mythology combined with music by George Gershwin. It was a huge success, for which he received recognition from the French government.
Selznick sold half of Kelly”s contracts to MGM, lending him to their first film, Me and My Woman (1942) with Judy Garland. Kelly was dismayed to learn that they were going to make 20 films with her and, as she said, “had a feeling it was going to be a huge flop”. But his films were a success, and Arthur Freedaz of MGM bought the other half of Kelly”s contract. After appearing in a B-grade drama (Pilot
His first breakthrough as a dancer came when MGM loaned him to Columbia to partner Rita Hayworth in The Front Page Girl (1944), in which he choreographed an unforgettable dance. In her next film (Anchors Aweigh 1945), MGM gave her virtually free rein to choreograph dances, including her dance with Jerry Mouse (from Tom and Jerry) and her duet with Frank Sinatra. Anchors Aweigh was one of the most successful films of 1945, and Kelly took home his first and only Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category. In Ziegfeld Follies (1946), made in 1944 but not released until 1946, he won his first Oscar for Best Actor. Kelly partnered Fred Astaire (for whom he had the greatest admiration and respect) in the famous dance to ”The Babbitt and the Bromide” before leaving the studio before the post-war revival. During this period Kelly was forced to appear in cheap B-grade serials, now all but forgotten.
At the end of 1944, Kelly enlisted in the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant. He was stationed with the Photographic Division in Washington, D.C., where he was assigned to write and direct documentaries, which later inspired him to become a producer of films.
When he returned to Hollywood in the spring of 1946, MGM still only cast him in B-rated films like Living in a Big Way. The film was considered so weak that Kelly was asked to do some good dance choreography. This was followed by a film again with Judy Garland, directed by Vincente Minelli, The Pirate. The film is now considered a classic, but was rather poorly received in its day. In it, Kelly showed her athleticism and probably one of her most memorable performances was with the Nicholas brothers, who were the leading African-American dancers of the day. Although MGM would have liked Kelly to return to his more familiar and steady groove, he fought relentlessly to direct his own musical film. He temporarily retained his septuagenarian image as one of the Three Musketeers and appeared alongside Vera-Ellen in the ballet Slaughter in Tenth Avenue from Words and Music (1948). This was followed by Take Me Out to Play! (1949), his second film with Sinatra, in which Kelly pays tribute to his Irish ancestry in the song The Hat My Father Wore on St Patrick”s Day. It was with this musical that Kelly persuaded Arthur Freed to make A Day in New York, his third and last film with Frank Sinatra, a breakthrough in the musical world that has been described as “the most perfect and exhilarating musical ever made in Hollywood”.
Stanley Donan, who Kelly brought to Hollywood to be his co-choreographer, was cast as the supporting director in One Day in New York. Kelly says: “…when you”re brought in to choreograph a film, you need an expert assistant. I needed someone to watch my performance and someone to work with the cinematographer on the timing… I could never have done it without Stanley, Carol Haney or Jeanne Coyne. When it came to making On the Town, I knew the time had come for Stanley to get the co-directing credit, because we were no longer boss-man, but co-editors”. Together, the two of them disrupted the usual musical form, taking the film out of the world of the studios and putting it into real places and situations. With Donan, they took responsibility for the stage parts, and Kelly handled the choreography. Kelly went well beyond the ballet choreography that had been familiar and presented before.
Kelly then approached the studio with a request to cast her in the lead role. She was cast in an early mafia melodrama called The Black Hand (1949). This was followed by The Summer Show (1950) – Judy Garland”s last musical at MGM – in which Kelly performed her solo You, You Wonderful You with a newspaper and a creaky boat floor. In his book (“Easy the hard way”), Joe Pasternak praises Kelly”s patience and good will, sparing no effort to spend as much time on the piece as necessary to make a perfect film with the ailing Garland.
This was followed by two successful musicals that cemented Kelly”s reputation as America”s leading musical actor, An American in Paris (1951) and perhaps his best-known musical, A Song in the Rain (1952). As co-director, lead actor and choreographer, Kelly was a driving force in the film. Johhny Green, MGM”s music director at the time, described Kelly: “Gene is quite easygoing as long as you know exactly what you”re doing when you”re working with him. He schedules hard and works hard. If you want to play on his team, you better be able to work hard. He wasn”t ruthless, but he was tough, and if Gene believed in something, he would tell anybody, whether it was Louis B. Mayer or a janitor. He never had a problem with anybody, and he almost always got what he wanted.” An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and that same year Kelly received an Academy Award for his work in the musical world. The film”s premiere was also marked by Leslie Caron, whom Kelly discovered in Paris and brought to Hollywood. The Last Dream ballet lasts thirteen minutes. It was the most expensive film of recent times. With Singin” in the Rain, Kelly rose to even greater fame. She is partnered by Donald O”Connor on Moses Supposes and Cyd Charisse on the Brodway tune. Although it did not generate as much enthusiasm as An American in Paris, it has subsequently won a fitting and worthy place in the critics” and film gurus” reviews.
1980-1996, final years
His last film as a music-dancer was Xanadu, released in 1980, in which he was partnered with Olivia Newton-John. Her last TV role, in which she sang and danced, was on the Hollywood Nights TV show promoting Xanadu on 14 April 1980.
In the following years, she continued to appear regularly in episodes of series and documentaries, but she no longer sang or danced. In 1984, her Beverly Hills house burned to the ground with all the mementos of her artistic career (including her Academy Award). In 1990 he married 36-year-old Patricia Ward. In 1994, he was hospitalized with headaches and suffered a massive stroke in July. He spent seven weeks in hospital, but from February onwards he suffered a steady series of strokes and his condition steadily deteriorated. He spent his last months bedridden, watching old films. He died on 2 February 1996, in his modest Beverly Hills home. He was cremated and has no marked grave.
As a director