Gene Kelly: Portrait of a Dancer

More than any other art form, film is capable of bringing the imagination to reality; transfixing audiences with escapist entertainment as well as being a tool for education and reform. This of course, is a trait common to all styles of art- including dance, and one man not only realized this but was driven his whole life to integrate film and dance in a way no one had ever seen before. His name was Gene Kelly and through his masterful choreography and innovations with the camera he reinvented the Hollywood musical and brought dance (particularly ballet) to a new level of mainstream acceptability.
After years in vaudeville, nightclubs, and Broadway, Gene Kelly made his debut role in the 1942 film, For Me and My Gal, co-starring Judy Garland. As big of a hit as this was, it was the movie Cover Girl (1944) that first hinted at Kelly’s innovative ways and foreshadowed what was to come later in his career. What is so significant about the picture is what is known as the “Alter Ego Ballet,” in which Gene Kelly actually danced with himself. By realizing that special effects in film could be used to enhance the language of dance, Kelly was able to create something that had never been seen before and audiences clamored for more. As Kelly’s star rose he continually pushed the envelope with what he could get away with. In Anchors Aweigh (1945), for instance, he was one of the first to experiment with combining live action actors with animation when he danced with Jerry the Mouse in an imagination induced fantasy land as well as tap dancing in roller skates in 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather.
Other than his obvious finesse with the dance floor and camera, Gene Kelly possessed something that other screen dancers had lacked before him, that being an “everyman” quality. As opposed to his equally famous contemporary Fred Astaire, Kelly shied away from top hats and coattails, and preferred to dance in a polo shirt and khakis. This quality, coupled with his natural athleticism, allowed him to appeal to most movie-goers and only helped in his lifelong goal of changing the popular notion that ballet was not for men and that it was more of a sport in terms of physicality than any real sport.
Consequently, this philosophy of Gene Kelly’s manifested itself in his later works. Just like before when experimenting with special effects, he now wanted to incorporate modern dance and ballet into his movies in addition to the tap numbers that were the only dance styles in movie musicals at the time. Indeed, his most popular and critically acclaimed films are the ones in which the main story would almost pause for ten minutes so Kelly could go into a fantasy where he could exhibit his passion for dance and reach an audience that would never be able to see such grace anywhere else. This convention can be seen in On The Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). His passion for ballet and his drive to discredit it as “not manly” was featured in an episode of the T.V. series Omnibus, in which he compared the moves of ballet to those of sports stars like Mickey Mantle and Sugar Ray Robinson. In fact, Gene Kelly and Sugar Ray do a tap number from Singin’ in the Rain.
While remembered today for his incredible dancing, most people overlook the fact that he choreographed all of his and everyone else’s numbers in all of his movies. He was the seminal performer- dancer, director, choreographer, and innovator among other things. When Hollywood musicals got stale in the ‘40s and ‘50s he arrived on the scene to shake things up and is still renowned today for doing so. However, what keeps his legacy alive is not only the choreography but the passion and zeal that drove that choreography to new heights of what could be accomplished on camera and what could be acceptable in the eye’s of the American populace. During his lifetime he was showered with lifetime achievement awards including an honorary Oscar in 1952 for his achievement in the art of choreography on film, but perhaps the greatest honor bestowed to him was on the night of his passing when the theatre’s of Broadway dimmed their lights to recognize a truly special talent.

SOURCES

Miller, Frank. Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era.     Chronicle Books, 2006. San Francisco, CA.
Piazza, Jim and Kinn, Gail. The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History.     Black Dog & Leventhal Publishing, 2002. New York, NY.
Pointkouski, Donna. “The Gene Scene.”. 1998-2008. April, 2011.

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