Gene Kelly: 1912-96

By Roman, Robert C. | Dance Magazine, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Gene Kelly: 1912-96


Roman, Robert C., Dance Magazine


Gene Kelly, who died in Los Angeles on February 2 at age eighty-three, was a gifted dancer, actor, choreographer, and director who redefined the Hollywood musical with his vigorous athleticism, casual grace, rakish Irish charm, and daring ingenuity.

In the 1930s Busby Berkeley broke up the picture-book flatness of the screen's proscenium arch with camera set-ups from many angles and elaborate, almost surrealistic flowerlike and geometric dance patterns. Fred Astaire, when he gained control of his choreography, displayed his elegant, top-hat-and-tails sophistication in full shots of himself in long takes and myriad settings. Kelly, using advanced cinematic techniques, increased the freedom of screen movement with a style drawn from tap, ballet, and modern dance. He revolutionized film choreography, as well as the film musical.

Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh on August 23, 1912, the third of the two daughters and three sons born to Harriet Curran and James Patrick Kelly, a sales representative for the Columbia Gramophone Company. The Kelly home was filled with music and dance, and Mrs. Kelly, who had been a singer, decided to supplement the family's income by forming a dance group--a community effort as well as a diversion for her children. All of them eventually became dancers of professional caliber, but as fate would have it, Gene, who loved and played baseball, football, and ice hockey in high school, was the least interested in dancing.

He was exposed to the best as a child. Since Pittsburgh was the end of the line for Broadway touring shows, Mrs. Kelly serendipitously provided an opportunity for such compulsive gamblers as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Joe Frisco to finance their way back to New York City by giving "guest lessons and demonstrations." Gene worked his way through the University of Pittsburgh, where he performed in and directed Cap and Gown shows, by dancing with his younger brother Fred in nightclubs and lodges.

In 1938 he began making excursions to New York City to find dance work. After small parts in Leave It to Me (where Mary Martin warbled Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy") and One for the Money, he won the role of the hoofer in William Saroyan's 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Time of Your Life. His big breakthrough came the following year in the hero-heel title role of Pal Joey, the Rodgers and Hart hit musical based on John O'Hara's New Yorker stories and directed by George Abbott.

David O. Selznick brought him to Hollywood for his debut film at MGM, For Me and My Gal (1942). He alternated between dramatic and musical parts until Metro loaned him to Columbia as Rita Hayworth's partner in Cover Girl (1944). He stole the show with the "alter ego" number in which he danced a pas de deux with himself, a shadowy reflection in a plate-glass window, to express mental struggle in dance terms. …

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