Gene Kelly: What made this actor, singer & dancer so special

Gene Kelly at Click Americana

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Gene Kelly’s seemingly effortless and graceful dance style brought in moviegoers by the millions in the heyday of the Hollywood musical in the 1940s and 1950s.

With his charm, good looks and undeniable talent, he took dance from being seen as something for “sissies” to putting it on par with sports as an expression of skill and athleticism for men.

His crowning achievement — and considered by many to be one the most popular and admired musicals of all time — was 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.

Below, find out more about the man, his movies, his moves, and his magic.

The multi-talented dancer, singer and actor Gene Kelly - Click Americana

Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain

As you enjoy this clip of Gene Kelly performing one of his most famous tunes, you can marvel at the fact that although he was suffering from a 103° F fever at the time, he still managed this unforgettable performance.

YouTube video

Gene Kelly is the star of Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

From The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) April 20, 1952

Gene Kelly ought to be brought forward and showered with fancy adjectives for his “Singin’ in the Rain.”

There is no particular reason why the picture should have been called by that title — it is just one number in the musical — but does it matter? Not at all, especially since that number is one of the best that has ever been presented in any musical.

Vintage movie - Singin in the Rain scene- On a streetlamp post

It has a gaiety and spontaneity that is irresistible, as the amazing Gene dances down a street through the storm, lifted to the heights of amorous joy by his lady love, cute Debbie Reynolds.

Oblivious to the pouring rain, oblivious to the suspicious policeman, oblivious to traffic, he dances in wild abandon with the help of a marvelous umbrella, that he makes quite eloquent and carries you along in his joyous mood. He is wonderful.

Vintage movie - Singin in the Rain lobby card

Mr Kelly is possessed of triple talents — he is an artist as a choreographer — his “An American in Paris” proved this; he is a dancer, with all the graces at his finger and toe tips, and he is a competent actor. In short, he is a minor institution.

Vintage movie - Singin in the Rain scene (1)

ALSO SEE: See Fred Astaire Puttin’ On The Ritz in the Irving Berlin 1946 musical movie ‘Blue Skies’

Gene Kelly: A dancer, not a sissy (1964)

by Cleveland Amory – McCalls (March 1964)

“I myself have always equated dancing with sports. YA Tittle throwing a forward pass is a dancer. And one of the most beautiful dances I’ve ever seen is a man sliding into second while the shortstop and second baseman try for the double play.”

A star high-school halfback before he was a dancer, Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, of a first-generation Irish father and a mother who had been on stage as a girl.

Vintage actor and dancer Gene Kelly (2)

She made him go to dancing school, which he hated; now he blesses her for it. By the time he was a senior in high school, he wasn’t afraid of being called “sissy.” “If anyone called me that, I’d punch him in the nose.”

Then came the University of Pittsburgh — he worked his way through, partly as a ditch digger, partly by dancing. Meanwhile, back home, the Kelly cellar was turned into a dancing school — with Mamma Kelly as director and Gene teaching tap and ballet.

He went to New York to be a choreographer, but instead got a job in the chorus of Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me, the 1938 show in which Mary Martin sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

“I was the boy beside her,” recalls Kelly, “ogling her in an Eskimo suit.”

Three shows later, however, came his own starring role, in Pal Joey. Kelly, as the heel-and-toe hero, was sensational in what is still regarded as possibly the most physically difficult role ever performed — he had 80 “sides” and no fewer than 11 acrobatic numbers.

1940s Frank Sinatra with Gene Kelly
1940s Frank Sinatra with Gene Kelly

From then to his forthcoming movie, What a Way To Go, with Shirley MacLaine, Kelly has been going strong.

Twice married, Gene has a daughter, Kerry, 21, and a son, Timothy, 2. He is known in Hollywood for his love of political activity, his hatred of gossip, and his youthful spirit.

“To get a kick out of being in this business,” he emphasizes, “you have to be touched with a streak of perennial adolescence.”

ALSO SEE: Look inside Gene Kelly’s house from 1950 for some simple vintage celebrity style

Gene Kelly with umbrellas - Click Americana

Gene Kelly still singing, yeah, singing in the rain (1977)

By Louise Sweeney (The Christian Science Monitor News Service)

Washington D.C. — It is Gene Kelly’s damp fate that he is remembered best as the actor so lovestruck he tap dances through a downpour in “Singin’ in the Rain.”

So it seemed appropriate that it ‘teemed gray rain the night the American Film Institute (AFI) paid tribute to Gene Kelly, with a screening of that classic musical to mark his appearance.

Afterward, Himself strolled out on stage under a red and blue umbrella, did a brisk tap or two, teed off with the bumbershoot as a golf club, and sat down in a director’s chair.

From the movie Anchors Aweigh (1945)
With Gene Kelly and Dean Stockwell in the movie Anchors Aweigh (1945)

When the applause finally died down, he answered questions from a rapt audience of nearly — 2,000, much of it film — hip and young, who knew every frame of his movies, from “An American in Paris” to “The Pirate,” from “Anchors Aweigh” to “Forty Carats.”‘

For the audience, which gave him a standing ovation and wildly applauded all his numbers in “Rain,” it was love-in. The warmth in the big, red velvet Eisenhower Theater was enough to dry every drenched trenchcoat in the room.  

Vintage actor and dancer Gene Kelly (3)

And again the next day, outside the Sheraton Carlton Hotel two blocks from the White House, it was raining nonpartisan torrents, democratically soaking everyone in sight.

Upstairs in a mirrored, marbled, and chandeliered suite paced the guy who worked his way through college mixing concrete, digging ditches, and stacking tires in a warehouse.

He moves with a certain muscled grace, this man in the gray business suit who has done a buck-and-wing through the hearts of American moviegoers for 40 years. The familiar husky tenor is the same, and the smiling Irish brown eyes, masked faintly by the smoked glasses he wears from time to time.

Vintage movie - Singin in the Rain scene (3)

He sports a minute red ribbon in the lapel of his suit. It is the French Legion of Honor, given to the dancer-choreographer-director who is a cult figure in France for his films and who was cited for staging the first jazz ballet, “Pas de Deux,” at the Paris Opera House.

Not bad for what he calls himself, one of “the sweatshirt generation” (as he told biographer Tony Thomas), an athletic kid from Pittsburgh. One of a family of five, he taught dancing in the cellar of their house during the Depression.

Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly - Singin in the Rain vintage film

He talks about how, when he was at the University of Pittsburgh, he was hired out as a dance teacher at a local synagogue shul (school), where few of the boys wanted to take dancing lessons.

“I was a pretty good athlete myself,” he remembers, so he offered the boys free basketball lessons if they’d sign up for tap dancing afterward. That was the end of the problem.

“Being a dancer is closely allied to being an athlete, on which my whole style is based,” says Gene Kelly. “Dancing is a very tough job; it’s like playing football. You have to extend yourself if you want to be good.

Gene Kelly

“You can dance till you’re old and gray if you want to do just what you can do. But if you want to be very good… you have to go to the outer limits; you don’t want to stay within the limits of your abilities…”

The Kelly dancing style is virile, romantic, exuberant, athletic. He says it’s a mix of tap dancing (with its roots in Irish-American clogging and black minstrel shows), acting and ballet.

This is, after all, the Gene Kelly who studied ballet and turned down an offer from the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. (That was after he and his family opened the Gene Kelly School of the Dance, which he ran for seven years before hitting Broadway and stardom in his late 20s.)

Gene Kelly in military uniform

Although some of his most haunting dances have been pure ballet, like the Place de la Concorde pas de deux with Leslie Caron in “American in Paris,” he has tempered that long line of ballet to suit the roles. ‘If you’re playing a truck driver, you can’t come out in fifth position, with your arms over your head.”

In addition to his singing and dancing roles Gene Kelly has given impressive performances as an actor in nonmusical roles, like “Inherit the Wind.” But he told the AFI audience, “Musicals are my real love. I didn’t want to make pictures with messages. I just wanted to make people happy and bring joy.”

Vintage movie - Singin in the Rain scene (5)

And yet, he always has wanted to be a director much more than a star, and he pushed the studio (MGM) early to let him direct, beginning with “On the Town.” It was the first film apart from Westerns to be shot outside the studio.

“I started the French New Wave,” he grins, alluding to the shooting on location and breaking studio formulas done by young French directors of the late ’50s, to whom he was a hero.

Vintage actor and dancer Gene Kelly (1)

He is asked what a good director needs. “You have to know everybody’s job,” he answers. “And if you don’t, then you have to depend on everybody for advice, if you don’t know where the camera’s put or that light’s too dim. It takes a lot of extra homework.

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds
Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds

“But the main thing is to have a good script. No director is ever good with a bad script. That’s an old wives’ tale, that there are ‘director’s touches.’ They happen once in a while, but most of it is the writer. He’s worked a year, maybe six years on it; he’s spent all that time.”

Gene Kelly says he would like to direct a love story eventually, but that isn’t what backers are looking for.

“Action pictures are all the rage. The financiers won’t put their money in pictures unless it’s action or porn, soft or hard, because that sells all around the world.

“I deplore this. Raising a family, I don’t want to make pictures of this kind. On the other hand, I don’t want to make pictures for four-year-olds.”

Vintage movie - Singin in the Rain poster

In fact, he’s been through raising two families: the first ended in divorce from actress Betsy Blair. Kerry, his daughter by that marriage, has made him a grandfather twice; she is a psychologist who studied with Anna Freud and teaches with her husband at the University of Michigan.

The passing of his second wife, dancer-choreographer Jeanne Coyne, left him a single parent raising a son, Timothy, now 15, and daughter Bridget, 13.

Vintage singer actor dancer Gene Kelly

Asked if he plans to direct soon again, he says, “When my wife passed away, I decided my children were more important than making pictures, and I think when they get along a few more years I’ll push a little more (to direct). It’s very hard to take trips to go on location and leave the children home…

“The bottom line is that Daddy has to be there. It’s very selfish. They’re much more important to me than making pictures. I don’t want any medals for it. I think you’re responsible for anyone you bring into the world.”

ALSO SEE: Look inside Gene Kelly’s house from 1950 for some simple vintage celebrity style

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