Recently I turned on the movie channel and chanced upon a showing of An American in Paris. After watching it for just a few minutes, I was hooked. In fact I ended up watching the entire film.
This 1951 musical features the music of George Gershwin and the dancing of Gene Kelly.
Was there ever a more brilliant and entertaining combination? The movie won eight Oscars including a special one for Gene Kelly who not only starred in the film, but co-directed it and did all the choreography. I confess, Gene Kelly’s dancing has always utterly amazed me! So I did a little research on the man.
Gene Kelly was born in 1912 and raised in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. At the age of eight, he and his younger brother were forced by their mother to take dancing lessons. They hated these lessons—mostly because the other boys called them sissies. Besides, Kelly’s dream at that time in his life was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates—not to dance! As a teenager, however, he resumed his dancing, mostly in staged musicals. In college he majored in journalism, but when the Depression hit, he quit college to help support his family. In 1932 his family opened a dance school and eventually Kelly decided to pursue a career in dancing. He moved to New York and, through hard work and exceptional talent, he began landing roles in stage productions and then movies.
Kelly’s dancing has been described as “athletic and muscular.” Fred Astaire, whom he admired and worked with on occasion, danced mostly in a top hat and tails. Kelly, in contrast, often danced in T-shirts and ordinary pants. Astaire’s dancing was called “aristocratic, classical, aerial” whereas Kelly’s was labeled “democratic, romantic, terrestial.”
Kelly was always the innovator. He was the first to use the split screen in a musical. He also combined live action with animation. For example, in Anchors Away (1945) he dances with an animated character named Jerry Mouse. In another film he tap dances wearing roller skates! Another time he tied garbage can lids to his feet and used the lids as taps!
By all accounts Kelly worked very hard to make his dancing appear effortless. One dancer
said that after rehearsing for eight hours, all the exhausted dancers left the theater—except Kelly who stayed on to practice his steps even more. In his later years he seemed most proud of helping many neophyte actors with their careers. It was Kelly, for example, who picked Debbie Reynolds for Singing in the Rain. She was only 18 years old at the time and didn’t know how to dance. But Kelly taught her and she ended up becoming a great dancer, explaining, “I learned from the best.”
In his personal life, Kelly married actress Betsy Blair in 1941. They had one child but later divorced. He then married Jeanne Coyne with whom he had two more children. They were married until her death in 1973. In his later years Kelly was married to Patricia Ward until his own death in 1996. Although raised Catholic, Kelly became disillusioned with the Church when it supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Later, after visiting Mexico, he became even more estranged from the Church for aligning itself with the rich and powerful while neglecting the poor. Sadly, he became an agnostic. In the 1980’s Kelly suffered two strokes. At his death, he requested that there be no funeral or memorial service.
What will Gene Kelly be most remembered for? Probably his dance to the song “Singin’ in the Rain.” Kelly was ill the day that dance was filmed. In fact, he had a temperature of 103! Yet he dances with vitality and power. At the beginning of the dance he leaps onto the lamp post with ease. He later turns his umbrella into his dancing partner. And at the end he splashes in the puddles like a little kid. For me, the song and dance encapsulate the transforming power love can have on a person’s life. Love can transform even rainy days into beautiful times! The Boston Globe said of Kelly’s dance: “Has exultation ever been expressed more memorably?” I think not!
I am closing with two short videos. The first is Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” dance. The second is a montage of his dancing. I hope you enjoy one or both of them!
“Singin’ in the Rain”:
“Montage of Gene Kelly Dancing”:
What are your thoughts on Gene Kelly? On music and dance? On the power of love to transform our life?
PS: Thank you for your prayers for the spirituality day I shared with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Watertown, NY. And thanks to Sister Eamon and all the SSJ’s for their warmth, hospitality, prayerfulness, and fun!