GENE KELLY’S lifelong obsession was to make dancing seem masculine, athletic, sporty. In 1958, he directed a documentary for NBC called Dancing is a Man’s Game where he recruited sports legends like Sugar Ray Robinson and Mickey Mantle in order to illustrate how the conventionally masculine athleticism of a boxer or baseball player mirrored the physicality of dance. Kelly’s signature stance was very much like a baseball player’s: knees bent and feet wide apart, not because he wants to spring up into the air to catch a ball but because he likes to stay low to the ground. All of his life, Kelly repeated that he had wanted to be a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, but his mother had pushed him into dancing school at the age of eight and he eventually stuck to dance as a career. He got picked on as a kid because the boys his age thought that dancing was for sissies. Kelly was hellbent to prove them wrong.
Being a guy to him meant being down to earth, literally. Dancing with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate (1948), Kelly gets down with them and does a Russian kazaki dance and then glides across the floor on his calves, just like Irish dancer and showman George M. Cohan used to. “I have a lot of Cohan in me,” Kelly once told an interviewer. “It’s an Irish quality, a jaw-jutting, up-on-the-toes cockiness—which is a good quality for a male dancer to have,” he insisted, always scorning anything in dance that could possibly be construed as effeminate. He loved to pinwheel his arms round and round as if he was a man-made machine, not so much an airplane but a plow or a tractor or a watermill.
Kelly doesn’t do many jumps, but when he does, he always seems to pause in midair to get across how heavy his body is; he makes even lifting one of his tree trunk legs seem like a lot of effort. When he moves from side to side, he builds in pauses as if to say, “My body is so solid that it needs brief breaks to get through space.” He loved to do a series of push-ups across the dance floor or flip himself over so that his arms and legs could kick out and up from his torso, as if dance could be a kind of gymnastic event or acrobatic routine. On TV with Donald O’Connor in the 1960s, Kelly does some of their dances while seated in a chair, and this looks exactly right for him physically because he was always assuming that crouched baseball position when he was dancing. It’s all about his knees.
Whenever he wants to express horniness for a woman choreographically, Kelly will make his legs ramrod straight and stiff as erections, springing from his knees to express his lust. When he wants to be romantic, Kelly will hold himself upright and close his legs (and his free-floating sexuality) and gently walk with his female partner with her head on his shoulder, as in this dance with Leslie Caron in An American in Paris (1951) to George Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay”:
Kelly was often slightly shy of romantic partner dancing on screen. He would sometimes make embarrassed corny/cringy faces when asked to express love to a woman while he danced; he’s much more comfortable dancing with kids in the “I Got Rhythm” number from An American in Paris or with the cartoon Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Confronted with the legs-for-days Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Kelly stands back and very much lets her take the lead sexually. Intriguingly, when Kelly choreographed a dance for the Paris Opéra in 1960, “Pas de Dieux,” he created an uninhibitedly sexual legs-apart piece where a male dancer vanquishes a male rival and then spanks and brings his female love object into line. Kelly never danced it himself, but in this dance he cast aside all shyness and seemed to open up his own feelings about men, women and competition:
Constantly staring at themselves in a mirror, dancers have to be self-absorbed — and they have to like what they see. At the height of his stardom Kelly clearly liked himself and his body. His insecurities about his perceived masculinity were obvious enough; as late as his 1985 acceptance of an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, Kelly continued to insist that he had really wanted to be a shortstop and only took up dancing to meet girls. Yet in two films for Vincente Minnelli, The Pirate and An American in Paris, Kelly has absolutely no shame about blatantly exhibiting his body. His pants are so tight in “Nina,” his first number in The Pirate, that his movements become necessarily airborne; it’s almost as if he’s wearing tights, and the pants go so far up his torso that he seems to be all lower body. When Judy Garland’s character has a meltdown and imagines Kelly as a marauding pirate, Minnelli’s camera nearly melts down itself at the sight of Kelly in short shorts sporting the sexiest male thighs in show business:
KELLY HAD A LOT TO SAY about his relation to his nearest rival and arguable superior, Fred Astaire. Fred, he said, represented the dancing aristocracy while he stood in for the proletariat. If Fred was Cary Grant, then Gene was Marlon Brando. Astaire was classic, Kelly eclectic. They put Kelly in an Astaire-style tuxedo in some of his early movies but, as he said many times, a suit made him look like a truck driver. The two men are very different physically, of course. Astaire had an unshakeable center of gravity; his arms and legs would do all kinds of amazing things while his torso stayed anchored in space. Kelly moved his torso, and he slowly sawed at the air with his arms whereas Astaire usually sliced at it quickly. Kelly’s legs are huge and he emphasized their hugeness as a sexual lure, whereas Astaire’s legs are as spare as the rest of him and magically light. When Fred and Gene danced together in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), the choreographic ideas play to Kelly’s strengths, so that Astaire seems slightly stiff and doesn’t get up as high as Kelly does when they jump. There’s no reason to choose between them. We can have them both and enjoy one or the other for their drastically different qualities.
When being interviewed for the Kelly documentary Anatomy of a Dancer, Jeanine Basinger, the venerable head of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, was moved to remark, “You give your heart to Fred Astaire, but you save your body for Gene Kelly.” Many Kelly fans today are women and gay men who uninhibitedly ogle his body online. There is even a tumblr devoted exclusively to the worship of his ass. An outrageous Kelly-ogling opportunity is embedded in the seventeen-minute ballet that ends An American in Paris in which he appears dressed as the figure in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “Chocolat Dancing In Bar Darchille.” Sporting a white kind of body stocking, Kelly takes the ass-out Irish dancing of Cohan and James Cagney into the realm of the erotic sublime, punctuating his butt shaking with springing, stiff-legged arousal at the sight of Caron in a blond wig:
Kelly got away with displays like that without ever seeming foolishly narcissistic because his screen persona stayed anchored to his breakout Broadway role, Pal Joey, the tough-heel hero who might just be a pure heel, a resourceful tool who uses what he has to get what he wants. He had the shifty expression of a sharpie or con man, and a scar on his left cheek that lent an air of menace to his looks. “Devil,” says Deanna Durbin to Kelly, lovingly, in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1945), a trance-like noir in which Kelly allows himself to be tantalizingly weak and even helpless but also a nasty guy and all-around bad lot. “Romantic, ain’t I?” he asks Durbin at one point, flashing her a blindingly aggressive million-dollar grin with his shark-white teeth, drawing her in with his light, high, hollow speaking voice. Christmas Holiday reveals the dark side of Kelly as a screen presence, and what it shows us is not flattering or comfortable. He offered another glimpse behind his entertainer’s mask that same year in an Army training film called Combat Fatigue Irritability where he is ill tempered and foul-mouthed, unshaven and not wearing his hairpiece:
Kelly had lost most of his hair at the front of his head by 1950 and resorted to very effective toupees (from the late ‘60s onward, he wore much less convincing full wigs). I was startled when I saw a photo of Kelly sans toupee in his first wife Betsy Blair’s memoir The Memory of All That. This glimpse “behind the curtain” only emphasized how much Kelly and his home base studio MGM had built up an image on screen that was made up of music, lighting and that grin of his that looked like granite and said, “Don’t fuck with me.” When I interviewed Blair after her book came out, she was very candid and forthcoming about her life with Kelly as an eighteen-year old bride and eventually as a rebellious young woman. She was with him through his great years at MGM from 1941 to 1957, and she felt that he needed someone as young as she was to adore him unquestioningly. He stood by her when she was blacklisted for her left-wing politics, and she stressed that he was a staunch and nervy political progressive, always willing to help out with labor disputes in Hollywood. After they divorced, Kelly married his longtime assistant Jeanne Coyne and stayed with her until her death in 1973.
In his book Original Story, queen-of-mean screenwriter Arthur Laurents wrote, “Gene made faggot jokes constantly…he flirted with men as well as with women…due to his overblown narcissism.” Kelly is least tolerable on screen in his many numbers with male co-stars like Frank Sinatra, Phil Silvers and Georges Guétary where he contemptuously assumes the female role with them, putting a tablecloth on his head and simpering it up, as if to say, “What could be more disgusting or absurd than a man trying to be a woman?” He returned to this routine again and again, so obviously it was important to him, one of his more gruesome methods of showing that he was all man even though he was a dancer. “Competition was lifeblood to Gene,” wrote Laurents, and this quality is highlighted in maybe Kelly’s best musical, the Sondheim-esque It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), where he is upfront about his competitive relations with other males, especially in this drunken dance of aggression with Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey where they fall into each other and kick each other before dancing with garbage can lids on their feet:
KELLY HELPED CONCEIVE and co-direct the three films he made with Stanley Donen: On the Town (1949), with its innovative location footage of New York; Singin’ in the Rain, which has long been considered the quintessential classic Hollywood musical; and It’s Always Fair Weather, the duo’s most coherent and personal project, a melancholy and insightful portrait of soured friendships and what might be done about them. Blair felt that Donen idolized Kelly and wanted to be him. Kelly was surrounded by worshippers, but when the worship fell below a certain level, as it did when Blair got a bit older and Donen saw that his idol was human, he would have to sever ties and go on alone.
As he slowed down and got older, Kelly branched out into directing, but the films he made, like Gigot (1962), A Guide for the Married Man (1967) and Hello, Dolly! (1969), were poor. His passion project Invitation to the Dance — a film told entirely through movement, color and music — was released after endless delays in 1956; it isn’t a bad movie, but it lacks the magical spark that animates his Donen and Minnelli collaborations. It was clear in that film Kelly was repeating himself; by the 1960s, he seemed like a throwback. The last time Kelly found a proper holding context was in Jacques Demy’s paradisal musical apocalypse The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), where his smile is gentler, his body much thinner and more fragile. I saw that Demy film three times when it played in a restoration at Film Forum, and each time the talismanic Kelly first appeared, the whole audience would cry out with pleasure, as if he were an emissary from another world. Demy lets Kelly recapitulate many of his favorite movements in his first scene, where he does an arm pinwheel, plays with some kids, dances with two sailors, does a brief Charleston with two girls, then jumps in his car and drives off singing. “I’m flattered, worshipped, dehumanized,” he croons later, once more revealing himself as an untouchable figure who needs our love and attention but who nurses private grudges, drives and demons that he cannot share with us.
In the early seventies, Kelly was offered the role of the Master of Ceremonies in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and he wanted to do it, but he decided that his two children with Coyne needed his attention more. The image of Kelly in that Fosse context is a mind-blowing thought; imagine that killer grin of his gleaming behind the Kit Kat Klub emcee’s seedy make-up. He could have done it. He could have been that sleazy, that sneering, that chilling; he had it in him. Instead, he wound up his film career with two of the worst movies ever made: Viva Knievel! (1977), a laughable vanity project for stunt rider Evel Knievel where Kelly played a drunken mechanic; and the unholy Xanadu (1980), where he gamely tried to dance with Olivia Newton-John. His last credit was a Joan Collins miniseries called Sins (1986), where he quickly marries Collins and even more quickly gets tossed off a balcony. At least he ended his career in motion.
WHEN HE TAP DANCED , Kelly favored simple time steps and maxi fords, and he was at his best when he was at his simplest, as in the newspaper dance in Summer Stock (1950). Kelly has a special rapport with Judy Garland in that film, but he is most at ease when he doesn’t have to look after her or anyone else, when he can just create something himself. It’s like when he looks out at us before and after the American in Paris ballet and before the ballet in Singin’ in the Rain, unsmiling, severe, essentially isolated. In this dance in Summer Stock, he isn’t weighed down by partners or sets or costumes or heavy concepts, as in the nearly absurd story ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in Words and Music (1948) or the “Alter Ego” number in Cover Girl (1944), where he dances with an image of himself. He slowly builds this number with just a creaky floorboard and a newspaper until he tears up the paper into tinier and tinier pieces with his feet. It’s a glimpse of what he must have been like in a rehearsal hall late at night, after everybody else had given up in exhaustion and he was still willing to toy around with this or that idea with his body.
Kelly is best known, of course, for being alone on a city street, proclaiming that the sun’s in his heart and he’s ready for love with that appealing crack in his singing voice. There is no more purely joyful image in American cinema than the sight of Kelly as the rain pours down on him and he slowly sings, “C’mon with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face.” Kelly had a 103-degree fever when he shot this number. His wool suit started to shrink as they filmed it, and it took a long time to get the puddles just right to splash in. The joy we see on screen was created through artifice and against the grain of reality, and it’s a kind of miracle. When I mentioned this number to Blair, she mock shivered and said, “Oh, yes, the famous one, the really great one.” Her voice sounded appealingly sardonic, but still slightly worshipful, too. “I knew it, I felt it, I felt what they had as they were shooting it, I knew it was the best, that it was special. Sometimes you know. I knew. I think we all knew. Stanley and I, we both loved him so much, and we knew that it would be remembered.”
Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.
“Gene Kelly: Changing the Look of Dance on Film” is playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center, July 13th to 26th.