In Honor of Gene Kelly

“The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”

Gene Kelly (8/23/1912 – 2/2/1996) is one of the most famous dancers of all time, and is one of my favorite people to watch on screen. Starring in some of the most popular movies of the 40’s and 50’s, Kelly cemented his name in Hollywood history with his athletic style, innovative choreography, and his respect for dance as a medium to tell a story.

As a kid in Pittsburgh, Kelly and his four siblings took dance lessons at the urging of his mother. He teamed up with his brother Fred and hit the nightclub circuit (as I suppose Don Lockwood’s background scenes from Singin’ in the Rain may be somewhat autobiographical). After earning a degree in economics from the University of Pittsburgh, Kelly took his chances in New York City, making it to the stages of Broadway. His big break came in 1940, when, at 22 years old, he won the lead in the hit musical Pal Joey (17 years later, Frank Sinatra would play the lead on film with Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak). Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer caught Kelly’s performance and quickly offered him a movie contract.

If you were a dancer in the 40’s, MGM was mecca: the studio produced the biggest movie musicals with the brightest stars, best scripts, and most talented crew. Kelly made his big screen debut opposite Judy Garland in 1942’s For Me and My Gal. In 1944, he played the male lead Danny McGuire in Covergirl with a pre-Gilda Rita Hayworth, which made him a star. Kelly teamed up with a young Sinatra for Anchors Aweigh (1945), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) and On the Town (1949). AA had Kelly dancing opposite Jerry Mouse as the first film to incorporate animation and live action. Scenes from OTT were shot at famous New York City landmarks, making it the first musical filmed on location.

In addition to playing lead roles, Kelly collaborated with film makers as a director and choreographer, and he is primarily responsible for two of the greatest film musicals of all time, An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). For these films, he cast an unknown Leslie Caron and a young Debbie Reynolds, respectively, in the roles that launched their successful careers. AAIP won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1952 and features an elaborate 17-minute ballet sequence at the end of the film, the first of its kind. Kelly was given a special honorary Academy Award “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” Singin in the Rain ranks on numerous lists and surveys as the most popular musical of all time, and has been released around the world in several languages.

In 1996 at 83 years old, Kelly passed in his sleep after a series of strokes. Even though he is gone, his incredible performances will live on film. He is remembered as the man who sings in the rain, and the every-man who made dancing masculine.

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