Issue 4

The Star Image of Gene Kelly

Whenever the topic of film musicals is discussed, many famous stars are remembered. The late 1940s to the 1950s was a period that involved a number of unique and talented performers, whether they were actors, singers, dancers, or possibly all of the above. Gene Kelly, a master of all three, was one of the most prominent stars during this time. Kelly, although recognized today as one of the greats, reached the height of his career during the early 1950s with the releases of his films, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1950s, the film musical genre was reaching the end of its life. While Kelly continued to make films after the 1950s, nothing ever came close to the spectacle that was these two masterpieces. Even still, Gene Kelly danced and sang his way into people’s hearts and created an illustrious career and legacy that will continue to live on.

Gene Kelly began dancing at a very young age and by the time he was a teenager, he, along with his brother and mother, took over a failing dance school to teach younger children.[1] Through years of practice, choreographing local shows, and playing nightclubs, Kelly soon found himself en route to New York City.1 After landing the lead role in the Broadway production of Pal Joey, Kelly opened the doors to a future in Hollywood movie history. For the first few years of his film career, Kelly found himself in the midst of many mediocre roles from MGM, with whom he had a contract, and was unable to show his true talent. It was not until 1944, with the release of Columbia’s Cover Girl, that MGM realized they had a star on their hands and refused to loan him out again.1 It was during this period that Kelly was beginning to bring the world of film dance into an entire new era, but it was not until 1949, with the release of the first film he directed, On The Town, which he also starred in, that audiences and Hollywood started realizing the profound talent he possessed.

Gene Kelly’s star image around the 1950s was truly a fascinating thing. While there were other dancers acting and performing like Gene Kelly, there was something unique about him that people had not seen before. He danced differently than any other man in Hollywood. Where Fred Astaire was cool and aristocratic, Kelly was athletic and bold.[2] His style of dance was more masculine than ever seen before. By creating this style of dance, he was able to become a role model for men and women. It is also important to recognize not only what he did onscreen, but what he did off-screen through directing and choreographing some of the world’s most timeless films. Kelly did have a big personality to go along with his talent. He was exciting and domineering, narcissistic and a perfectionist, innovative and magical. He often prided himself on his ability to be just like everyone else, despite his fame. For Kelly, dancing was his way of life and it, along with his films, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, shaped his star image and legacy as a significant part of the Golden Age of musicals in the 1950s. As well, his unmatched athleticism, utter masculinity and authenticity, domineering personality, and vast abilities contributed to his star image and are completely unique and worth celebrating, even to this day. By analyzing these aspects of Gene Kelly, it will be possible to understand the core components of his star image during the early 1950s and the way in which he incorporated it into two of his most popular films.

Gene Kelly’s athleticism in his dancing started from a young age and only grew as he did. He felt that there was “a strong link between sports and dancing, and [his] own dancing [sprang] from [his] early days as an athlete.”[3] He claimed that dancing was just as athletic as playing tennis or football and great for body development because it was a strenuous exercise done to rhythm.[4] For many, dancing is just a hobby, but for Kelly, it truly was an important part of living and he loved creating unique content for audiences to enjoy. When asked about his style of dance, Kelly was unable to describe it with one name. Instead, he explained how his style was more of a “hybrid” of many different athletic approaches to dance, including modern, classical/ballet, and American folk (namely tap).[5] His eclectic style is often seen in the way he moves effortlessly between hoofing, lyrical steps, acrobatics, and jazz dance.5 By showcasing this type of high energy dance, Kelly was able to influence performers of any age and show them that there was no “right” way to dance.

Kelly’s athletic style of dance is featured in two of his most famous films of the early 1950s, the aforementioned An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. In An American in Paris, there is a scene where French children surround Kelly’s character, Jerry, and he teaches them some English so they can help him with a song, “I Got Rhythm.” In it, the children participate and say “I got” when Jerry points to them as he sings. As the song continues, Kelly starts dancing a variety of different ways. Most of the dances are relatively athletic, including tap dances like the Time Step and the Shim Sham, as well as others like the Charleston and random fun dances—with tap embedded—to excite the children.[6] Overall, the array of dance styles is a wonderful example of Kelly’s superior athleticism and his ability to execute different dances with a consistent amount of energy. Similarly, many dance numbers in Singin’ in the Rain showcase Kelly’s athletic style. In particular, there is the “Moses Supposes” scene where Kelly’s character, Don Lockwood, and Donald O’Connor, as Cosmo Brown, dance and sing despite the fact Don was in the middle of a speech lesson. The entire dance is full of fast-paced movements, where Kelly and O’Connor jump around, climb and dance on a desk and chairs, and tap their way around the room.[7] While it is always fun to watch Kelly dance, the scene is even more enjoyable because he has a partner who can easily keep up with his high energy dancing style. It is truly a fascinating sight to watch Gene Kelly dance and it was in these two films that he was able to entertain audiences with his talents through a number of different dance scenes.

Not surprisingly, Gene Kelly’s athleticism gave his moves a relatively distinctive agile, muscular quality, his dance style much more masculine than many other male dancers before him. Although many may see dancing as a woman’s world, Kelly wholeheartedly disagreed. He felt that it was a man’s game and that if a man dances well, he does it better than a woman.4 He also claimed that if a man danced effeminately, he danced badly. While that is not particularly a true fact, that was his opinion and because of that, he shied away from more feminine dance styles. This blatant portrayal of masculinity transferred over to his acting style, as well. Kelly almost exclusively played strong, likeable characters. He, in real life and in the films, had a good sense of humor, devilish charm, a great smile, and all the other makings of a handsome gentleman. He wore conventional 1950s masculine clothes: sweaters, t-shirts, khakis, and more. Women fawned over him. He had the ability to engage any viewer, male or female. Kelly preferred to be like everyone else, in terms of how he acted but mainly in what he wore. He was not big into suits and felt the need to distance himself from the sophisticated styles of Fred Astaire and others. He always “tried to present his authenticity by portraying the Everyman, the ‘blue-collar guy.’”[8] This sense of authenticity paired with masculinity is what made Kelly unlike many of the other men in Hollywood in the 1950s, dancers or not.

Kelly’s sense of masculinity is found in both An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. Jerry, his character in An American in Paris, is an artist and a World War II veteran living in Paris. Veterans are often portrayed as very masculine in film history and that is clearly the case here. As well, he is most often dressed in masculine clothing like t-shirts, khakis, and sweaters. Many of his dance scenes have a masculine feel to them, too. The only exception could be the final 17-minute ballet performance. Perhaps the most glaring bit of masculinity, though, is the fact that he finds himself involved with two women, one he has interest in (Lise) and one he does not (Milo). Unbeknownst to Jerry, Lise is also dating a friend of his. Of course, as he is the male hero of the film, he gets his way in the end and is able to lead his life with Lise by his side.6 In Singin’ in the Rain, there are many similarities to An American in Paris. In this film, Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a popular silent film star, who finds himself thrown into the world of “talkies.” Again, he finds himself involved with two women, one he has interest in (Kathy) and one he has absolutely no interest in (Lina), despite her strong interest in him. As a famous film star, Lockwood is dressed to the nines when in public, but is usually in typical masculine clothing like t-shirts and khakis when he is around friends. In many of his dance scenes in the film, he is showcasing his masculinity. He usually has a female (or sometimes male) dance partner and most of the numbers feature his characteristic dance style. This is extremely evident in the long “Broadway Melody” scene that also featured Cyd Charisse as one of Kelly’s dance partners.7 In both films, Kelly seems to perpetuate his goal of authenticity. His characters, although Don Lockwood is a famous actor in Singin’ in the Rain, ooze a sense of normalcy. Audiences feel like they can relate to his “everyman” persona and are often comforted by it. Luckily for Kelly, that type of persona simply carried over from his real life. In a time period where men often dominated the film industry, it is no surprise that masculinity would be a large part of Gene Kelly’s star image, especially in relation to his dancing and his acting.

Gene Kelly’s personality was something of an enigma. He was captivating and distinct, accessible but volatile, charming yet narcissistic.1 He was a very domineering person but always such a joy on screen that most people never truly knew who he was. Of course, that is not to say that he was a terrible person. Kelly just knew exactly what he wanted and how he would get it. He had “no time for gossip, trivia, or inconsequential small talk.”[9] Instead, he focused a lot of his time doing things related to his work. He was a man of profound intelligence and was always so well grounded in all the fundamentals of life and Hollywood.9 For Gene Kelly, his work, and making sure it was all done correctly, would always be the most important aspect of his life. Even still, Kelly fascinated many people, for his dancing, but also his personality. He had the smile and charm to draw just about anyone in. But it is this personality that led to so many famous films like An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain to be made, not to mention a handful of other wonderful films.

In both films, Kelly’s personality shines through. Both of his characters are extremely charismatic men and know how to work a crowd, the local children in Jerry’s case or Don’s adoring fans. It is interesting that despite An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain being completely different films, Kelly’s characters and their personalities are so similar, as well as in line with his real life persona. Jerry and Don are confident, independent, intelligent, and captivating. They entice the viewers of the films because they are so likeable. As well, they have the ability to charm the women in their respective films. Jerry and Don, like Kelly, pursue their goals with vigor and focus. They work hard to make a name for themselves in any way possible and seem to be grateful for the things they have been given and earned. In An American in Paris, Jerry/Gene’s personality truly shines in the dance scenes with Leslie Caron (Lise).6 As he moves with grace, like always, Kelly’s smile and charm are usually a feature of the scenes. It is clear that Jerry is a reflection of Gene. As well, in Singin’ in the Rain, Don is almost just a fictional version of Kelly. They act, sing, and dance, and Don seems to have many of the same personality traits as Gene. Of course, this is not much of a surprise given that Kelly was the director of this particular film. Creating a character similar to his own persona could really only be a positive. Again, it is in the dance scenes with Cosmo and Kathy that this personality really comes out. Especially in the “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning” performances.7 It is difficult to really understand the personality of Gene Kelly without knowing him, but his public persona and the roles he portrayed in these films are a great introduction to one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors.

While Gene Kelly was a master of onscreen performance, many people do not discuss his abilities behind the camera. Kelly was just as talented a director as he was a dancer. As well, he created much of the choreography for the films he starred in. He liked to be involved in as many aspects of filmmaking as possible because it gave him a chance to share his vision through different outlets. Directing, while not his most famous title, sat right behind dancing and acting. In 1953, Kelly was asked about his concentration on his work and stated that he was as strong as a horse, that he simply wanted to act, dance, and direct, and he had no intentions of ever stopping.9 Many Hollywood stars try their hand at different aspects of filmmaking, but it is always rare to find one that dances, sings, acts, directs, and choreographs. He had fantastic abilities in every discipline; there was not a thing he was not good at. And that is what was so fascinating about Gene Kelly. He was such a special individual whose talents only enriched the lives of those around him and who watched him on the screen. One can only hope that his gift for creating, directing, and performing will always be a subject of praise and awe.

Although Kelly did not direct An American in Paris, he did direct Singin’ in the Rain. At the time of release, though, An American in Paris was often seen as the better of the two, but Singin’ in the Rain has gone on to be named the number one musical of all time by the American Film Institute.[10] As for choreography, Kelly created it for both films and they became some of his most well known work. In both, he was generally praised for his work on the films, but there are two dance numbers in particular that were special. For An American in Paris, his choreography was especially applauded for the lengthy ballet scene, where he revealed a number of new talents never before seen.[11] To this day, the 17-minute ballet scene is the most talked about from the film. As for Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly’s lengthy Broadway dance scene, featuring Cyd Charisse, is perhaps the most famous of the film—just above “Good Morning.” The scene featured a variety of dance styles, giving Kelly a chance to show off his many talents. While he did not direct both films, it is extremely fascinating that Kelly was so involved and was responsible for many of the aspects that made them famous.

It is nearly impossible to pick which star in Hollywood history is deserving of the title “greatest of all time.” Everyone has different opinions but for some, it may be Gene Kelly. He dedicated his life to sharing his love of dance, as well as acting, singing, and directing. He was the quintessential performer. Kelly created his star image from these talents and solidified it for years to come. It is rare to find people today that do not recognize his name or at least Singin’ in the Rain and it just goes to show how meaningful he was to the genre that made him famous. For Kelly, he wanted to be remembered as “a creative artist, a man who [danced] because of a life force that [propelled] him.”[12] His contributions to international cinema should never go unnoticed. Gene Kelly made his name in movie magic history by creating a number of timeless and extraordinary works of art. He was, in one word, great.

[1] “Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer.” PBS. December 02, 2015. Accessed June 11, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/gene-kelly-anatomy-of-a-dancer/516/.

[2] Dick, Bernard F. Anatomy of Film. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2002.

[3] Thomas, Tony. The Films of Gene Kelly – Song and Dance Man. New York, NY: Carol Publishing, 1991.

[4] Shane, Denny. “Know this about Dancing.” Screenland Plus TV-Land, January 1953, 38-39, 66. Accessed June 11, 2017. http://archive.org/stream/screenlandplustv57unse#page/n179/mode/2up.

[5] Harris, Aisha. “Why People Still Dance Like Gene Kelly.” Slate Magazine. August 23, 2012. Accessed June 11, 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/08/23/gene_kelly_turns_100_the_dancer_s_legacy_persists_in_popular_dance_.html.

[6] An American in Paris. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Produced by Arthur Freed. Written by Alan Jay Lerner. Performed by Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, and Nina Foch. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1951. DVD.

[7] Singin’ in the Rain. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Produced by Arthur Freed. Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Performed by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952. DVD.

[8] Kelly, Gillian. “Gene Kelly: The Performing Auteur – Manifestations of the Kelly Persona.” Academia. 2010. Accessed June 16, 2017. http://www.academia.edu/2060940/Gene_Kelly_The_Performing_Auteur_-_Manifestations_of_the_Kelly_Persona.

[9] Finletter, Alice. “Anybody here seen Mrs. Kelly?” Modern Screen, December 1953, 44-45, 94. Accessed June 11, 2017. http://archive.org/stream/modernscreen48unse#page/n103/mode/2up.

[10] “AFI’s 100 Years of Musicals.” American Film Institute. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://www.afi.com/100Years/musicals.aspx.

[11] “An American in Paris.” Variety Movie Reviews no. 1 (January 1951): 110. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost. Accessed June 11, 2017.

[12] Dancy, Tom. “At Home Abroad.” Modern Screen, June 1953, 48-49, 94-95. Accessed June 11, 2017. http://archive.org/stream/modernscreen4647unse#page/n759/mode/2up.

Filed under: Issue 4

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Holly Nellis is a graduating senior and a Cinema Studies major. Holly hopes to further her career in the entertainment industry through writing and producing. Although she loves film, you'll be more likely to see her name on a television show one day! In addition to working on her own writing and video projects over the summer, Holly will begin an internship at Disneyland in Anaheim, California this fall. She hopes to use this opportunity to explore a new area of the country, but also create a long-lasting career with the company.