The Marriage Of Dance And Film: The Legacy of Gene Kelly

June 30, 2014

“Any man who looks like a sissy while dancing is just a lousy dancer.”

With recent films like The Artist breathing fresh interest into the Hollywood of yesteryear, many young people are now looking back at old movies with curiosity, often for the first time.

Given that top dance schools frequently incorporate Kelly’s iconic dance routines into their study curriculum, today we’ll be looking back on Gene Kelly’s life and the impact his dance legacy has had on the modern art form.

“I got started dancing because I knew it was one way to meet girls.”

Born Eugene Curran Kelly, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in August 1912, Kelly gained an early start to performing when his mother enrolled him in dance classes, and then later encouraged him and his siblings to perform dance routines at amateur vaudeville nights.

Kelly, however, was more interested in sports, and rebelled against his imposed dancing career.

“We didn’t like it much,” he later explained, “and were continually involved in fistfights with the neighborhood boys who called us sissies … I didn’t dance again until I was 15.” At high school he discovered that his dancing abilities made him popular with girls, and so he took to it again, this time by his own choosing.

Enthusiastic and Energetic

In 1932, when Kelly was just twenty years old, his family founded two top dance schools: The Gene Kelly Studio of Dance in Pittsburgh, which was then followed by the opening of another studio in Johnstown the year after. One of Kelly’s students described him as an ever enthusiastic and energetic teacher, always keen to make sure that no student ever fell behind, and encouraging to even the least gifted dancers which passed through the studio doors.

During his time teaching, Kelly was still attending school, and in 1933 he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in economics. Times were tough in the States in the early 30’s, and Kelly worked a number of jobs to support his family, including ditch-digging. “I arrived in Hollywood twenty pounds overweight and as strong as an ox. But if I put on a white tails and tux like Fred Astaire, I still looked like a truck driver.”

By 1938 Kelly was hungry for more than just teaching. “With time I became disenchanted with teaching because the ratio of girls to boys was more than ten to one, and once the girls reached sixteen the dropout rate was very high.” After moving to New York, he built a successful Broadway career that then lead to him being offered a contract from Hollywood.

Kelly’s Hollywood debut was in For Me and My Gal, in which he starred alongside Judy Garland:

He described Garland as “The finest all-around performer we ever had in America… There was no limit to her talent. She was the quickest, brightest person I ever worked with.” Audiences could clearly see that the pair worked well together, and the movie was a big success.

Kelly went on to find further success in a number of films, but his most significant breakthrough came in 1944 when he was cast with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl. This opportunity saw him create the now renowned ‘Alter Ego’ dance sequence, where he dances with his own reflection. Viewers today are still captivated by the perfectly coordinated routine.

Kelly’s next major hit was Anchors Aweigh, a film which lead him to both teach Frank Sinatra to dance, and to dance alongside Jerry the Mouse in a ground-breaking sequence which still looks impressive to this day:

Despite his mounting success, and MGM’s protests, Kelly wanted to serve his country during WW2 and joined the Navy at the end of 1944. When he returned to Hollywood two years later, MGM didn’t have much to offer him. He starred in a number of B-movies, and then some rather more commercially successful movies such as On the Town with Sinatra, which was described as “the most inventive and effervescent musical thus far produced in Hollywood.”

Kelly’s career peaked in the early 50’s when he won an Oscar for his role in An American in Paris, and then with the popularity of Singin’ in the Rain. These are now his best known works. Younger readers may be more familiar with the Mint Royale remix of Singin’ in the Rain which was used on the Golf GTI advert a few years, along with an updated, body-popping tribute to Gene Kelly.

As the decade drew on, musicals started to lose popularity with audiences, and after disagreements and tensions, Kelly finally ended his contract with MGM.

This did not signify the end of Kelly’s success however, and he went on to become a respected director and choreographer. In 1960 he was even invited to create a modern ballet for the Paris Opera, the first time an American was given such an honour, which went on to receive major acclaim.

Quite fittingly, Kelly’s last recorded words before his death in 1996, were on 1994’s That’s Entertainment 3, where he quoted songwriter Irving Berlin: “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”

What better way to sum up Kelly’s richly creative life?