Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer

Some clips from "Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer" (2002) directed by Robert Trachtenberg

It became obvious after awhile that Gene Kelly, the natural athlete, (particularly adept at hockey and baseball) had been kissed by the goddess of dance, Terpsichore. His mother Harriet took over a failed dancing studio and her middle son quickly established himself as a natural teacher and choreographer, with a winning way with young people. Graduating at 16 while holding down several jobs, Kelly looked to university (Penn State) as his next challenge. He switched his major from journalism to economics and soon realized while helping the family weather the Depression, there might be a future for him in entertainment.

June Havoc playing Gladys and Gene Kelly playing Joey Evans in "Pal Joey" on Broadway

Kelly's big break came on Christmas night 1940 with his breakthrough role of Joey Evans, a second-rate nightclub entertainer in 1930s Chicago, in which he meets and falls in love with Linda.

Timeless, effortless, elegant and indelible as the 50th anniversary of Singin' in the Rain approaches (the film was first released on 27th March 1952 in New York City), Gene Kelly's body of work still thrives and still thrills. With films that also include 'An American in Paris', 'Summer Stock', 'On the Town' and 'Brigadoon', Kelly revived the movie musical and redefined dance on screen, bringing with him an inspired sensibility and an original vitality. He endeared himself to audiences and had a profound, eternal impact on the craft. A lasting influence in the worlds of film and dance, his first major film success came at the age of thirty and a short ten years later, he had made his final hit film.

Ironically, Kelly was put under contract at Selznick International by Mayers son-in-law David O. Selznick, who had no interest in producing musicals and thought Kelly could exist purely as a dramatic actor. With no roles forthcoming, Kelly was loaned out to MGM to co-star with Judy Garland in 'For Me and My Gal'. The film was a hit and Selznick subsequently sold the actor and his contract to MGM.

A series of mediocre roles followed and it was not until Kelly was loaned out to Columbia for 1944s 'Cover Girl', with Rita Hayworth, that he became firmly established as a star. His landmark alter ego sequence, in which he partnered with himself, brought film dance to a new level of special effects. With Stanley Donen as his assistant, Kelly created a sense of the psychological and integrated story telling never before seen in a Hollywood musical.

Gene Kelly and Kathryn Grayson in "Thousands Cheer" (1943) directed by George Sidney

Realizing what they had, MGM refused to ever loan him out again, ruining Kellys opportunity to star in the film versions of 'Guys and Dolls', 'Pal Joey' and even 'Sunset Boulevard'. Back with producer Arthur Freed at MGM, Kelly continued his innovative approach to material by placing himself in a cartoon environment to dance with Jerry the Mouse in 'Anchors Aweigh' (1945).

During his marriage to the actress Betsy Blair, Kelly was radicalized and the couple became well known for their liberal politics. In 1947, when the Carpenters Union went on strike and the Hollywood studios were looking for an intermediary to intervene on their behalf, Kelly was chosen much to everyone's surprise. He traveled back and forth from Culver City to union headquarters in Chicago for two months, mediating a strike that was costing the studios dearly. When a settlement was finally reached, Kelly was shocked to learn that the studios felt it was unfair and that they had been cheated by his siding with the strikers. Naively and genuinely trying to help and unaware of unstated expectations, underhanded tactics, and slush funds Kelly's efforts only resulted in further exacerbating his relationship with Louis B. Mayer.

He was, however, able to continue refining and showcasing his unique appeal with standout numbers in 'The Pirate' and 'Words and Music', among other films. Determined from the start to differentiate himself from Fred Astaire, Kelly concerned himself with incorporating less ballroom dancing and more distinctly American athleticism into his choreography.

Finally, Kelly and Stanley Donen were assigned their own film to co-direct 1949s 'On the Town'. In just five days of shooting selected sequences, they opened up the genre as no one had ever done before, creating another first a musical film shot on location. Followed by his two masterworks, 'An American in Paris', with its 17-minute ballet sequence, and 'Singin in the Rain', Kelly achieved icon status at the age of forty. In 1951, he was awarded a special Oscar for 'An American in Paris' for his “extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography.”

Tony Martin visits his wife Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly on the set of "Brigadoon" (1954) directed by Vincente Minnelli

The musical era, as well as the Freed unit at MGM, wind to a close and Kelly's last productions, including 'Brigadoon' and the ambitious 'It's Always Fair Weather', failed to appeal to either critics or the public. The latter film also brought a bitter end to his partnership with Stanley Donen. The two had made history together in their three previous films the only successful directorial collaboration in Hollywood, before or since.

But professional and personal conflict lead to the breakup, including the fact that Donen's wife, Jeanne Coyne, had fallen in love with Kelly. With Kelly's own marriage to Betsy Blair in dissolution, both couples divorced and Kelly eventually married Coyne in 1960.

In the late 1950s, the television show OMNIBUS invited Kelly to create a documentary about the relationship between dance and athletics 'Dancing: A Mans Game' is considered one of the classic treasures from televisions golden age. However, the hit Kelly so badly craved and needed as director of the film 'Hello Dolly', eluded him, unable to compete in a market that now included such movies as 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Easy Rider'.

Jeanne Coyne died of leukemia in 1973, leaving Kelly to raise their two young children alone. In his determination to be a better father than he had been to his first daughter, Kelly refused all work that would take him away from Los Angeles, including the offer to direct the film 'Cabaret' in Munich. He tried series television, guest appearances, childrens records and became a frequent advisor to younger filmmakers who were hoping to resurrect the movie musical. At his death in 1996, it was said of Kelly, he went downhill so fast you hardly saw him go.

Yet, the potency of Kellys gifts, his remarkable achievements in dance and choreography and the creativity and charisma with which he exploded in a handful of films continues to endure and to inform. Gene Kellys final filmed words are from 1994s Thats Entertainment III quoting Irving Berlin, he remarked: “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.” And, so too has Kelly himself. He was number 15 on AFIs millennium list of most popular actors and 'Singin in the Rain' has been voted the singular most popular movie musical of all time". Source:

Q: So what do you think Kelly’s appeal was?

A: You know right before I started the film, this very young woman was in my office repairing my computer and my assistant turned to her and said, “What happens when I say Gene Kelly to you?” and she instantly said, “I smile.” The guy was a movie star in the classic sense of the word — he had that X quality that you cannot define. But he actually had the talent to back up the sheer charisma. He was very frank in some of his archival interviews, his appeal really transcends and even filters down to the movie audience of today. When I was around him, he was still getting fan mail from thirteen-year old girls! Source:

"I didnt want to move or act like a rich man. I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets". –Gene Kelly