WEIRDLAND: Gene Kelly expanding the ballet frames

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gene Kelly expanding the ballet frames

"On The Town" (1949) directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly: Gabey (Gene Kelly) falls for Ivy "Miss Turnstiles of the Month" Smith (Vera-Ellen) thinking she is some sophisticated celebrity, but she's actually a kootch dancer in Coney Island.

"On the Town", was based on the Broadway musical "On the Town", adapted from "Fancy Free", a Jerome Robbins ballet. The original sailors in the ballet were innocent gobs. According to screenwriter Adolph Green: "With Gene as the leading character and the star of the picture, the angle of the story had to be changed. He couldn't be a helpless, naive type. The whole structure of the story had to be changed to suit the people who were going to play the characters."

Kelly's character, Gabey, was thus changed from a passive character to a cad prototype. For a still camera, Kelly felt that "a dancer rushing from a fair distance away can create some sort of kinaesthetic effect." Both Clive Hirschhorn in his biography of Kelly and Barry Day noted that panning shots used by Kelly often made use of vertical props (such as the lamppost in "Singin' in the Rain" and the ladder in "You Were Meant for Me"), to create more depth. According to Day, Kelly's answer to the question of the best way to photograph dance was to create an artificial depth of field.

The "Miss Turnstiles Ballet" does not occur in the diegetic world of the film, but takes place in Gabey's imagination. With a few vertical props strategically positioned, the camera can wander at will. Instead of revealing everything at once, it provides a series of surprising frames within frames. Suddenly the dancer had depth on screen, thanks to Gene Kelly's efforts behind the camera.

In the scene with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) in "Singin' in the Rain", recording Jean Hagen's nasal dialogue in the film-within-a-film: "Our love will last 'til the stars turn cold", Reynolds' voice was not used either. According to Stanley Donen: "We used Jean Hagen (Lina Lamont) dubbing Debbie dubbing Jean. Jean's voice is quite remarkable, and it was supposed to be cultured speech and Debbie had that terrible Western noise..."

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden and Don Lockwood in the "You're My Lucky Star" musical scene:
"You are my lucky star, I was starstruck, You're all my lucky charm, I'm lucky in your arms, You've opened Heaven's portal, Here on earth for this poor mortal."

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron on the set of "An American in Paris" (1951) directed by Vincente Minnelli

In both their introductory numbers and the subsequent ballets, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) had been presented as very nearly the "complete woman" for Gene Kelly's characters Gabey and Jerry.

Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly during the ballet scene in "Broadway Rhythm Ballet" ("Singin' in the Rain")

Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) represented the "complete woman" only as a platonic conception, because her dance introduction happened in the film diegesis and because Reynolds was a more limited dancer, so in "Singin' in the Rain" the ballet scene expanded the definition of ideal woman with the introduction of Cyd Charisse's minx character, who countered with sensuality and sexual perversity Reynold's sweet effervescence.

From the entrance of Cyd Charisse, with Kelly's character's hat dangling on the tip of her shoe, to the camera's ogling of her famous long legs, it is clear that the dimensions of ideal woman in the film are being expanded from Reynold's innocence to Charisse's aggressive sexuality.

The presence of Charisse's character also helps to expand Kelly's persona in the film. Debbie Reynolds' had brought out his tenderness, but Cyd Charisse brought out conspicuously the sexual fire in his personality.

Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly on the set of "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955) directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly

A song was written for Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in "It's Always Fair Weather" by Andre Previn & Comden and Green, but never made it into the film. It was entitled "Love is Nothing But a Racket," and was intended to be a slow, romantic duet.

Kelly has been described during the making of the film as an "overworked, jagged-in-the-nerves executive." Donen was even more caustic: "I didn't really want to co-direct another picture with Kelly at that point. We didn't get on very well and, for that matter, Gene didn't get on well with anybody. It was the only picture during which the atmosphere was really horrendous. We had to struggle from beginning to end. I can only say it was an absolute one hundred per cent nightmare."

While the status of the relationship of Kelly and Donen would certainly dissolve after the completion of "It's Always Fair Weather", the film and its contradictions are rooted in a changing America during that time, and specifically in changes that were a part of Kelly's persona.

Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) directed by George Sidney

The role of America in the world, especially in regard to its interventionism in such countries as South Korea, began to be questioned. The confidence of the country after World War Two gradually gave way to the "Age of Anxiety," the fifties. The dynamics of typically paternalist male/female relationships began to be questioned as well.

Gene Kelly, more than most performers, was a reflection of 40's confidence in America. He had begun his Hollywood career in 1942 starring in "For Me and My Gal" alongside Judy Garland, thereafter playing a variety of war-time roles ("Pilot No. 5", "Thousands Cheer", "The Cross of Lorraine", "The Devil Makes Three"). Some of his greatest successes were in films where he had played US Navy servicemen, such as "Anchors Aweigh" and "On the Town".

It is easy to link the influence of dance in his films with the confidence of America in itself. As that confidence progressively waned, so did the influence of musicals, leaving Kelly to create song-and-dance films without that characteristical confidence and idealistic joy that had infused them before.

Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair (married 22 September 1941 - divorced 3 April 1957)

Also the intrusion of the increasing trend to marginalize dance in Gene Kelly's posterior films occurred at the same time his marriage with Betsy Blair broke up. -The Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen Trilogy: Singin' and Dancin' in the Narrative and Film Structure (1984) by Mark DuPre 

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