WEIRDLAND: Gene Kelly: romantic leader, gender performance in musicals

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Gene Kelly: romantic leader, gender performance in musicals

Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen and Donald O'Connor in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly

“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), called by many the best musical ever made, splashes us not only with the rain falling on Gene Kelly’s dance number, but a collage of 1920s era styles in clothing, slang, and movie business. The dance numbers poke gentle fun at the speech coaches, the stunts, a montage of flappers, college boys, gossip columnists, and Hollywood parties.

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd." (1950) directed by Billy Wilder

In “Sunset Blvd.” (1950), Gloria Swanson’s own ornate, decaying Hollywood mansion also has a movie screen in her living room where she views only her own silent pictures. Swanson shows us her own youth, her own career down the tubes, the dark side of the bubbly era, and the fallout after the destruction. “Singin’ in the Rain” is as giddy as a senior class play, and “Sunset Blvd.” is an obituary.

Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in “For Me and My Gal” (1942) directed by Busby Berkely.

Like “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, made in the same year, “For Me and My Gal” (1942) combines the world of vaudeville with a world at war. The loss of innocence comes wrapped in spats over high button shoes, song and dance.

Judy Garland stars, with Gene Kelly in his first film, and George Murphy. Garland's partner is a nice fellow who gives her up to the rakish Gene Kelly so that she gets to be a vaudeville star.

Mr. Kelly is fresh as paint and full of applesauce. His character Harry Palmer seems an arrogant opportunist when he sucks up to an operatic headliner in her own railroad car.

We have the traditional vaudevillian mélange of acts, the whistle stops in small towns across the country, uncomfortable train upper berths, and the ever-constant desire to headline at New York City’s Palace Theater. It’s a rough and ready world, the chosen way of life of special people.

When Miss Garland’s kid brother is killed in battle, she leaves Kelly and the act, and their troubled romance, to go to France and perform for the troops. Kelly, who has kept himself out of the Army with a rather rash “accident”, sinks as low as he finally can in her eyes.

To redeem himself, he hops over to France as well to perform, and ends up being a hero. World War I is significant for the backdrop of a movie about vaudeville, as it was probably the first war that professional entertainers joined together in a voluntary troupe, sort of quasi-official units, to visit the troops. They also sold Liberty Bonds and raised money for Red Cross and other various charity drives. This would all be repeated on a grander scale for World War II.

At first, Gene Kelly balks at joining them, “You don’t think I’m going over there and sing a bunch of silly songs while all those guys are getting their heads shot off?” But he changes his mind, becomes a hero and finds redemption. Even if he had not become a hero, he still would have been doing his part.

Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “Perhaps wars weren’t won anymore. Maybe they went on forever. Maybe it was another Hundred Years War.” The other tragedy of World War I was, obviously, its legacy of an imperfect peace that led to World War II.

After all the song and dance, though the war was won, the generation that won it, particularly its chroniclers in prose and poetry, art and music, would forever be known as 'The Lost Generation'.

The movie gives us some newsreel footage of General Pershing and the victory parades. Judy and Gene are reunited at the end, at the Palace Theater at a servicemen’s show, both of them in uniform.

“For Me and My Gal” just ends with boy getting girl, and an audience made entirely of soldiers cheering them on, like those fellows in the poster marching past the window to some unforeseeable future.

"Classic Films and the American Conscience" essay by Jacqueline T. Lynch (2012)

"We loved each other. I was married at the time and we had no so-called affair, she was a deep friend of my wife and me, and we were very very close to her. And I loved her dearly as a friend" -Gene Kelly on Judy Garland.

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

"Gene Kelly is the only hoofer in the world who ever majored in economics" -Picturegoer magazine (1949)

Kerry Kelly Novick, Mr. Kelly's eldest daughter, spoke to Clive Hirschhorn (author of "Gene Kelly: A Biography" in 1974) about Gene Kelly's dedication and concern as a father even at the height of his career: "He wanted so desperately to be an excellent father - and he was".

“Unlike many dancers who, after a few weeks of arduous rehearsing, want to go home and commit Hara-kiri,’ Gene was always ready to come back for more. “I suppose there’s a certain masochism in it,” he said, “but in a way I like the training period, the weeks and weeks of endless rehearsing, much more than the actual shooting - like a sportsman who enjoys the warm-up more than the game. There was something about achieving a perfection during rehearsals, which I found even more exciting than committing that perfection to celluloid. And I imagined everyone I worked with felt the same.” — "Gene Kelly: A Biography" by Clive Hirschhorn

“To Gene, ‘hard work’ is a prerequisite of the job. He saw nothing unusual in working between ten and twelve hours a day, for how else could one achieve perfection? “I only wish,” he said, “that I could have started out in pictures at twenty-one and not thirty, and given myself ten more years of discovery and fun. For that’s what hard work is to me: discovery and fun.” —‘Gene Kelly: A Biography’ by Clive Hirschhorn

"In bold contrast to Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly pronounced sexual difference in terms of the primary oppositions of masculine and femenine. He focused on the erotic interplay of the male and female in the choreography, distinguished each, and then dominated with his own (often solo) masculine display -thus interrupting the flow with a show-stopping, highly theatricalized performance of gender". -"Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History" by Constance Valis Hill (2010)

Cyd Charisse: "Singin’ In The Rain" was the justification of my career as a dancer.

Cyd was always thought of as a sedate, dignified, lovely person without too much personality until Gene saw her as a sultry, tempestuous siren type and worked with her in “Singin’ In The Rain.” Few can ever forget that torchy, sexy dance she did with Gene in that picture. The dance quickly catapulted her into the front ranks. People began wondering where she’d been all their lives. -Silver Screen magazine (June 1954)

"I don't think steps in dance routines should be the same for both boys and girls... There's something missing from a dance when its moves are interchangeable" -Gene Kelly

"The one area in which Gene Kelly was superior to all other male dancers in the movies was as a romantic lead. The women in the audience might fantasize about dressing up and going out to a cosmopolitan supper club escorted by Fred Astaire and spending the evening dancing and dining with him, but they hoped that Gene Kelly was around to take them home". -Vaudeville Old And New (2006) by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly.

-You're just too charming! You're just too great! You're just too faultless! You're just too first-rate! To win you, dear heart, is all I wish! Well, thank you Casanova 'Cause you're just my dish! You're just too luscious, Too very, very sweet! You're just too sexy! When you turn on the heat! You're just too brilliant! You're just too bright! You're just too perfect! You're just too top-flight! Of all fair damsels 'tis thee I toast! Well, thank you, Barry Nichols, 'cause you're just the most, You're just too darling! Too very, very, very nice! You're just too dreamy! You're super-paradise! So it's no wonder I love you as I do, For I've got to say in ev'ry way You're just too, too! -"You're Just Too Too!" (Lyrics by Cole Porter) Performed by Gene Kelly and Kay Kendall

Gene Kelly as Barry Nichols and Kay Kendall as Sybil Wren in "Les Girls" (1957) directed by George Cukor

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