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GENE KELLY, 1912-1996: WHITE SOCKS AND LOAFERS

5 minute read
Richard Schickel

IF FRED ASTAIRE WAS white tie and tails, Gene Kelly was white socks and loafers–often enough with his cuffs casually rolled up so we could better appreciate the flash of his footwork. If the sinuous elegance of his great (and friendly) rival shone most brilliantly on the polished surface of a ballroom floor, Kelly’s robust athleticism seemed to rise most exuberantly from a gritty city sidewalk. Astaire put us in touch with our romantic ideals and with that perfection of manner the rest of us attain only in our more blissful daydreams. At his best, Kelly reminded us that, in reality, we are obliged to improvise our happiness with such rough materials as fall to hand.

One of his most memorable partnerships was with his shadow self (in Cover Girl), another was with a cartoon mouse (in Anchors Aweigh). He danced on roller skates and garbage-can lids (It’s Always Fair Weather). And then, of course, there was that umbrella, that downpour, that bepuddled street and that befuddled cop, out of which he and Stanley Donen, his creative partner in all these enterprises, created Singin’ in the Rain’s signature sequence–and one of the movies’ most privileged moments.

There is no Ginger Rogers linked immortally to Kelly’s name, and that’s no accident. For he was a solipsist who did not share the screen easily with anyone. Suspiciously good at playing hammy, self-serving show folks–see his hoofing heel in For Me and My Gal, his grandiloquent strolling player in The Pirate, and remember that the guy with the umbrella was a movie star not entirely displeased with the figure he was cutting–he occasionally made you wonder: Is he exercising egocentricity or satirizing it?

Maybe a little of both. But sooner rather than later, “his irresistible Irish-American charm” and his “overwhelming, unstoppable energy” (Donen’s phrases) blew away your reservations. For there was always something disarming in the forthright way that Kelly, who was born in Pittsburgh, the third of five children, and worked his way up out of the chorus line to Broadway stardom with his tough, taut performance in 1940’s Pal Joey, stated his needs and his aspirations. These extended beyond the standard American desire to transcend one’s past and transform one’s limitations. For he was part of a generation that wanted to reinvent both the stage musical and the movie musical. It saw no reason why song and dance shouldn’t reflect the realities of everyday life–and at the same time illuminate our everynight dream life. On Broadway it was Rodgers and Hammerstein, abetted by Agnes de Mille, who led this movement. In Hollywood it was producer Arthur Freed’s “unit” at MGM, staffed mainly by sophisticated refugees from the East that carried the torch–and found in Kelly the dancer and choreographer who could embody their convictions.

When Kelly and Donen, co-directing for the first time, took a company to New York City in 1949 to film some of the musical numbers for On the Town–the story of three horny sailors on shore leave–on actual locations ranging from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Rockefeller Center, it was a first. When toward the end of the picture they inserted a jazzy, muscular but definitely balletic dream sequence in which Kelly mourns a (temporarily) lost love, it was an equally significant innovation. No longer did filmmakers have to invent implausible backstage stories in order to provide a plausible environment for song and dance. Or create silly never-never lands where such activities could be played as quaint native custom. Kelly’s confidence gave us the nerve to follow him anywhere he wanted to lead–down a mean, familiar street you knew he would somehow redeem with a joyous assertion of his glamour, even (a little more dubiously) into those corners of his mind where the neon sometimes buzzed a little too loudly, and, self-bedazzled, he succumbed to pretension.

When Gene Kelly died last week at 83, he left us to contemplate certain ironies. Despite his long life, he was granted only a few years in which to assert his genius as a dancer (the musical revival he championed turned out to be, for reasons far beyond his control, more of a dying fall). And for all the effort he and directors like Vincente Minnelli put into balletomanic spectaculars like the 20 minutes that conclude An American in Paris, it is the sweet simple things like I Got Rhythm–just Kelly, some cute kids, a cobblestone street on Montmartre, a catchy little Gershwin tune–that lived most affectingly in memory. But this, too, is true: we could not have had the one without the other. Together the complexity of his ambitions and the underlying innocence of his spirit constitute the inextricable weave of this dear man’s singularity.

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