Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh on Aug. 23, 1912. As a boy he showed great skill in sports, especially baseball. But his mother had other ideas. Drawn to show business, she trained her five children to perform as a vaudeville song and dance group billed as The Five Kelly’s. By the time he was in his mid-teens, Gene had emerged as the supreme dance talent. When he was 20 and still a student at the University of Pittsburgh, the family took over a failing dance school and renamed it the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance. The Depression hit them hard and Gene was forced to work at all manner of jobs to make ends meet.
In 1938, at the age of 26, he headed for New York City to audition for Broadway productions. He landed several small roles before his big breakthrough role of Harry the Hoofer in “The Time of Your Life,” a production that earned the Drama Critics Award for 1939. This success led to a starring role as Joey Evans in “Pal Joey.” The 1940 show ran for 270 performances and garnered for Kelly the attention of the movie industry. He soon signed with MGM and moved to Hollywood.
Kelly’s first film was a box office hit. “For Me and My Gal,” in which he starred with Judy Garland, allowed him to showcase his prodigious dancing talent before a national audience. Before long Kelly was being likened to the legendary Fred Astaire, a comparison that both flattered him, but also made him determined to develop his own unique style. Consequently, unlike Astaire’s penchant for ballroom grace, Kelly would emphasize athleticism in his dance.
After appearances in several unremarkable films, Kelly returned to the limelight in the 1944 hit “Cover Girl,” co-starring with Rita Hayworth. The film represented Kelly’s debut as a choreographer and featured his famous “alter ego” number where he danced with himself. Later that same year Kelly again made cinematic history when he paired himself with the cartoon character Jerry the Mouse in a memorable dance routine in “Anchors Aweigh.” The performance earned him a Best Actor nomination.
After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Kelly returned to Hollywood and made several musicals that failed to catch. But in 1949 MGM gave Kelly and longtime collaborator Stanley Donen the chance to direct their own film. “On the Town” proved hugely successful and led to two more Kelly classics. “An American in Paris” opened in 1951 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Kelly received a special Oscar for his “extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director, and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography on film.”
One year later in 1952, Kelly performed in his last masterpiece, “Singin’ in the Rain.” The storyline is set in the late-1920s, when Hollywood was transitioning from silent movies to “talkies.” Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent movie star famous for his romantic films made with one Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). The duo is thrown for a loop when the producers of their latest film decide to turn it not only into a talkie, but a musical to boot. Lockwood makes the transition with no trouble, but Lamont turns out to be a disaster. When the studio brings in Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) to dub over Lamont’s voice, Lockwood falls madly in love with her. The problem is, Lamont thinks he loves her. Only some quick thinking (and amazing dancing) by Lockwood and his sidekick, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), manage to solve the dilemma. The signature moment in the film, of course, is Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” dance routine. Music critic Will Friedwald described it best: “It’s not only the four most rapturous minutes in the history of cinema, but everything that dance should be — a glorious affirmation of everything that it means to be alive.”
Kelly’s career went into steep decline soon after “Singin’ in the Rain,” not for lack of talent or desire on his part, but because Americans were growing tired of musical films. Kelly was only 40 years old in 1952, but none of his subsequent films achieved any popular or critical acclaim.
Gene Kelly’s reputation, if not his career, experienced a revival of sorts in the 1970s through popular retrospectives like “That’s Entertainment” and “That’s Entertainment II.” In 1982, the 60-year-old actor and dancer was honored at the Kennedy Center and in 1985 he received the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award. In 1998, “Singin’ in the Rain” was ranked No. 10 in the AFI’s all-time top 100 films list.
Kelly died in 1996 at the age of 84. More than one obituary emphasized his enduring legacy by citing the last lines Kelly spoke on film, a quote from Irving Berlin: “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
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