Charming, athletic, romantic and undeniably talented, the
great Gene Kelly went singin’ in the rain and danced his way into the hearts of
millions of movie goers the world over.
Born Eugene Curran Kelly on August 23, 1912, young Gene
dreamed of a career as a hockey or baseball player, but his devoted mother,
Harriet, had other ideas. Indulging her own love for the performing arts, she
encouraged her son to attend dancing school. Over the next few years, Gene
performed and taught in his hometown of Pittsburgh, but ultimately chose college
over dance, enrolling in Penn State in 1929 as a journalism major.
Later that year, the Kelly’s were hit by the Great
Depression, and Gene came to his family’s aid by participating in amateur dance
contests with his brother Fred. He later transferred to the University of
Pittsburgh to major in economics, but by that time he had developed a genuine
love for the arts and became a regular participant in school musicals. After
briefly considering law school, he gave in to the call of the stage and headed
His first break came in 1938, when he was cast in the
chorus of Cole Porter’s Leave It To Me. After that, Gene took a dramatic
turn with roles in The Time of Your Life and Pal Joey. His
outstanding performance in Pal Joey made him a Broadway sensation and
caught the attention of Hollywood. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1942 after
receiving a contract offer from David O. Selznick. Unfortunately, Selznick and
his young star didn’t see eye to eye and six months passed without Gene getting
a single role. Eventually M-G-M persuaded Selznick to let them “borrow” his
young talent. Gene was promptly cast opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My
Gal (1942). During the filming, Louis B. Mayer bought out Gene’s contract
with Selznick, thus beginning a long and productive career at M-G-M.
While continuing to cast him in films, M-G-M also allowed
their competitors to sublease Gene’s services and in 1944, Columbia cast him
opposite Rita Hayworth in the wartime musical Cover Girl. Given the
opportunity to choreograph a specialty dance number, Gene created the classic
“Alter Ego”, using special optical effects which enabled him to dance with a
superimposed image of himself.
With the success of Cover Girl, M-G-M cast Gene
alongside Fred Astaire in the Ziegfeld Follies. Although filmed in 1944,
the picture wasn’t released until 1946, by which time Gene had already starred
in the classic Anchors Aweigh (1945). Though billed third after Frank
Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson, Anchors Aweigh was clearly Gene’s showcase film,
allowing him the ability to further explore his multitude of talents. His
performance garnered him his first and only Best Actor Oscar nomination.
He continued to work steadily over the next few years,
appearing in several dramatic and musical films, including The Pirate
(1948), which once again paired him opposite Judy Garland and provided him the
opportunity to choreograph his own dance numbers. The dazzling “Pirate Ballet”
and the comic classic “Be A Clown” cemented his status as one of M-G-M’s biggest
stars and his extensive creative involvement in projects led to the next natural
In 1949, Gene made his directorial debut with On The
Town. Based on the Broadway hit, the film paired Gene with Frank Sinatra
and Jules Munshin as three sailors on 24 hour leave in New York City. Gene
campaigned hard to get the studio to film on location, but was only granted
three days. He used the brief time to film the spectacular opening number, “New
York, New York”. Released just before New Year’s Day, 1950, On The Town
broke box-office records and was an unqualified smash.
After a few performances in small films, Gene made his next
major musical statement with the immortal An American In Paris (1951).
Inspired by Gershwin’s orchestral “tone poem”, the film was chock full of
timeless music, but the unquestionable high point was the massive closing ballet
sequence, which epitomized the artistic genius that was Gene Kelly. Costing
nearly 25% of the film’s overall budget and lasting a mind boggling 17 minutes,
the sequence was a giant risk, but one that paid off handsomely for the studio.
An American In Paris won six 1951 Academy Awards including Best Picture,
and Gene was honored with a special Oscar for his contribution to the art of
choreography on film.
The only drawback to An American In Paris was that
it overshadowed the release of his next, and most beloved, film Singin’ In
The Rain (1952). Considered more formulaic than the bold An American In
Paris, it wasn’t until many years later that the film finally earned it’s
rightful place as arguably the greatest film musical ever made.
Gene continued his work in both dramatic and musical films
throughout the fifties. After completing his contractual obligations at M-G-M
in 1958, he enjoyed the ability to flex his creative muscles, directing for both
the stage and screen, making frequent television appearances and popping up in
the occasional film, most notably Stanley Kramer’s classic Inherit The Wind
In 1974, M-G-M celebrated its 50th anniversary
with the release of That’s Entertainment! Gene served as one of the
hosts and returned two years later to share co-hosting duties with Fred Astaire
for That’s Entertainment, Part 2. During the 1980’s, Gene’s status as a
film legend was cemented with several awards, including the Kennedy Center
Honors and the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award.
He returned to M-G-M one last time in 1994, to serve as the
opening and closing host of That’s Entertainment! III. Though he died
two years later, he left behind an incomparable legacy. Whether sloshing
through puddles, sliding on roller skates, or gliding through the streets of
Paris, to fans the world over, the young boy who dreamed of being a big league
hero truly made himself a shining star.
# Susan M. Kelly has been working as a freelance
writer for the last 12 years, during which time she has written everything
from press releases and brochures to newspaper articles and web text.
Watch for Susan's regular column in
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. She
currently lives and works in Dunellen, NJ and can be contacted at
Other Gene Kelly Pages:
A Tribute to Gene
Kelly Many feel he was the greatest male dancer the movies ever saw. His
impact on the musical genre was unlike any other artist's.