In the middle of the 1943 film musical Thousands Cheer—a clunky wartime rouser, certainly one of the lesser-known of the 23 Gene Kelly films recently shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center—there is a number in which you can observe the Kelly persona and style taking shape.
Playing Eddie Marsh, a cocky, rule-breaking soldier who comes from a celebrated troupe of circus acrobats, Kelly expresses his restlessness, romantic yearnings and all-American sense of playful fun in under three minutes. Mopping the floor as the soldiers prepare for a huge morale-boosting show at their base, he begins by caressing a mop, turning it into the girl of his dreams who floats back in his arms. Tossing it away, he uses a broom as a mock-rifle, tapping merrily on a bandstand while holding it with proper military form on his shoulder, then using it to “fire” at a poster of the enemy while his foot deftly rat-a-tat-tats the sounds of bullets firing.
Kelly then really goes to town, dancing around, and over, a bar, creating rhythms with objects behind the bar, launching himself onto the bar and then over furniture. A sense of mischievous joy pervades the dance, and one can see Kelly, 31 and only in his second year in Hollywood, trying out moves that would later emerge with enduring impact in his most celebrated numbers in films such as On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Already evident is how effortlessly Kelly—an all-American guy here sporting a white t-shirt, bell-bottom jeans, white socks, which became a trademark of his in many films, and black shoes—incorporates his ballet training (those smooth, graceful pirouettes!) with Broadway-style hoofing and precise, inventive tap dancing. He blends everything together seamlessly and makes it all look wonderfully spontaneous. He’s just a carefree, regular guy, cutting loose.
One can’t help wondering whether a young Jerome Robbins might have seen and been inspired by that number a year later, when he had one of the sailors in his landmark ballet Fancy Free use the bar for rhythmic expression.
This was the first time Kelly created his own choreography in a film, although he already had several Broadway choreographic credits before he decamped for Hollywood in 1941. Much as he is known and beloved as a dancer, often mentioned in the same breath as Fred Astaire as the pinnacle of dance talent in films, he is less immediately remembered as a choreographer and director, though he served in those capacities on many of his films.
As his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, recalled during her eloquent, informative and entertaining July 21 talk during the Film Society’s series, he took primary pride in his choreographic innovations and mainly wanted to be known for his creative contributions to film.
Gene Kelly would have turned 100 on Aug. 23, which was the occasion for the Film Society’s series and presentations by his wife on both coasts. If you missed seeing the films in all their glory on the Walter Reade Theater screen, there is the consolation that they are readily available on DVD and remain amazingly fresh and illuminating.
Kelly’s dancing is recognized as being distinctly “American”—he’s the guy next door, playing characters who inhabit low-rent nightclubs or vaudeville houses rather than swanky, high-life settings. He’s convincing as a soldier, (especially, and more than once) a sailor or a baseball player. His look is casual—jeans, sport shirts, loafers—and whenever he dances, his ballet training is put to understated use and sometimes even mocked.
His best-known set pieces, which only look better and inspire increased amazement with repeated viewings, are marked by joie-de-vivre. They often take place out on the street, where Kelly’s characters are far more at home than in any grand ballroom. In Cover Girl (1944), he, Phil Silvers and Rita Hayworth cavort happily on a street set in a merry trio that prefigures “Good Morning” in Singin’ in the Rain. Later in the film, Kelly is again on the street in a far more serious mode, expressing his doubts and inner arguments in the brilliantly conceived and executed “alter ego dance,” a major innovation for its time and one that took weeks to conceive and plan.
Then there is his iconic number on roller skates (“I Like Myself”) from It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), in which Kelly’s elegant placement, grace and ease are awe-inspiring, and the immortal Singin’ in the Rain title number.
Watching that number again, one can only marvel at the sheer invention and the carefree freedom with which Kelly performs something that must have taken a tremendous amount of detailed planning. But you don’t notice the carefully plotted camera angles or the evolving street scene or wonder whether (and how often) he changed into drier clothes in the course of filming it. The number just carries you along; it is sheer perfection.
As he often did, Kelly works in everyday characters and situations—the police officer eyeing him skeptically and the lucky passerby to whom Kelly hands off his umbrella at the very end. Even though I knew that moment was coming, it moved me once again. That was an important facet of Kelly that is expressed in all his dance numbers and performances: his humanity.
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