Gene Kelly was one of the biggest stars of the 1940’s and 1950’s. His musicals of the period were some of the best ever put on film. On screen, he sang and danced, but he also choreographed his routines and directed many of his films.
Soon after Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Kelly’s leading man status was essentially done. He was 40 years old. The days of the big musical were over, only a few were getting made, and even fewer featured Kelly’s kind of dancing. Kelly’s film and other choices as the 1950’s grew to a close would determine his last productive professional decade.
The rest of the 1950’s would bring professional and personal disappointment for Kelly. To take advantage of new tax legislation, Kelly moved to England, to save American taxes on what he earned. MGM was under new management and they didn’t intend to make the big, expensive films that gave Gene Kelly a big canvass to create his artistry. An American in Paris, the critically acclaimed film he made right before Singin’ in the Rain, won six Academy Awards but Kelly didn’t receive a single nomination. He was awarded a consolation prize, an honorary award by the Academy for his special contribution to film. On the home front, Kelly’s marriage was less than happy and his wife, actress Betsy Blair, was under pressure from the House Committee on Un-American Activities trying to push her to provide testimony on fellow actors.
Kelly would star in and choreograph another big musical, Brigadoon, a Broadway hit, but a disaster on film. Instead of a big, lavish production, MGM cut corners and required the film to be shot in CinemaScope, a photographic process that would magnify the problems, including the fact that most movie theaters were not set up to show the film in that format.
Kelly and Stanley Donen reunited for their third musical together, It’s Always Fair Weather, a film I’ve never heard of, and which didn’t bring the magic or success of their other films. Reviews was not positive, and Kelly and Donen never worked together again.
His next two films were lower budget affairs that he directed, one of which he didn’t appear in. Neither were memorable. His marriage also came to an end, but the silver lining was he the married his dance colleague, who had previously been married to Stanley Donen. Interesting stuff.
In the new decade, Kelly would embrace working in television, directing several projects and starring in a weekly television series. Television provided steady work and money, although it was a smaller, less fulfilling canvass for his work.
The 1960’s would also provide Kelly the opportunity to make four big-screen film projects to wind-down his directing career. Gigot was an ambitiously project with Jackie Gleason, who was at the height of his popularity. Kelly and Gleason had very different ideas about the film, which was based on a story Gleason wrote. At the end of the film Kelly refused to be involved in the post-production work and the result, he felt, was something that bore little resemblance to what he directed.
Kelly accepted an acting role in the film version of Inherit the Wind, as a reporter covering the trail who is jaded and angular in his views on the trail. It turns into an unsympathetic role by the end of the film, although viewers tend to side with his character’s hard view of the politics and hypocrisy of the trial. Kelly is very good in the role, though he clearly takes a backseat to Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.
Strange that Kelly did not follow up this role with similar dramatic roles because he was quite memorable in the film. Unfortunately, Kelly’s future film and television roles would be for the money and opportunity to work. The Love Boat, Viva Knievel! and Xanadu are forgettable and unworthy of his talent.
Kelly’s next directed film was A Guide for the Married Man, a strange pick for someone associated with squeaky-clean fare from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The film is about a married man being schooled on how to have a marital affair. It was a big budget film with many stars making cameo appearances. It is hardly great art but it made a lot of money. It tried to be hip, but is really square, which strangely makes it fun, in a campy way.
Next came one of the most challenging jobs of his career, directing the film version of Hello, Dolly! Kelly had to referee fights between Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau, plus navigate a huge, bloated film that was out of touch with the times. This was the time of Woodstock and Easy Rider. Kelly admitted his greatest regret was that he couldn’t help Streisand understand and get a deeper performance from her character. Even Kelly realized that he was more of a visual director, less experienced with dramatic subtexts and going deep into characters.
His final directed film was an interesting choice. The Cheyenne Social Club, starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda, was somewhat like A Guide for the Married Man, an adult film directed by a fairly square guy. Both films suffer from the same problem, a mature topic that the films seem embarrassed to pursue. Instead, the characters act all “gee whiz” and trip over any real opportunity to embrace the times. Modern films were exploring very mature and frank themes, both both films neutered their premises with an old-fashioned touch. That said, The Cheyenne Social Club is entertaining, offering Stewart and Fonda, longtime friends, a final chance to work together. What might have been.
In my view, Gene Kelly was more than the suave, athletic dancer gliding across the screen. Whereas Fred Astaire was the master of ballroom dancing, especially with a talented partner like Ginger Rogers, Kelly used the entire screen with both traditional and modern dance steps. He had cinematic vision and a unique way to tell a story, in song and movement. Kelly not only had incredible timing and steps, but like a gymnast, his athleticism twisted, turned and spun in ways not seen before in dance. His talent stretched beyond his own dance steps, he designed and coordinated routines for one or more partners. While he was the most talented dancer on the stage, he brought his partner to his level and the result made some of the most original dance routines ever captured on film.
I’m not a dance fan by any means. I have to be held down and tied to the chair to watch most musicals, but Gene Kelly is someone I willingly watch.
Kelly was a performer who’s genre passed out of existence while he was still a young man. He had opportunities to direct other films like West Side Story and Cabaret, but passed on both. Would he have been the right director for either film? I don’t know, each was a tremendous success with other directors. The point is that he was considered for both. The directing jobs that he did accept seemed ill-fitting to his skills and interests. I thought Kelly an odd choice for his role in Inherit the Wind, but he surprised me. If the film had been more commercially successful, Kelly might have built on that role in other films.
Sadly, at the end of his career, when he was accepting Love Boat and other roles, his early career work was finding both renewed recognition and new audiences. The That’s Entertainment film series, followed by That’s Dancing, were big hits and reinforced the skill and artistry of MGM’s golden period of musicals.
“Fred Astaire represented the aristocracy, I represented the proletariat.” – Gene Kelly