Monday, August 23, 2004

Gene Kelly's Birthday

It was on this date that Gene Kelly was born in 1912. It seems to me that the general consensus is that he was the greatest male dancer besides Fred Astaire. My own thought is that Astaire and Kelly share the title; given the differences in their styles, it is hard for me to determine who was actually better. At any rate, I have been a Gene Kelly fan for a long time.

I have no idea where I first saw Gene Kelly, but I suspect it was on the hour long TV special Jack and the Beanstalk which first aired on February 26, 1967. Kelly directed the special and also played the role of the peddler (the guy who sold Jack the beans). I saw it when it first aired and again when it was rerun on a local station. At the time I had no idea who Kelly was and I really don't remember that much about his role in the special. At that age I was more impressed with the animated characters it featured. Indeed, it was the first special to mix live action and animation (courtesy of Hanna-Barbera).

I have no idea what was the first Gene Kelly movie I saw, but I suspect it was Singin' in the Rain. In the days before weekend television was overwhelmed by sports, the local TV stations would show old movies. I got to see everything from the old Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone to El Cid to several movie musicals. Of course, among those musicals were those of Gene Kelly. Kelly was also a director as well as an actor and dancer. He not only directed musicals, but films in other genres as well. Among my favourite movies from childhood is the Western The Cheyenne Social Club, which Kelly directed.

I suppose the question remains as to why a heterosexual male would be a fan of both Hollywood musicals and Gene Kelly. Well, before anything else, I should point out that stereotypes should not be confused with the truth. Not all Irishmen drink. Not all Italians are mafiosi. And not all straight guys hate musicals. Besides which, speaking as a heterosexual male, I can see many things about Hollywood musicals in general and Kelly's musicals in specific that would appeal to most straight men.

First, most Hollywood musicals feature at least one beautiful woman (usually more) and often they are very scantily clad. Indeed, I suspect if the average guy got one look at Cyd Charisse in Singin' in the Rain, he would forget all about his dislike for musicals...

Second, many Hollywood musicals have a strong sense of conflict. This is particularly true of Kelly's movies. Often the conflict is over a woman. In Cover Girl Danny McGuire (Kelly's character) finds he has a rival for Rusty (Rita Hayworth's character) in the form of Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman), a big time Broadway producer. Other times the conflict may be over something else entirely. In Singin' in the Rain the conflict is between Hollywood star Donald Lockwood and his co-star Lina (Jean Hagen). Essentially, Donald wants to save his own career, save Mammoth Studios, and help his lady love and Hollywood newcomer Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) in her career. This conflicts with Lina's goals, which are essentially to help herself. To me, then, Hollywood musicals offer the same thrills that a good football game or a good action movie do--a conflict and the resulting competition between two or more individuals.

Third, with regards to Gene Kelly, the characters he played were ones with whom the average guy can identify. His characters all come off as average Joes, the sort of fellow you might meet in the local pub or at the racetrack. Even Don Lockwood of Singin' in the Rain, a famous actor and big time matinee idol, is pretty much an ordinary guy. Gene's characters are then fellows an ordinary guy can identify with and root for.

Fourth, most Hollywood musicals and certanly most of Kelly's musicals work as comedies. In fact, Singin' in the Rain is absolutely hilarious. Even if a guy doesn't care much for dancing and singing, he can still appreciate the humour.

Fifth, the Hollywood musicals generally have fairly good music. In fact, many of today's standards came from these musicals. Such composers as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter did a good deal of work in Hollywood. If a guy enjoys good music, then he will enjoy Hollywood musicals.

At any rate, I have always thought that Gene Kelly's musicals were among the best Hollywood ever produced. In addition to the sheer talent of Kelly and his co-stars (Cyd Charisse was the equal of both Kelly and Astaire), the movies usually had strong plots and good characterisation. This lifted them above the standard Hollywood musical fare. Indeed, as great a dancer as Astaire was, only a few of his musicals matched Kelly's movies for sheer quality. I seriously doubt that they will ever be matched again.

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