Among fans of Hollywood musicals it is often said that there are two camps: Gene Kelly fans and Fred Astaire fans. I really cannot say I belong to either camp myself, as I admire both men equally. I really cannot say one was superior to the other, either as a dancer or an actor. I certainly cannot say I prefer Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire or vice versa.
In fact, when it comes to dancing, I think that comparing Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire may be like comparing The Rolling Stones and The Kinks. Just as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks are two fine rock bands with different styles, so too were Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire two dancers with two different styles of dancing. Gene's style of dance tended to be very athletic and low to the ground. Indeed, when I think of Gene Kelly dancing, I think of him as doing so without a partner. The two dance sequences from his films that come to my mind are the Alter Ego sequence from Cover Girl and the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence from Singin' in the Rain, both of which are performed by himself.
While Gene's style was very atheletic, Fred's style was more about grace and elegance. While Gene's style tended to be low to the ground, Fred's style tended to be a bit higher. And while I usually think of Gene as dancing without a partner, I always think of Fred as dancing with one. The dance sequences from Fred's movies that stand out in my mind for the most part are those in which he had a partner, whether Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, or Cyd Charisse. It seems to me that Gene was most impressive dancing solo or, at least, alongside others. Fred was at his best when he had a beautiful woman in his arms.
Not only were Gene and Fred's styles fairly different, making comparisons difficult, but their images were even different. In most of his movies, Gene appears to be strictly working class. When I think of Gene Kelly, I tend to think of him in T-shirts and khakis. I imagine in a later era he might have actually wore blue jeans. And while Fred Astaire preferred informal wear in real life, the image most people have of Fred from his movies is that of a man in top and tails. Gene Kelly once said, "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando." With respect to their dancing styles--Gene's athletic, dynamic style and Fred's graceful, elegant style--as well as their images, Gene's quote would seem to be true. Gene Kelly was definitely a working class dancer, while Fred Astaire characterised a more upper class style of dance.
Insofar as their dancing styles and images go, then, I believe that Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were two very different performers. For me, at least, this makes comparisions between the two very difficult. In some ways comparing them to the Stones and the Kinks may have been flawed. Perhaps it is better to say that it would be like comparing Led Zeppelin and Nat King Cole--Gene and Fred belong in totally different genres of dance.
Beyond their dance styles and images, I can look at their movies. While I still can't say I prefer Gene to Fred or vice versa, I can say that I prefer Gene's movies to Fred's movies. Two of the movies in which Gene starred and which he also directed are counted as the two greatest musicals of all time--Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris. At least as I see it, Fred only starred in one movie that was nearly as great as either of those two--The Band Wagon. Beyond such classics as Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, and The Band Wagon, it seems to me that Gene's movies were superior in quality for the most part to Fred's movies. Cover Girl, On the Town, and Anchors Aweigh are all better than most of Fred's films, Easter Parade, Holiday Inn, and Top Hat being notable exceptions. When it comes to the quality of their movies, then, I would say that Gene Kelly has the edge over Fred Astaire.
One point of comparison that I have not brought up yet is their respective appearances. To tell the truth, as a heterosexual male, it really doesn't matter to me what Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire look like. I have observed that among female fans of musicals, however, Gene actually has the status of being a sex symbol. Quite simply, Gene is considered a "hunk (or whatever word they're using today)." Most women I know do not find Fred Astaire incredibly sexy. As I said, this makes no difference to me, although I must admit that I find it slightly amusing. I have always joked that I would like to look like Gene, but I would want Fred's wardrobe...
Ultimately, it seems to me that I still cannot say I prefer Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire or vice versa. For me at least, their dancing styles are two different for comparison and I happen to like both of their styles equally well. I do prefer Gene's movies and I do prefer Fred's wardrobe (I always wanted to dress in top hat and tails), but when it comes down to Gene and Fred as performers, I like them both equally. I think both Gene and Fred were equally talented performers, whose influence is going to be felt for years to come in both musicals and dance. I suppose that is the only conclusion I can draw in comparing the two men.