Friday, April 8, 2005

Gene Kelly and Animation

When most people think of animated cartoons, they don't tend to think of musicals as well. Despite this, animation and musicals have a long association going back nearly to the introdcution of sound to motion pictures. Walt Disney was one of the first animators to introduce music into animated cartoons. In fact, Disney's first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a musical, as were the majority of animated features Disney Studios released from the Thirties to the Eighties.

While Disney Studios may have made the most use of music combined with animation (either full animation or animation mixed with live action), they were not the only ones. MGM did its share as well, sometimes incorporating animated segments into its musicals. MGM boasted what may have been the third biggest animation studio in the industry during the Golden Age of Hollywood (only Disney and Warner Brothers may have been bigger) and also boasted two of the industry's most talented animators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. MGM may also have been the biggest producer of musicals during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was natural then for MGM to occasionally blend the two. And, naturally, it would be their biggest musical star, Gene Kelly who would work with animated characters the most.

Kelly's first encounter with animation came with the movie Anchors Aweigh. Among the highlights of the film are Kelly's famous dance with Jerry the mouse of Tom and Jerry fame. Oddly enough, initally Mickey Mouse had been wanted for the sequence, even though MGM had more than its fair share of famous cartoon characters. Walt Disney refused permission to use Mickey, so it was Jerry who got to perform the famous dance. The sequence was created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who also happened to be the creators of Tom and Jerry, MGM's most famous characters. Seeing the sequence, even Dinsey was forced to admit that it was better than anything his studio could have done during that period. Keep in mind that Disney had been one of the first animators to combine live action and animation, going all the way back to his Alice shorts of the Twenties!

Gene Kelly would again work with William Hanna and Joseph Barbera on Invitation to the Dance, in the final (and many consider the best) sequence of the movie, entitled "Sinbad the Sailor." "Sinbad the Sailor" was much longer than the Gene and Jerry sequence from Anchors Aweigh. And while the Gene and Jerry sequence involved only one animated character, "Sinbad the Sailor" involved only one live action character--Gene. The sequence begins with Gene in a United States navy uniform in a live action Arabian market place. He finds a lamp, complete with a genie, and is then transported to an animated world based on The Arabian Nights. There he encounters a dragon, woos a princess, and fights with swordsmen. The entire sequence is devoid of dialogue and set to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. While An Invitation to the Dance was one of Gene's pet projects, it did not fare well at the box office. Indeed, while it was finished in 1953, MGM did not release it until 1957. Apparently, the studio did not know what to make of it!

MGM's animation studios would close in 1957. This would not mean that Gene Kelly and the team of Hanna and Barbera would not work together again. Hanna and Barbera opend their own studio and moved into the area of producing cartoons for television. February 26, 1967, NBC aired a special called Jack and the Beanstalk. The hour long special was directed by Gene and featured himself in the role of the peddler. It also featured a good deal of animation provided by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Jack and the Beanstalk was the first work in television history to combine both live action and animation. It was also critically well received and won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Programme.

Unfortunately, this would be the last time Kelly worked with animation. Xanadu would feature an animated sequence created by Don Bluth, but Gene was not featured in that sequence.

While Disney perhaps did the most extensive work with animation and music, arguably the work Gene Kelly did with animation was among the most memorable. Both his dance with Jerry from Anchors Aweigh and "Sinbad the Sailor" from Invitation to the Dance are counted among the classic sequences in animation history. While Jack in the Beanstalk has largely been forgotten, I would suspect a release on DVD would establish it as a classic as well. In my humble opinion, Gene Kelly, William Hanna, and Joseph Barbera took animation and musicals where they had never been before.

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