Gene Kelly is best known as a dancer and the star of classic musicals. When most people think of his non-musical parts, it seems to me that they think of his comedy roles, such as Pinky Benson in What a Way to Go and Mike Andrews in The Happy Road. But Kelly was more than a dancer and a comic actor. He did have his fair share of dramatic parts.
Sadly, his earliest dramatic roles were hardly impressive. It seemed that MGM was reluctant to cast Kelly in any non-musical part that might display the full range of his acting talent (which, in my humble opinion, has always been underrated). His first dramatic part in a film was as pilot Vito S. Alessandro in Pilot #5 in 1943. Pilot #5 is hardly a bad film. Indeed, it is entertaining; however, it is also a rather obvious piece of World War II propaganda. Perhaps because of this most of the characters come off more as caricatures than real people, including Kelly's Alessandro.
Released the same year was The Cross of Lorraine, another war film. This time he played Victor La Biche, one of the soldiers held prisoner by the Nazis. Like Pilot #5, The Cross of Lorraine is entertaining. Also like Pilot #5, The Cross of Lorraine is a World War II propaganda film. Again, its characters tend to be caricatures. That having been said, Kelly does breath a bit of life into La Biche, although he admittedly had little to work with.
Kelly's next dramatic role cast him against type. He played Robert Monette in Christmas Holiday, very loosely based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name. Monette is one of the few unsympathetic roles Kelly would play in his career. Monette is jealous, sociopathic, and ultimately murderous. Among other things, having escaped from jail, he threatens to kill his wife (Deanna Durbin in one of her earliest adult roles) and even holds a reporter hostage. There are even hints that Monette is homosexual! A far cry from Kelly's other roles, I think he is largely convincing in the role. If there was any doubt that Kelly could act before Christmas Holiday, there should have been no doubt that he could afterwards.
If Kelly was cast against type as Monette, he arguably suited to play D'Artagnan in the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers. Of course, it is debatable whether any version of The Three Musketeers can be considered drama, given the comedic content of most of the films. This version is no different. In fact, it may well be the strangest version of the novel ever made. Much of this is due to the rather strange casting--June Allyson as Constance, Gig Young as Porthos, and so on. That having been said, Kelly does very well as D'Artagnan. He gets a chance to show off his acrobatic skills and does very well in the swordfights. He is also convincing as a country bumpkin who becomes one of the greatest swordsmen in all of France.
Of course, if Kelly was born to play D'Artagnan, I think it can be said that he was not born to play Johnny Columbo, his character in The Black Hand. The movie centres on Columbo, an Italian-American seeking revenge against the Black Hand, the criminal organisation that murdered his father. The problem is that Kelly, Irish in descent, is hardly convincing as the son of an Italian immigrant. Indeed, Columbo sounds more like his immediate ancestors came from Pennsylvania than Italy. In Kelly's defence, I suppose it must be pointed out that dialects and languages are very hard to do, and not every actor has a gift for them. While I do think Kelly has largely been underestimated as an actor, I do think he had his limitations.
Gene was better utilised in The Devil Makes Three. In this film he plays Captain Jeff Elliot, an American military man in post war Germany who seeks to thank the German family that hid him during World War II. While the role of Elliot isn't terribly demanding (I don't think Kelly ever had any problems being charming...) , I think Kelly does a good job with it.
Seagulls Over Sorrento (also known as Crest of the Wave) once more found Kelly in the military. In this film he played Lt. Bradville, one of a group of Naval officers investigating why an experimental torpedo blew up too soon. The film is very deliberately paced. It is also very character driven. The focus in Seagulls Over Sorrento on the personalities involved in the investigation. Kelly is very convincing in a role that it is much more laid back than his usual, very active roles (Bradville is not D'Artgnan by a long stretch).
Kelly would also do well in Marjorie Morningstar, a soap opera based on Herman Wouk's novel of the same name. Kelly played Noel Airman, an underachieving but charming performer who becomes the love of Marjorie's life. In many ways, Airman was not too different from many of the other roles Kelly played in his career (Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain, Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris and so on). Unfortunately, the movie is largely undermined by Natalie Wood's performance as Marjorie Morningstern (aka Morningstar). She always seemed to me to be miscast and is hardly convincing in the role.
Kelly's role as reporter E. K. Hornbeck in the film adaptation of Inherit the Wind would be the last dramatic role he would play in a film. In a way this was perhaps fitting, as I think it is one of the best performances he ever gave in a drama. There are those who claim that Kelly was miscast in the part, but I do have to disagree. Like many of Kelly's characters, Hornbeck is charming. But he is also cynical, sarcastic, a bit smug, and given to spouting aphorisms. There is little doubt that Hornbeck would actually sneer at the open romanticism of some of Kelly's more typical characters! Hornbeck was sadly a change of pace for Kelly that we would never see again.
Throughout the Sixties Kelly started acting less and less, so it is little wonder that he never again played a dramatic role (unless one counts his role in Viva Knieval, which I think hardly qualifies as drama...). I've always thought this was a shame, as I honestly believe Kelly had a real talent for acting. I rather suspect that the only reason that his acting talent has not been recognised more often is that most people tend to think of him as a song and dance man. Quite simply, Kelly's talent as a dancer and choreographer tended to overshadow everything else about him. To me this is a bit of a tragedy, as he had quite a gift for acting as well.