It was 100 years ago today, on 23 August 2012, that Gene Kelly was born. Alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers he is perhaps the most famous dancer of all time. Today, 60 years after he first appeared on film, Gene Kelly is still a household name. Most of his films are still shown on television and many are available on DVD. His films Singin' in the Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951) are often counted among the greatest movie musicals of all time. In fact, Singin' in the Rain is considered by many to be the greatest film musical of all time, period.
There can be no doubt that Gene Kelly's continued popularity is due to a number of factors. Chief of these may be summed up in a quote from Mr. Kelly years and years ago, "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando." Of course, the quote points to the fact that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have been compared to each other from the beginning, something that I think may be a bit unfair. Both were great dancers and both were very different in their styles. That having been said, the quote points not only to a significant difference Mr. Kelly had from Mr. Astaire, but also one of the chief reasons for his appeal. The image that comes to most people of Fred Astaire is that of a man in a top hat and tails with a cane. It is also the image one gets of many male dancers before Gene Kelly. It is an image that brings to mind not simply sophistication and savoir faire, but to a degree that of the upper classes of the early 20th Century.
When most people picture Gene Kelly, I imagine they do not picture him in a top hat and tails. In fact, the image in their mind of Mr. Kelly is likely to vary. They might picture him in the sailor uniform he wore in Anchors Aweigh (1945) or On the Town (1949) or they might picture him in the polo shirt he wore in An American Paris or even one of the suits he wore in Singin' in the Rain, but in almost every case it is a fashion that the common man might have worn in the mid-20th Century. The image of Gene Kelly is then much more middle class or working class than Fred Astaire or other male dancers of the time. Indeed, while many of the characters Mr. Kelly played in his career were in occupations that might not be that of the average man (a club owner in Cover Girl, a baseball player in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, an artist in An American in Paris, an actor in Singin' in the Rain, et. al.), most of them had working class or middle class backgrounds. This made it easier for the average man on the street to identify with Gene Kelly's characters. Many men may have found it easier to identify with Gene Kelly as a sailor or Gene Kelly as a struggling artist with a working class than Fred Astaire as a dance in top hat and tails. In this respect Gene Kelly's famous quote may be inaccurate. Gene Kelly wasn't the Marlon Brando of dance, but the Jimmy Stewart of dance. He was dance's version of Everyman.
In keeping with playing Everymen, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen were responsible for removing musical numbers from the sound stage and putting them into real life locations. Portions of On the Town were filmed on real life New York locations, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Rockefeller Centre. Even when Gene Kelly's films were not shot on location (which was most of them), dance numbers were often set in ordinary places: the famous "Singin' in the Rain' sequence from the film of the same name on an ordinary city street; the "Tra-la-la (This Time It's Really Love)" sequence from An American in Paris in a Paris flat; the "I Like Myself" sequence in a roller rink from It's Always Fair Weather; and so on. Not only were the musical sequences in Mr. Kelly's films an integral part of the film, but they were usually set in common, everyday places. This would further make Gene Kelly's characters Everymen with whom the average person could identify.
While Gene Kelly generally played average men and his routines were often set in common, every day places, his dancing style was both athletic and energetic. He not only incorporated ballet into his routine and the tap dancing generally expected of screen dancers, but he also incorporated leaps, flips, and other acrobatics. He even danced on roller skates in It's Always Fair Weather. That Gene Kelly's style of dance would be particularly athletic should be no surprise given his background. Growing up in Pittsburgh he played hockey and baseball. At age 15 he played for a semi-professional ice hockey team and at one time he had aspirations to play professional baseball. Regardless, it is quite possible that Gene Kelly's more athletic style of dance may have appealed more to the average man of the mid-20th Century than other styles of dance.
While Gene Kelly may have been a dancer with whom the average man may have more identified, he also had an appeal for women that went beyond his Everyman characters and his athletic style of dance. Quite simply, Gene Kelly was a very handsome man. In fact, I think it can be said that if Mr. Kelly had not been a talented dancer, then he might have had a career in movies a leading man. Arguably, Gene Kelly was as handsome as many of the romantic leads of the era, including Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, and Clark Gable.
Of course, while Gene Kelly was a great dancer and good looking, one must not overlook the fact that he was a very good actor. He not only had perfect timing as a dancer, but as a comic actor as well. He could tell a joke or perform a comic routine as well as many professional comedians could Many of his best films, from Anchors Aweigh to Singin' in the Rain, hold up well today because they not only function as musicals, but as comedies as well. Indeed, any doubt about Gene Kelly's abilities as a comic actor can be erased by merely watching him in the movie What a Way to Go! (1964), in which he plays one of the funniest characters in the film, comic Pinky Benson. Mr. Kelly also did well in dramas. He gave a very good performance in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), as well as Inherit the Wind (1960--some people think he is miscast, but I disagree). In the end it can be said that Gene Kelly was quadruple threat--someone could act, sing, dance, and direct.
Sadly, except for some of the films in which he himself starred, Gene Kelly's career as a director probably has not played much of a role in his continued popularity. This is sad, as he was a very good director. With Stanley Donen he directed On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and It's Always Fair Weather, but he directed many fine movies on his own. Among the films Mr. Kelly directed were Invitation to the Dance (1957), Gigot (1962), A Guide for the Married Man (1967) , and The Cheyenne Social Club (1970).
Gene Kelly died in 1996 at the age of 83, but in the sixteen years since his death he shows no signs of being forgotten. If you ask the average person to name a dancer from the movies, chances are they will either answer Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, or Ginger Rogers. His movies are still shown on television somewhat frequently and most of them are available on DVD. Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris are even shown in theatres from time to time. If Gene Kelly is still popular, it is perhaps because he was a dancer and actor who could appeal to almost everyone, an Everyman with an athletic style of dance who performed on screen in everyday places. Ultimately, Gene Kelly made the movie musical even more accessible than it already was, and for that he continues to be popular.