Sunday, June 12, 2005

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer

Last week PBS reran Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer, a segment of American Masters. Having missed it the first two times it aired, I was eager to see it this time. I can honestly say that I was not disappointed.

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer gives a fairly detailed summary of Kelly's career as a dancer, from his days operating the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance to the classic musicals of the Fifties and beyond. As might be expected, the documentary's strongest point is its use of archival footage. Naturally there are the clips from Kelly's classic films (the Alter Ego number from Cover Girl, his dance with Jerry the mouse from Anchors Aweigh, and, of course, "Singin' in the Rain" from the movie of the same name); however, Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer goes beyond most documentaries by giving us rare footage from his stint on Broadway in Pal Joey, a rare clip from the segment Gene did for Omnibus ("Dancing is a Man's Game"), and even home movies of Gene and his family.

Another strong point of Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer is the commentary offered by Kelly's kith and kin (ex-wife Betsy Blair, daughter Kerry Kelly, and former partner Stanley Donen), those who worked with Gene (actresses Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, and Debbie Reynolds, actor Donald O'Connor, dancer Fayard Nicholas), and various experts (choreographer Kenny Ortega, biographers Clive Hirschhorn and Stephen Silverman, critics Jeanine Basinger and Elvis Mitchel, and film historian Peter Woolen). Through thse various sources we hear about Kelly's personality, his home life, what he was like to work with, and even why he still has such great appeal to viewers today. When the commentary from various people is combined with the various film clips, we even get some insights into Kelly's creative process and the methods through which he created some of his greatest numbers.

In my humble opinion, Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer has only two shortcomings. The first is that for most Gene Kelly fans there is very little new to be learned about Kelly from this documentary. Of course, this is only a minor criticism on my part, as I expect the average viewer does not possess the labrythine knowledge of Kelly that most fans do! The second shortcoming is that Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer more or less glosses over Gene's career following It's Always Fair Weather. Given the title (it is Anatomy of a Dancer, after all), one would not expect Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer to cover Kelly's dramatic roles in such films as Majorie Morningstar or Inherit the Wind, nor would one expect references to the non-musicals he directed, such as The Cheyenne Social Club. That havng been said, I do not recall Les Girls even being mentioned, nor the fact that he directed the film adaptation of The Flower Drum Song. With regards to television, while it covers "Dancing is a Man's Game" from Omnibus, it does not mention the various TV specials Kelly did, not even the Emmy award winning Jack and the Beanstalk! For the true Gene Kelly fan, these would seem to be serious oversights.

Even given the fact that Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer does gloss over Kelly's later career, I still cannot recommend the documentary enough. It seems to me by far the best film dealing with the life of Gene Kelly, giving the viewer a detailed look at one of the true creative geniuses of 20th century film and one of the greatest dancers of all time.

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