Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Gene Kelly as Director

Today would have been Gene Kelly's 94th bithday. Most people are familiar with Kelly as a dancer, choreographer, actor, and singer, and the star of such classic films as On the Town, An American in Paris, and Singin' in the Rain. But Kelly also had a career directing movies, some of which were the very classics in which he starred.

In some ways it can be said that Kelly more or less eased himself into the director's chair. As early as Cover Girl in 1944, he was choreographing dance sequences in his movies (with regards to Cover Girl, Kelly choreographed the famous Alter Ego sequence with Stanley Donen). Starting with Anchors Aweigh, Kelly choreographed nearly every dance sequence in every movie he made. With On the Town, Kelly would not only receive credit as actor and choreographer, but would share the director's credit with Stanley Donen. Kelly and Donen had met when the former was the star of the 1940 musical comedy play Pal Joey and the latter was a member of the musical's chorus. Together they had worked on Cover Girl, Living in a Big Way, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (for which Donen had also written the story).

For their directorial debut, On the Town, Kelly and Donen would make cienmatic history. On the Town is the first feature length musical to be shot on location (what's more, that location was New York City). This was largely due to Kelly's insistence that they do so. On the Town then looked different from any musical before it. Audiences certainly took to the film--for a time it was MGM's top grossing film besides Meet Me in St. Louis.

With the success of On the Town Kelly and Donen became an important part of MGM's "Freed Unit," a team of directors, composers, writers, and actors headed by Arthur Freed. It was the Freed Unit that provided MGM with some of the greatest musicals of all time. Kelly and Donen more than did their part. Their next film together would be the legendary Singin' in the Rain. Quite simply, Singin' in the Rain is considered by many to be the greatest musical of all time. Although it won no Oscars (worse yet, it was only nominated for two--Best Music and Best Supporting Actress for Jean Hagen), Singin' in the Rain has received much acclaim since then. In both 1982 and 2002 Singin' in the Rain appeared in Sight and Sound's top ten best films of all time. In AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list, it was counted as the 10th greatest movie of all time. The United States Library of Congress has named the movie "culturally significant" and it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. It probably would not be an understatement to say it was the highlight of both Kelly and Donen's careers.

Sadly, the first project which Gene Kelly directed by himself would not be nearly as successful. Invitation to the Dance was Kelly's dream project. Essentially the movie is three stories told entirely through dance (the first, "Circus," centred on a lovelorn clown, the second "Ring around the Rosy," told of a bracelet passed from owner to owner, while the third story, Sinbad the Sailor combined animation and live action in a story featuring the hero of Arabic legend). If this wasn't revolutionary enough, there was no dialogue in the entirety of the film. Sadly, MGM executives thought the film would not make money and released it four years after it was made. This is sad, as it is one of Kelly's most interesting movies. Indeed, "Sinbad the Sailor" in particular features some of his best work.

Kelly's next stint as director would also be the last time he would work with Stanley Donen. The two once more shared the director's credit on It's Always Fair Weather. The film not only reunited Kelly with Donen, but with screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had written the classics On the Town and Singin' in the Rain. In fact, Comdem and Green had originally conceived of It's Always Fair Weather as a sequel of sorts to On the Town. That having been said, It's Always Fair Weather is a very different film from On the Town. While On the Town was happy and upbeat, It's Always Fair Weather is quite a bit more cynical . This perhaps explains why It's Always Fair Weather has never been nearly as popular as On the Town, much less Singin' in the Rain. In my humble opinion, however, it is a classic nonetheless. Indeed, it features some of the best sequences in any of Kelly's films, including a dance with trashcan lids, Cyd Charisse's dance to “Baby You Knock Me Out," and, lastly, Kelly's dance on rollerskates. It's Always Fair Weather failed at the box office and was one of the last great Hollywood musicals ever made.

By the time of It's Always Fair Weather Kelly and Donen's relationship had become strained. Not only would they never work together again, but they would not be friends either. From that point on when Kelly directed a film, it would be on his own. The Happy Road was the film Kelly directed following It's Always Fair Weather. It was a comedy in which an American boy and a French girl run away from boarding school. Kelly played the American boy's father. The film did not do spectacularly well at the box office and I rather suspect that it has been forgotten by all but the most ardent Gene Kelly fans.

Kelly's next film would be a bit better remembered. The Tunnel of Love was a romantic comedy starring Doris Day and Richard Widmark as a couple desperate to adopt a child. The film is full of the sort of miscommunication and misunderstandings that would fill Doris Day's latter work. Although I am not sure I would consider it a classic, it is a very funny film and a credit to Kelly as a director. The Tunnel of Love is historic as the first film which directed in which he himself did not star. In fact, he doesn't even have a cameo!

Kelly's next turn in the director's seat would come in 1962. Gigot was a comedy set in France during the turn of the twentieth century. The central character is Gigot, a mute janitor played by Jackie Gleason (Gleason had also conceived the story), who has the misfortune of befriending a prostitute and her daughter. Gigot is touching and funny by turns, often both at the same time. The film also features one of Gleason's best performances of his career, in a role in which he had no lines. Like The Tunnel of Love, it is also a credit to Kelly as a director.

It would be another five years before a film directed by Gene Kelly would be released. That movie was A Guide to the Married Man. a comedy in which a man (Robert Morse) gives a co-worker (Walter Matthau) lessons on how to cheat on his wife without getting caught. Arguably, A Guide to the Married Man is Kelly's best non-musical comedy. Indeed, Kelly proves once and for all that the timing he learned as a dancer and choreographer can be easily adapted to comedy. The film features plenty of one liners and some of the most outlandish humour ever seen in a movie made in the Sixties. Best of all are the performers of Matthau and Morse, who are perfect in their roles. For movie and TV buffs, the film also features tons of cameos, from Jack Benny to Sam Jaffe. Although I haven't often seen it cited as such, I would say it is indeed a classic.

Sadly, Kelly's next film would be quite a comedown from A Guide to the Married Man. In the Sixties Twentieth Century Fox attempted to follow the success of The Sound of Music with other huge musicals. They then hit upon the idea of doing a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly. Kelly, well known for his work in musicals, was signed to direct. Sadly, the end result would be a disappointment. Even Kelly's direction seems rather ordinary. But then, in his defence, the film was perhaps doomed from the start. Barbara Steisand was cast as Dolly Levi, a role for which she was not suited. What's worse, there is absolutely no screen chemistry between her and her co-stars (of course, it must be pointed out that Walter Matthau absolutely hated Streisand...). To make things even worse, even the script was poor--the plot moved at a snail's pace. Beyond being saddled with a project which gave him little to work with, I also seem to recall (although I may be mistaken) that Helllo, Dolly was made about the time when Kelly's wife (Jeanne Coyne) fell ill (she would die of leukaemia in 1973). It could then well be that his mind was not on his work.

Fortunately, Kelly's next film would be a good deal better. The Cheyenne Social Club stands as the only Western he ever directed, as well as a classic teaming of two acting greats--Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. It is also one of Kelly's better comedies. The plot revolves around a cowhand (played by Stewart) who just happens to inherit a brothel from his long lost brother. The interplay between Stewart and Fonda (who were very old friends by that time) is priceless. And the comic timing in Kelly's direction is as good as ever. I first saw this movie as a child (for all I know it may have been the first film directed by Kelly that I ever saw) and I have never tired of it since.

Sadly, The Cheyenne Social Club would be the last entire film Kelly would direct. He did direct the new sequences of That's Entertainment II, but for all extents and purposes The Cheyenne Social Club would be the last film he directed. I do find this sad to a large degree. The conventional wisdom has always been that in the team of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, it was Donen who had the bulk of the directorial talent. And, given Donen's career (without Kelly he directed Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Charade, among other films) it is hard to argue that line of thought. But it can not be said that Kelly was not a talented director in his own right. While The Happy Road and Hello, Dolly may have misfired, Kelly directed several other movies on his own that hold up quite well. Indeed, I would say that Invitation to the Dance, A Guide to the Married Man, and The Cheyenne Social Club could be counted as classics. Although he is best known as a dancer, choreographer, singer, and actor, Kelly then deserves his fair share of credit as a director as well.

1 comment:

Jody said...

Gene Kelly is one of my all-time favorite Hollywood professionals. The man was dedicated to his work and he took nothing for granted. I admit I haven't seen a lot of his work as a director, but I love all of his on-screen stuff!