A Gene Kelly Retrospective

In the last few weeks, as the one hundredth anniversary of Gene Kelly’s birthday approached, I thought about how I wanted to commemorate. In looking at his screen credits, I realized that I had actually seen most of the “big name” movies that he is known for, and so I turned my attention to some lesser-known fare. What we discovered is that Mr. Kelly doesn’t seem to make a lot of particularly bad movies. Some are better than others, obviously, but what they all have in common is his signature brand of professionalism, humor, and charisma. I’ve assembled here a brief review of all of Kelly’s movies that I’ve seen to date. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them, and maybe find something new to watch! They’re ordered chronologically; I thought about doing a kind of a rating system, but honestly, the spread just wouldn’t be that wide. Consider everything in the three-to-five-star range, and you’ll have it just about right. Here we go…

For Me and My Gal (1942)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, George Murphy
Director: Busy Berkeley

In this, Kelly’s screen debut, he and Garland star as vaudevillian performers. Kelly’s character deliberately injures himself to avoid being drafted, but ultimately serves his country in heroic fashion AND gets the girl. While his trademark polish isn’t fully developed here, Kelly holds his own against big star Garland, and definitely proves himself as one to watch. For Me and My Gal is the first of three partnerships for Kelly and Garland, and in my opinion, it’s the best one.

Cover Girl (1944)
Co-stars: Rita Hayworth, Lee Bowman, Phil Silvers
Director: Charles Vidor

Danny McGuire (Kelly) and Rusty Parker (Hayworth) have a great partnership: he’s a dancer and club owner, she’s his star attraction. But, when she wins a contest and heads for fame and fortune, their relationship will be tested. Kelly and Hayworth are young and gorgeous, and have good chemistry together, plus there are some really fun musical numbers. Even this early in his career, Kelly had a great deal of creative control over this picture, best exemplified by the ground-breaking “Alter Ego” number in which he uses fancy camerawork to dance a duet with…himself. What could be better than two Gene Kellys dancing together??

Anchors Aweigh (1945)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson
Director: George Sidney

The first of three pictures together, Anchors Aweigh stars Kelly and Sinatra as two sailors on leave in Los Angeles. Our heroes, one worldly (Joe, played by Kelly) and one naive (Clarence, Sinatra), meet and fall in love with an aspiring singer, played by Grayson. Joe offers to set her up with an audition, a promise he isn’t actually capable of keeping. Hilarity ensues, of course. Once again, great musical numbers, including Kelly’s duet with Jerry the Mouse, another innovative piece of work. Although Anchors Aweigh was hugely successful at the time and garnered Kelly his one acting nomination from the Academy, it doesn’t hold up well when compared with the far superior On the Town, which also features Kelly and Sinatra as military men loose in a big city.

The Pirate (1948)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, Walter Slezak
Director: Vincente Minelli

The Pirate is an example of what happens when you let some extremely talented people loose, and they get a little carried away. It’s the story of a young woman (Garland) obsessed with a local legend, the pirate Macoco. She’s engaged to a businessman but is looking for a little bit more excitement in life. Along comes a traveling musician (Kelly) who poses as her pirate ideal in order to win her heart. Garland has some stunning numbers, and the signature Kelly ballet sequence is incredible, but other than that, the movie’s rather ungainly and slow. Not the best example of work by Kelly, Garland, or Minelli, but worthwhile for fans of any of the three.

The Three Musketeers (1948)
Co-stars: Lana Turner, June Allyson, Vincent Price
Director: George Sidney

Kelly stars as D’Artagnan in this straightforward adaptation of Dumas’ classic novel. The cinematography is lovely and the choreography is swashbuckle-tastic. The acting runs the gamut from overly comical to downright dramatic, and Kelly’s counterparts in Musketeerdom, Van Heflin, Gig Young, and Robert Coote, acquit themselves well, as do Vincent Price and Lana Turner as villains, and June Allyson as Kelly’s love interest. The best thing about this one, though, is watching Kelly display his incredible physicality without dancing a single step.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Esther Williams
Director: Busby Berkeley

Take Me Out to the Ballgame reunites Sinatra and Kelly, this time as members of a baseball team that finds itself acquired by a woman. Their characters are somewhat similar to those in Anchors Aweigh, and the plot seems to follow similar lines as well. Take Me Out to the Ballgame has some more enjoyable musical numbers, however, most notably “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” (baseball nerds will recognize this as a reference to the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon“). The inclusion of Esther Williams, the famous “aqua musical” actress, is a little odd in a film about baseball, but Berkeley still manages to get her into a pool, so that’s an added treat, plus we get Betty Garrett hamming it up as a love interest for Sinatra.

On the Town (1949)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Betty Garrett
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

On the Town is not only the superior Kelly/Sinatra collaboration, it’s also one of the finest musicals Kelly ever made. Three sailors are on leave in New York. Their agenda is simple: to have a great time, and pick up some ladies. Betty Garrett, Vera-Ellen, and the fabulous Ann Miller fit the bill nicely, and so our heroes have themselves a fine adventure in the Big Apple. All of the musical numbers here are fabulous, and the only weak point would be Kelly’s usual third-act ballet, which in this instance has to replace four of the film’s leads (everyone except Kelly and Vera-Ellen), who had no ballet training. Famously filmed on location, On the Town marks the first product of Donen and Kelly’s collaboration, and is an absolute must-see if you’re a fan of anyone involved, or just of musicals in general.

Summer Stock (1950)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, Eddie Bracken
Director: Charles Walters

By the time Summer Stock was made, Kelly’s star was on the rise, and Garland’s was waning due to her myriad problems. This would be her last MGM musical. As a result, this enjoyable film is a little uneven, but it includes some absolute show-stoppers. Garland’s Jane is a no-nonsense girl who finds her family farm overrun by a troupe of theatricals when her flighty sister offers them the spot for their summer home. It’s up to the leader of the group, Joe (Kelly) to convince Jane to let them put on a show in her barn. Naturally, sparks fly, and eventually Jane gets into the act herself. Garland’s electrifying “Get Happy” number is here, as is Kelly’s mesmerizing “Newspaper Dance,” one of his more inventive creations. Less ambitious than The Pirate, this final pairing succeeds in its simplicity, and in the incredible talents of its two leads.

An American in Paris (1951)
Co-stars: Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant
Director: Vincente Minelli

I’m not entirely sure what to tell you about An American in Paris. It’s simply an incredible achievement. It’s beautiful, the numbers are all flawless, the songs are Gershwin, it’s Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron falling in love and dancing all over Paris, for pete’s sake. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1952, beating out heavy hitters like A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The final act is a 17 minute ballet, which may put some people off (it did me, at first), but I think it’s the finest example of Kelly’s balletic aspirations. It’s simply one of the best musicals you will ever see, and you absolutely should see it.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Co-stars: Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Though less successful than An American in Paris (at least on paper), Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered to be the best movie musical ever made, not to mention one of the greatest movies of all time. It tells the story of a movie star (Kelly) who must make the difficult transition from silent film to “talkies,” which he navigates by virtue of just happening to be quite the good singer and dancer. The titular number is an iconic scene in a film full of iconic scenes, and Kelly, in addition to co-stars O’Connor and Reynolds, appears to be at the top of his game. If you see one musical in your lifetime, please make it this one.

Brigadoon (1954)
Co-stars: Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson
Director: Vincente Minelli

I really love Brigadoon, but I can never quite shake the feeling that it ought to have been better. Tommy Albright (Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Johnson) are hunting on the moors of Scotland when they stumble upon Brigadoon, a magical village that only appears to the outside world once every 100 years. Tommy is immediately smitten with one of the resident lassies, Fiona Campbell (Charisse), despite being engaged to a New York socialite back home. Tragedy strikes, the explorers go home, and Tommy mourns his lost love. If he returns to the site, will true love overcome the spell that keeps Brigadoon hidden? Obviously, the performers here are top-notch. Kelly and Charisse are an excellent pairing, and I adore Van Johnson’s curmudgeonly Jeff. I think the big problem is that Brigadoon encountered some big budget cuts during production, and so it was filmed on a sound stage instead of on location. Minelli can do great things with color and cinematography, but here, his attempts at a dreamy, pastel palate just give the whole movie an amateurish feel. It’s not bad; not even close, but it’s not truly great, either, in my opinion. Still, a really good Gene Kelly movie would be a masterpiece for anyone else, so it’s always totally worthwhile.

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
Co-stars: Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, Cyd Charisse
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Originally conceived as a sequel to On the Town, It’s Always Fair Weather looks at what happens when three men brought together by their experiences in the Army reunite 10 years later. Ted (Kelly), Doug (Dailey), and Angie (Kidd) have gone their separate ways, and when they meet again, they find little left in common. Between a plot hatched by the CEO of Doug’s company and Ted’s trouble with some crooked fight organizers, not to mention the influence of a gorgeous businesswoman (Charisse), the boys eventually come to find out that they are more (and less) like their old selves than they realized. This is an uneven picture, notable only for a few fabulous dance scenes (the “trash can lid” scene and Kelly on roller skates). One can’t help but wish that Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra had been available to reprise their earlier roles, although Dailey and Kidd both do a fine job. Charisse is almost criminally under-used, here, although she does get a chance to flash those fabulous gams. It’s still a fun picture, but it doesn’t measure up to earlier Kelly/Donen efforts.

Les Girls (1957)
Co-stars: Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Taina Elg
Director: George Cukor

Lady Sybil Wren (Kendall) is being sued for libel. Her former co-star, Angele (Elg), disputes Sybil’s tell-all account of their experiences as part of the dance troupe Les Girls. Most of the trouble seems to center around head man Barry Nichols (Kelly) and his relationship with his trio of dancing beauties, which also includes Joy Henderson (Gaynor). The story is told in flashback sequences from three separate points of view, and it’s great fun. Kelly is charming as ever, and his three leading ladies all put in excellent performances as well. Les Girls combines the fun and shine of Kelly with the quick-paced humor of Cukor (with lyrics by Cole Porter!) to great effect. It’s a little short on big production numbers, but the “Why Am I So Gone” number is worth the price of admission for fans. Watching it, I realized something I’d never bothered to actually articulate about Kelly and his style of dancing: it’s SEXY. If you’ve watched all the usual suspects and are looking to branch out a little more, I’d highly recommend this one.

Inherit the Wind (1960)
Co-stars: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March
Director: Stanley Kramer

Inherit the Wind is based on the Scopes trial of the 1920s, in which a high school science teacher is brought to trial for teaching the theories of Darwin in the classroom. Spencer Tracy and Frederic March play opposing lawyers who are arguing for science (Tracy) and religion (March). Gene Kelly plays E.K. Hornbeck, a sharp-tongued and cynical reporter. This was my first non-musical look at Mr. Kelly, and I have to admit that I was worried about whether or not he would hold up well without any fancy footwork. I shouldn’t have. He’s enjoyably sly here, providing a humorous running dialogue amidst all of Tracy and March’s blustering earnestness. They are both on fire, by the way, and turn in magnificent performances. This is a really great dramatic piece that we found surprisingly resonant and relevant given today’s political climate.

What a Way to Go! (1964)
Co-stars: Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin
Director: J. Lee Thompson

Let’s be honest: you want to see this movie for the cast. MacLaine stars as Louisa, who finds herself a widow four times over. She has a thing for underachievers, but apparently motivates them to work themselves literally to death. Consequently, she’s filthy rich, but is really only interested in getting rid of her wealth. Who does she marry? Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, and Gene Kelly. For a start. This is a totally zany and fun little movie. As she recounts each relationship, Louisa envisions them as a certain type of movie, which we see in dream sequences. Obviously, the relationship with Kelly is a musical number. He starts out as sad-sack entertainer, but under Louisa’s influence, reaches greater heights. Watching Gene Kelly be a “bad” singer/dancer/performer is a singular experience. The cliche about how one needs to be really good to be convincingly bad holds true here. What a Way to Go! is a lot of fun, mainly due to MacLaine’s brand of wide-eyed charm, and her impressive list of leading men.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Co-stars: Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac
Director: Jacques Demy

This is a weird little musical. We spent a lot of time trying to decide if it was weird because it was a “French musical,” or if it was just strange. I’m not really sure if there is a specific sub-genre that is “French musicals,” so it remains a mystery. Anyway. Twin sisters Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Dorleac) are looking to break out of Rochefort and head to Paris to pursue their dreams. Delphine wants to be a dancer, and Solange wants to be a composer. Both of them are looking for their romantic ideals as well. On their last weekend at home, the arrival of a carnival which brings a couple of traveling salesman types (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) as well as some other new faces, provides a tangle of romantic knots involving not only the sisters, but their mother as well. It’s one of those movies where the right people keep missing one another by a matter of seconds and key information keeps getting left out of conversations, driving the audience crazy. There are some great musical numbers, all very sixties-ish, along with bright colors and costumes. I think that explains the “weirdness” of it: it’s trying to hearken back to the great musicals of the 40s and 50s, but it does so through a very 60s sort of lens. Plus, it’s all very stereotypically French: ennui and cigarettes, romantic ideals and the acceptance of fate. It’s in French with subtitles, which are quite often hilarious. It’s hard to say if this movie is really for everyone or not; I think it’s interesting for Kelly fans to see him opposite a new generation, as it were.

So there you have it. A veritable smorgasbord of Gene Kelly movies in case you’re looking for something to watch this weekend in celebration of his birthday. Or just because you want to watch a good movie, even. Anything strike your fancy? Anything I’m missing out on? Let me know!

3 responses to “A Gene Kelly Retrospective

  1. Gotta agree with you on Brigadoon. I really love it too, but the stage setting as opposed to on location tended to not make it as ideal.

    What a great breakdown of Kelly performances. Wonderful work

    • Thanks very much! A true labor of love…I would rewatch all of them in a heartbeat. Brigadoon might have to play sometime soon, in fact. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Gene Kelly | Banana Oil

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