Today is the birthday (1912) of Eugene Curran “Gene” Kelly, legendary dancer, actor, singer, film director, producer and choreographer. He was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks, and the likeable characters that he played on screen. Kelly was a dominant force in musical films until they fell out of fashion in the late 1950s. His many innovations transformed the Hollywood musical and he is credited with almost single-handedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences. Add him to the list of screen giants who never won an academy award and who had to be given a lifetime achievement award (think Charlie Chaplin, Peter O’Toole etc) out of embarrassment.
Kelly was born in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He was the third son of James Patrick Joseph Kelly, a phonograph salesman, and his wife Harriet Catherine Curran. His father was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, to an Irish Canadian family. His maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Londonderry in Northern Ireland, and his maternal grandmother was of German ancestry. When he was eight, Kelly’s mother enrolled him and his brother James in dance classes. They both rebelled: “We didn’t like it much and were continually involved in fistfights with the neighborhood boys who called us sissies. I didn’t dance again until I was fifteen.” At one time his childhood dream was to play shortstop for the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. By the time he decided to dance, he was an accomplished sportsman and able to defend himself. He attended St. Raphael Elementary School in the Morningside neighborhood of Pittsburgh and graduated from Peabody High School at age sixteen. He entered Pennsylvania State College as a journalism major, but the 1929 crash forced him to work to help his family. He created dance routines with his younger brother Fred to earn prize money in local talent contests. They also performed in local nightclubs.
In 1931, Kelly enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to study economics and became involved in the university’s Cap and Gown Club, which staged original musical productions. After graduating in 1933, he continued to be active with the Cap and Gown Club, serving as the director from 1934 to 1938. He was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Law School.
Kelly’s family had opened a dance studio in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In 1932, they renamed it The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance. They opened a second location in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1933. Kelly served as a teacher at the studio during his undergraduate and law student years at Pitt. In 1931, he was approached by the Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh to teach dance, and to stage the annual Kermess. This venture was successful enough that they retained his services for seven years, until he left for New York.
Kelly eventually decided to pursue a career as a dance teacher and full-time entertainer, so he dropped out of law school after two months. He began to focus more and more on performing, and later claimed: “With time I became disenchanted with teaching because the ratio of girls to boys was more than ten to one, and once the girls reached sixteen the dropout rate was very high.” In 1937, having successfully managed and developed the family’s dance school business, he finally did move to New York City in search of work as a choreographer, then on to Hollywood where he was a major influence on the art of dance on film. He experimented with lighting, camera techniques and special effects in order to achieve true integration of dance with film, and was one of the first to use split screens, double images, live action with animation and is credited as the person who made the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences.
There was a clear progression in his development, from an early concentration on tap and musical comedy style to greater complexity using ballet and modern dance forms. Kelly himself refused to categorize his style: “I don’t have a name for my style of dancing. It’s certainly hybrid. I’ve borrowed from the modern dance, from the classical, and certainly from the American folk dance – tap-dancing, jitterbugging…But I have tried to develop a style which is indigenous to the environment in which I was reared.” He especially acknowledged the influence of George M. Cohan: “I have a lot of Cohan in me. It’s an Irish quality, a jaw-jutting, up-on-the-toes cockiness – which is a good quality for a male dancer to have.” He was also heavily influenced by Dancing Dotson, whom he saw perform at Loew’s Penn Theatre around 1929. He was briefly taught by Frank Harrington, an African-American tap specialist from New York. However, his main interest was in ballet, which he studied under Kotchetovsky in the early 1930s. Generally speaking, he tended to use tap and other popular dance idioms to express joy and exuberance – as in the title song from Singin’ in the Rain or “I Got Rhythm” from An American in Paris, whereas pensive or romantic feelings were more often expressed via ballet or modern dance, as in “Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon or “Our Love Is Here to Stay” from An American in Paris.
According to Jerome Delamater, Kelly’s work “seems to represent the fulfillment of dance-film integration in the 1940s and 1950s”. While Fred Astaire had revolutionized the filming of dance in the 1930s by insisting on full-figure photography of dancers while allowing only a modest degree of camera movement, Kelly freed up the camera, making greater use of space, camera movement, camera angles and editing, creating a partnership between dance movement and camera movement without sacrificing full-figure framing. Kelly’s reasoning behind this was that he felt the kinetic force of live dance often evaporated when brought to film, and he sought to partially overcome this by involving the camera in movement and giving the dancer a greater number of directions in which to move. In 1951, he summed up his vision as follows: “If the camera is to make a contribution at all to dance, this must be the focal point of its contribution; the fluid background, giving each spectator an undistorted and altogether similar view of dancer and background. To accomplish this, the camera is made fluid, moving with the dancer, so that the lens becomes the eye of the spectator, your eye”. Kelly’s athleticism gave his moves a distinctive broad, muscular quality, and this was a very deliberate choice on his part, as he explained: “There’s a strong link between sports and dancing, and my own dancing springs from my early days as an athlete. I think dancing is a man’s game . . .”
He also sought to break from the class-conscious conventions of the 1930s and early 40s, when top hat and tails or tuxedos were the norm, by dancing in casual or everyday work clothes, so as to make his dancing more relevant to the cinema-going public. As his first wife, actress and dancer Betsy Blair explained: “A sailor suit or his white socks and loafers, or the T-shirts on his muscular torso, gave everyone the feeling that he was a regular guy, and perhaps they too could express love and joy by dancing in the street or stomping through puddles…he democratized the dance in movies.” In particular, he wanted to create a completely different image from that associated with Fred Astaire, not least because he believed his physique didn’t suit such refined elegance: “I used to envy his cool aristocratic style, so intimate and contained. Fred wears top hat and tails to the Manor born — I put them on and look like a truck driver.”
Here’s a few videos of Kelly’s most iconic moments. First the title song from Singin’ in the Rain where he reputedly made sure the water was warm.
Then there’s this scene from It’s always Fair Weather where you know that if he straps on skates he’s going to start dancing:
Here he is with Tom and Jerry (mostly) in Anchors Aweigh.
And from Thousands Cheer, dancing with a mop:
I’ve often struggled with finding a recipe with posts that seemingly are as ungastronomic as they come – the elevator, the typewriter, a solar eclipse . . . but somehow I’ve always managed. Kelly the jaw-jutting, muscular Irish-American defeats me. Look at these quotes from his first and last wives. First, Betsy Blair:
Gene always eats late at night, too. Loves to eat at night. Favorite midnight snack being hot dogs and tea. He’ll drink pots of tea. And he’s mad for ice-cream, especially chocolate. The freezing unit in our icebox always contains a full supply of Schwab’s Drugstore ice-cream. Gene also loves candy. There is a steady supply of Gene’s favorite chocolate peppermints from his favorite candy store in Pittsburgh in a little cupboard in the breakfast room. The cupboard is just behind his place at the table so that he can always reach it easily. Besides hot dogs, ice cream and candy, Gene’s favorite food is steak and potatoes.
Then Patricia Ward whom he was married to from 1990 until his death in 1996.
Our first date we ate boiled hot dogs and watched the World Series. The next night we had frozen chicken pot pie. His favorite food was a fried bologna sandwich.
I despair. Drug store ice cream, candy, hot dogs, and fried bologna !!! What exactly do I do with that? The classics of so-called “American” cuisine (using the word “cuisine” loosely). About the only saving grace is chicken pot pie. My late wife was a fan of frozen chicken pot pies, and when she was on chemotherapy, and had little appetite, she would manage to eat one when nothing else worked. So, the freezer was full of them. Not to be too snobbish I will say that I’ve certainly eaten frozen pot pies and hot dogs on many occasions when I was too busy to get out the pots and pans – and enjoyed them.
Here’s a classic recipe for chicken pot pie from the Betty Crocker page:
If you prefer homemade, it’s very simple and can be dressed up. Chicken pot pie is basically an individual two-crust pie filled with poached chicken, carrots, and peas in a cream sauce. Nothing difficult about that. When I make it, which is rare, I add fresh parsley, fresh thyme, and freshly ground black pepper to the cream sauce to spice it up a bit.