Thursday, September 06, 2012

gene kelly: anatomy of a dancer

As we were checking out the DVDs at our local library the other day, the kid's eagle eye caught sight of  Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer, a documentary on the star originally broadcast by PBS on American Masters. What can I say, the kid has taste and knows what her mommy likes.

I have been a fan of Gene Kelly since I was my daughter's age. So many years later he still impresses. His grace and athleticism are unparalleled in movies. And the man was not just skilled, but sexy. Although he was possessed of a sunny grin, there was frequently a dark side to the characters he played onscreen. His daughter, Kerry, is quoted as saying that he was the only one of his Hollywood friends not in analysis. He worked his demons out in his choreography, and many of his most well-known dances are dreamscapes.


The film, narrated by actor Stanley Tucci, covers Kelly's career from his youth in Pittsburgh to his meteoric rise on Broadway and then Hollywood. I knew Kelly got his first big break on Broadway in Pal Joey, and his life-long love of sports (including the New York Yankees). What I didn't know was that when he went to Hollywood soon after Pal Joey and made his first musical, with Judy Garland, For Me and My Gal, that Garland helped him immeasurably in transferring his "exaggerated" stage moves to the more intimate screen. I also learned that back in Pittsburgh his brother Fred taught him to tap dance — their mother had all of her children take years of dance training and the family started a dancing school to help make ends meet.

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer includes previously taped interviews with Kelley and the usual talking heads, including actress Betsy Blair (first wife), lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green and dancers Cyd Charisse and Donald O'Connor  (Singin' in the Rain), actresses Leslie Caron and Nina Foch (An American in Paris), composer Andre Previn (It's Always Fair Weather), Betty Garrett (Take Me Out to the Ball Game, On the Town), and co-director Stanley Donen (On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, It's Always Fair Weather).


There is much discussion of his being a stern taskmaster and a demanding perfectionist. Actress Debbie Reynolds tells us that "The two hardest things I did in my life was childbirth and Singin' in the Rain." But she also admits that her experience with Kelly and the film taught her a lot. The included clips confirm that all his hard work and attention to detail was well worth it. Kelly was the ultimate American dancer, and ex-wife Blair insists that "he wanted to democratize dance."

Kelly was the was only star working in musicals who was also choreographing, writing, and directing as well. He was constantly testing himself, and dance on film. He created some of the most innovative numbers in movie musicals, and he started early. In his fourth film, Thousands Cheer, his first film with MGM, he did a solo dance with a mop and broom. Two years later in 1945 found him dancing with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh. In 1949 he co-directed On the Town with Stanley Donen, and opened up the movie musical by insisting that it be filmed in real New York City locations. He memorably tap danced on roller skates in 1955 in It's Always Fair Weather.


What may not be known about Kelly is how the Hollywood blacklist affected his life. His wife Betsy Blair was blacklisted because of her left-wing politics and almost lost her most famous role, as Clara, Ernest Borgnine's girlfriend, in Marty. Kelly threatened to pull out of It's Always Fair Weather if she was denied the role and she got the part. Because of the political climate, the Kellys moved to Europe for a while and he made a pet project, Invitation to the Dance. But the studio shelved it for four years and it flopped with U.S. audiences when it was finally released.

Blair speaks in her interviews very fondly and proudly of Kelly and happy about their time together. She can't really explain why she asked him for a divorce. She and Kelly were close to Donen and his wife Jeanne Coyne (who was also Kelly's choreographic assistant). Coyne and Donen divorced after only a few years of marriage and Kelly married Coyne three years after Blair divorced him. Close quarters.

Kelly in The Pirate
Romantic complications aside, Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer is chock-full of wonderful footage of Kelly, and it will be impossible not to want to see one of his classic films after checking out this entertaining documentary. Kelly's performances still give so much joy. Just watching him do the title number from Singin' in the Rain can't help but bring a smile to your face. The only difficult decision will be which film to watch. An American in Paris for the amazing paintings coming to life sequence. On the Town for the kinetic dance routines. Cover Girl for his good/guy bad/guy persona and Phil Silvers and Rita Hayworth. The Pirate for his amazing, athletic spoof and homage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. — the list goes on and on.


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