“Why do you want this job?” Gene Kelly asks Taina Elg after she’s auditioned for his act in “Les Girls” (1957). “Because I’ve seen you dance,” she says. The answer makes perfect sense; his dancing’s that irresistible. Anyone who’s seen Kelly dance can’t help but share her enthusiasm. Moving pictures move, and few performers onscreen have made motion look as marvelous. It’s been 16 years since Kelly died, yet he remains as alive in memory as he does on celluloid.
Next month marks the centennial of his birth. Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh on Aug. 23, 1912. Seventy years ago he made his film debut, in “For Me and My Gal” (1942), and 60 years ago saw the release of “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). To celebrate, Turner Classic Movies will be showing the musical in theaters this Thursday and later this month will release a two-disc “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” on DVD and Blu-ray.
The American Film Institute ranked “Singin’ in the Rain” first on its list of Hollywood musicals and fifth on its list of all American films. The British film magazine Sight & Sound, in its most recent poll of critics on the greatest films of all time, placed it 10th, making it the top-finishing musical.
Since “Singin’ in the Rain” is the story of the arrival of talking pictures it’s also the story of the arrival of singing pictures. So it’s a creation myth, except that myths are about inevitability. “Singin’ in the Rain” is all about volition. In too many musicals, it feels as though the characters break into song only because they’re supposed to. Here it’s clearly because they want to.
“Singin’ in the Rain” is the best of both worlds: an MGM musical that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Kelly and his co-director, Stanley Donen, strike an unerring balance between affection and mockery, innocence and artifice. The musical is, in fact, at its weakest when it’s at all pretentious. That “Broadway Melody” segment does go on. “Gotta dance”? Yes, but gotta stop, too. That said, it’s nowhere near the kitschy ordeal that the title ballet is in “An American in Paris” (1951).
Fitting musicals to songs
Those two musicals have more in common than just star, studio, and a climactic ballet. Hollywood at the end of the silent-movie era is postwar Paris. Donald O’Connor is Oscar Levant, the humorous pal. Debbie Reynolds is Leslie Caron, the ingénue love interest. Nina Foch is Jean Hagen, the peroxide-blonde rival to the ingénue.
Both musicals were made to fit a set of old songs. In “Singin,’ ” they’re almost entirely by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. In “American,” they’re by George and Ira Gershwin. The latter has the better score, by far. How could it not, with songs like “I Got Rhythm,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and “ ’S Wonderful.” In an odd way, the songs’ excellence works against the movie’s staying power. There are so many other terrific versions of them that they don’t really belong to the movie.
The songs in “Singin’ in the Rain” are indelibly associated with the numbers in the musical. “You Were Meant for Me” is a marvel of simplicity and understatement. “Moses Supposes” (by Roger Edens and the movie’s screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green) is a marvel of verbal dexterity. “Good Mornin’ ” is a marvel of shared jubilation. As for the title number, well, it’s a marvel, period. Has exultation ever been expressed more memorably — let alone meteorologically?
It’s also a marvel of economical filmmaking. Lasting 3½ minutes, the sequence consists of no more than eight cuts. Two of them are among the most gorgeous crane shots in movie history — yet so perfectly placed as to be among the least obtrusive, too. There are so many things to cherish in the number — how Kelly hums his way into the song, how he grins under that downspout, how he splashes in those puddles, how he turns his umbrella into a dance partner — but there may be nothing more exhilarating than the utter ease with which he leaps up onto that light pole at the very beginning. Kelly’s control of his kineticism is at once lovely in itself and an italicization of his athleticism.
Dancer as action hero
“When I came to the movies, I wanted to dance in T-shirts and blue jeans,” Kelly once said. “Some critics claim that’s my only contribution, and maybe it is. But if I put on an evening suit I look like someone from ‘The Iceman Cometh.’ ” (That incongruity is one reason the opening of “Singin’,” where he wears white tie, is so amusing.) But those T-shirts and jeans wouldn’t have had the impact they did without Kelly’s linebacker shoulders and pinched waist — or the uses he puts them to. When he jumps on top of a trolley early on in “Singin’ ” he could hardly look more natural.
It takes nothing away from how artful Kelly’s dancing is to note how muscular it is, too. Somehow he makes a dance out of doing 20 sideways push-ups (you have to see it to believe it) in “Du Barry Was a Lady” (1943). He repeats the move in “The Pirate” (1948), and in “Be a Clown,” only this time he doesn’t have to negotiate his way through the legs of a chorus line to do it. Kelly was the dancer as action hero. In “The Three Musketeers” (1948), as D’Artagnan, he was the action hero as dancer. He threw around his costar Lana Turner with such gusto that she broke her elbow. Hard as it is to imagine Fred Astaire in a sword fight, it’s harder still to imagine him having such a good time doing it.
A working man’s Astaire
It’s impossible to talk about Kelly without talking about Astaire. Astaire is aristocratic, classical, aerial, an ideal of perfection attained. Kelly is democratic, romantic, terrestrial, an ideal of perfection striven for. It’s not as if Kelly never achieved perfection. How could “I Got Rhythm” or “Singin’ in the Rain” be improved upon, or “You, Wonderful You,” in “Summer Stock” (1950), where with preposterous elegance he tears up a newspaper with his dancing feet?
No, it’s that there’s this fundamental restlessness to Kelly. In terpsichorean terms, he’s always lighting out for the territory, seeking something new, better, different: dancing with a double-exposed image of himself, in “Cover Girl” (1944); partnering with Jerry Mouse, the cartoon character, in “Anchors Away” (1945); taking the movie musical on location, a truly revolutionary step, for “On the Town” (1949), his own favorite among his movies; dancing on roller skates and with a trash can lid for taps, in “It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955). When Astaire tops himself, it’s seemingly by accident and happily effortless. When Kelly does, it’s by conscious design and, no less happily, strenuous.
Look at their faces and you can see that difference. Grins have their own grammar. Astaire’s is interrogative, as if to ask, “Can you believe I just did that?” It makes his genius seem (almost) mortal. Kelly’s is exclamatory: “Hey, look at what I just did!” Until Tom Cruise came along, he had Hollywood’s most emphatic grin.
Brash, yet vulnerable
The brashness of Kelly’s characters could be overwhelming. Eventually, he learned to play this quality for laughs, as in “The Pirate” or “Singin’ ” (Kelly’s Don Lockwood has a lot more jerk in him than the movie would like to admit). But his breakout role was as one of the all-time heels, the title character in “Pal Joey,” on Broadway. In “For Me and My Gal,” his anything-to-succeed hoofer tells Judy Garland, “I’m never going to win any blue ribbons for being a nice guy”; and his character’s mean streak in “Cover Girl” makes you wonder why Rita Hayworth comes back to him in the end (maybe it’s really Phil Silvers she goes for?). In a non-singing role, he plays the H.L. Mencken-like journalist in “Inherit the Wind” (1959). “I’m admired for my detestability,” he announces with a little more smugness than necessary.
The other side of Kelly’s persona is an almost unnerving vulnerability. We see the brashness in the grin. We hear the vulnerability in the voice. Like Astaire, he had a limited vocal range. Yet Kelly’s weakness as a vocalist helped make him better as a singer. The quaver when he sings has two effects. It helps counter the bravura of his physical presence and make whatever emotion he expresses seem that much more sincere. Has anyone ever performed “Love Is Here to Stay” more movingly? When Kelly sings, “In time the Rockies may crumble / Gibraltar may tumble, /They’re only made of clay,” the fact that he sounds crumbly himself makes the lyrics all the more plangent.
Kelly’s career has one other defining quality: generosity. What’s most American about him isn’t his wearing jeans or looking “like a guy on your bowling team, only classier,” as Bob Fosse once said. It’s his creative stance toward others. Kelly’s is an inherently egalitarian talent, or as egalitarian as virtuosity allows. “Anybody can sing and dance,” he assures Jerry Mouse, in “Anchors Away.” “Well, anybody whose heart is big and warm and happy.”
Collaboration comes so naturally to Kelly onscreen. It enhances his art. Think of him singing Cole Porter’s “Friendship,” an emblematic Kelly title, with Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, in “Du Barry”; holding his own with the Nicholas brothers (no mean achievement) in “Be a Clown”; with Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin, in “On the Town” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949); doing “I Got Rhythm” with the gang of French kids in “American in Paris”; with O’Connor; with Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd, in “Fair Weather.” It’s not that Kelly needed support. Some of his greatest numbers are solos or traditional duets with a female partner. It’s that he wanted others around. And, of course, there was his collaborating behind the camera, with Donen, his co-director on “On the Town” and “Fair Weather,” as well as “Singin’.”
There’s a brief moment in “Les Girls,” where Kelly’s about to join friends for dinner. A flamenco act is performing, and Kelly stops to watch them finish. He has such a look of appreciation on his face, and when he applauds you can’t help but think it’s not just the character who’s clapping but Kelly, too. He takes such a nurturing, almost curatorial satisfaction in the art of dancing.
You get that same sense a decade later, in “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967). Here are all these French kids singing and dancing and, in a sense, doing their own version of “Summer Stock” — though a French port city is a lot more fun than some barn in the country — and Kelly’s delighted to be around them. He’s an elder statesman of the musical, yes, that’s why Jacques Demy has cast him. But he’s also part of the action (and even at 55 a better dancer than anyone else in the movie). He belongs. And when Francoise Dorleac bumps into him and drops her papers, and he starts to help her pick them up, she takes one look and she’s a goner. It’s the hoariest (and creepiest) cliche in moviemaking: a beautiful young woman falls head over heels for a much older man. Except this time none of us in the audience thinks it’s a cliche. How could we? We’re in love with him, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.