A major exponent of 20th century filmed dance, Kelly was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks and the likeable characters that he played on screen. Although he is probably best known today for his performance in Singin' in the Rain, he was a dominant force in Hollywood musical films from the mid 1940s until their demise in the late 1950s. His many innovations transformed the Hollywood musical film, and he is credited with almost singlehandedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences.
Kelly was the recipient of an Academy Honorary Award in for his career achievements. He later received lifetime achievement awards in the Kennedy Center Honors, and from the Screen Actors Guild and American Film Institute; in , the American Film Institute also named him among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time.
In 1931 Kelly enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to study economics where he joined the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in 1933. In 1930, his family started a dance studio on Munhall Road in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In 1932, it was renamed The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance. A second location was opened in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1933. While still an undergraduate student and later as a student at Pitt's School of Law, Gene was a teacher at the dance studio. Eventually, though, he decided to pursue his career as a dance teacher and entertainer full-time and so dropped out of law school after two months. He began to focus increasingly on performing, later claiming: "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 moved to New York City in search of work as a choreographer.
His first Broadway assignment, in November 1938, was as a dancer in Cole Porter's Leave It to Me! as the American ambassador's secretary who supports Mary Martin while she sings "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". He had been hired by Robert Alton who had staged a show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and been impressed by Kelly's teaching skills. When Alton moved on to choreograph One for the Money he hired Kelly to act, sing and dance in a total of eight routines. His first career breakthrough was in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life, which opened on November 11, 1939, where for the first time on Broadway he danced to his own choreography. In the same year he received his first assignment as a Broadway choreographer, for Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. His future wife, Betsy Blair, was a member of the cast. They began dating and were married on October 16, 1941.
In 1940, he was given the leading role in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, again choreographed by Robert Alton, and this role propelled him to stardom. During its run he told reporters: "I don't believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand. While I am a hundred percent for ballet technique, I use only what I can adapt to my own use. I never let technique get in the way of mood or continuity." It was at this time also, that his phenomenal commitment to rehearsal and hard work was noticed by his colleagues. Van Johnson who also appeared in Pal Joey recalls: "I watched him rehearsing, and it seemed to me that there was no possible room for improvement. Yet he wasn't satisfied. It was midnight and we had been rehearsing since eight in the morning. I was making my way sleepily down the long flight of stairs when I heard staccato steps coming from the stage...I could see just a single lamp burning. Under it, a figure was dancing...Gene."
Offers from Hollywood began to arrive but Kelly was in no particular hurry to quit New York. Eventually, he signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood at the end of his commitment to Pal Joey, in October 1941. Prior to leaving he also choreographed the stage production of Best Foot Forward.
Kelly did not return to stage work until his MGM contract ended in 1957, when in 1958 he directed Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical play Flower Drum Song. Early in 1960 Kelly, an ardent Francophile and fluent French speaker, was invited by A. M. Julien, the general administrator of the Paris Opera and Opera-Comique, to select his own material and create a modern ballet for the company, the first time an American received such an assignment. The result was Pas de Dieux, based on Greek mythology combined with the music of George Gershwin's Concerto in F. It was a major success, and led to his being honored with the Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur by the French Government.
Selznick sold half of Kelly's contract to MGM and loaned him out to MGM for his first motion picture: For Me and My Gal (1942) with Judy Garland. Kelly was "appalled at the sight of myself blown up twenty times. I had an awful feeling that I was a tremendous flop" but the picture did well and, in the face of much internal resistance, Arthur Freed of MGM picked up the other half of Kelly's contract. After appearing in the B-movie drama Pilot #5 he took the male lead in Cole Porter's Du Barry Was a Lady opposite Lucille Ball. His first opportunity to dance to his own choreography came in his next picture Thousands Cheer, where he performed a mock-love dance with a mop.
He achieved his breakthrough as a dancer on film, when MGM loaned him out to Columbia to play opposite Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944), where he created a memorable routine dancing to his own reflection. In his next film Anchors Aweigh (1945), MGM virtually gave him a free hand to devise a range of dance routines, including the celebrated and much imitated animated dances with Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry, and his duets with co-star Frank Sinatra. Later examples of this human/animated character pas de deux include Paula Abdul opposite an animated cat in her "Opposites Attract" video, and Kelly dancing with Stewie Griffin in the episode "Road to Rupert" from the Family Guy. Anchors Aweigh became one of the most successful films of 1945 and it garnered Kelly his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) - which was produced in 1944 but not released until 1946 - Kelly teamed up with Fred Astaire - for whom he had the greatest admiration - in the famous "The Babbitt and the Bromide" challenge dance routine before leaving the studio for wartime service. Throughout this period Kelly was obliged to appear in straight acting roles in a series of cheap B-movies, now largely forgotten.
At the end of 1944, Kelly enlisted in the United States Naval Air Service and was commissioned as lieutenant, junior grade. He was stationed in the Photographic Section, Washington D.C., where he was involved in writing and directing a range of documentaries, and this stimulated his interest in the production side of film-making.
On his return to Hollywood in the spring of 1946, MGM had nothing lined up and used him in yet another B-movie: Living in a Big Way. The film was considered so weak that Kelly was asked to design and insert a series of dance routines, and his ability to carry off such assignments was noticed. This led to his next picture with Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, the film version of Cole Porter's The Pirate, in which Kelly plays the eponymous swashbuckler. Now regarded as a classic, the film was ahead of its time and was not well received. The Pirate gave full rein to Kelly's athleticism and is probably best remembered for the teaming of Kelly with The Nicholas Brothers – the leading African-American dancers of their day – in a virtuoso dance routine. Although MGM wanted Kelly to return to safer and more commercial vehicles, he ceaselessly fought for an opportunity to direct his own musical film. In the interim, he capitalised on his swashbuckling image as one of The Three Musketeers and appeared with Vera-Ellen in the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet from Words and Music (1948). He was due to play the male lead opposite Garland in Easter Parade (1948) but broke his ankle playing volleyball. He withdrew from the film and encouraged Fred Astaire to come out of retirement to replace him. There followed Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), his second film with Sinatra, where Kelly paid tribute to his Irish heritage in The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick's Day routine. It was this musical film which persuaded Arthur Freed to allow Kelly to make On the Town, where he teamed for the third and final time with Frank Sinatra, creating a breakthrough in the musical film genre which has been described as "the most inventive and effervescent musical thus far produced in Hollywood."
Stanley Donen, brought to Hollywood by Kelly to be his assistant choreographer, received co-director credit for On the Town. According to Kelly: "...when you are involved in doing choreography for film you must have expert assistants. I needed one to watch my performance, and one to work with the cameraman on the timing..without such people as Stanley, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne I could never have done these things. When we came to do On the Town, I knew it was time for Stanley to get screen credit because we weren't boss-assistant anymore but co-creators." Together, they opened up the musical form, taking the film musical out of the studio and into real locations, with Donen taking responsibility for the staging and Kelly handling the choreography. Kelly went much further than before in introducing modern ballet into his dance sequences, going so far in the "Day in New York" routine as to substitute four leading ballet specialists for Sinatra, Munshin, Garrett and Miller.
It was now Kelly's turn to ask the studio for a straight acting role and he took the lead role in the early mafia melodrama: The Black Hand (1949). There followed Summer Stock (1950) - Judy Garland's last musical film for MGM - in which Kelly performed the celebrated "You, You Wonderful You" solo routine with a newspaper and a squeaky floorboard. In his book "Easy the Hard Way", Joe Pasternak singles out Kelly for his patience and willingness to spend as much time as necessary to enable the ailing Garland to complete her part.
There followed in quick succession two musicals which have secured Kelly's reputation as a major force in the Americal musical film, An American in Paris (1951) and - probably the most popular and admired of all film musicals - Singin' in the Rain (1952). As co-director, lead star and choreographer, Kelly was the central driving force. Johnny Green, head of music at MGM at the time, described him as follows: "Gene is easygoing as long as you know exactly what you are doing when you're working with him. He's a hard taskmaster and he loves hard work. If you want to play on his team you'd better like hard work too. He isn't cruel but he is tough, and if Gene believed in something he didn't care who he was talking to, whether it was Louis B. Mayer or the gatekeeper. He wasn't awed by anybody and he had a good record of getting what he wanted". An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, in the same year, Kelly was presented with an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film musicals and the art of choreography. The film also marked the debut of Leslie Caron, who Kelly had spotted in Paris and brought to Hollywood. Its dream ballet sequence, lasting an unprecedented thirteen minutes, was the most expensive production number ever filmed up to that point and was described by Bosley Crowther as, "whoop-de-doo ... one of the finest ever put on the screen." Singin' in the Rain featured Kelly's celebrated and much imitated solo dance routine to the title song, along with the "Moses Supposes" routine with Donald O'Connor and the "Broadway Melody" finale with Cyd Charisse, and while it did not initially generate the same enthusiasm as An American in Paris, it subsequently overtook the latter film to occupy its current pre-eminent place among critics and filmgoers alike.
The first of these, It's Always Fair Weather (1956) co-directed with Donen, was a musical satire on television and advertising, and includes his famous roller skate dance routine to "I Like Myself", and a dance trio with Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey which allowed Kelly to experiment with the widescreen possibilities of Cinemascope. A modest success, it was followed by Kelly's last musical film for MGM, Les Girls (1957), in which he partnered a trio of leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, fittingly ending, as he had begun, with a Cole Porter musical. The third picture he completed was a co-production between MGM and himself, the B-movie The Happy Road, set in his beloved France, his first foray in his new role as producer-director-actor.
His first foray into television was a documentary for NBC's Omnibus, Dancing is a Man's Game (1958) where he assembled a group of America's greatest sportsmen - including Mickey Mantle, Sugar Ray Robinson and Bob Cousy - and reinterpreted their moves choreographically, as part of his lifelong quest to remove the effeminate stereotype of the art of dance, while articulating the philosophy behind his dance style. It gained an Emmy nomination for choreography and now stands as the key document explaining Kelly's approach to modern dance.
Kelly also frequently appeared on television shows during the 1960s, but his one effort at a TV series: as Father O'Malley in Going My Way (1962-1963) was dropped after one season, although it subsequently enjoyed great popularity in Catholic countries outside of the US. He went on to make two major TV specials: New York, New York (1966) and produced and directed Jack and the Beanstalk (1967) which again combined cartoon animation with live dance, winning him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program.
In 1963, Kelly joined Universal Pictures for a two year stint which proved to be the most unproductive of his career to date. He joined 20th Century Fox in 1965, but had little to do - partly due to his decision to decline assignments away from Los Angeles for family reasons. His perseverance finally paid off with the major box-office hit A Guide for the Married Man (1967) where he directed Walter Matthau and a major opportunity arose when Fox - buoyed by the returns from The Sound of Music (1965) - commissioned Kelly to direct Hello, Dolly! (1969), again directing Matthau along with Barbra Streisand, but which unfortunately failed to recoup the enormous production expenses.
In 1970, he made another TV special: Gene Kelly and 50 Girls and was invited to bring the show to Las Vegas, which he duly did for an eight-week stint - on condition he be paid more than any artist had hitherto been paid there. He directed veteran actors James Stewart and Henry Fonda in the comedy western The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) which performed very well at the box-office. In 1973 he would work again with Frank Sinatra as part of Sinatra's Emmy nominated TV special Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back then, in 1974, he appeared as one of many special narrators in the surprise hit of the year That's Entertainment! and subsequently directed and co-starred with his friend Fred Astaire in the sequel That's Entertainment, Part II (1976). It was a measure of his powers of persuasion that he managed to coax the seventy-seven year old Astaire - who had insisted that his contract rule out any dancing, having long since retired - into performing a series of song and dance duets, evoking a powerful nostalgia for the glory days of the American musical film. He continued to make frequent TV appearances and in 1980, appeared in an acting and dancing role opposite Olivia Newton John in Xanadu (1980), a bizarre and expensive flop which has since attained a cult following. In Kelly's opinion "The concept was marvelous but it just didn't come off." In the same year, he was invited by Francis Ford Coppola to recruit a production staff for American Zoetrope's One from the Heart (1982). Although Coppola's ambition was for Kelly to establish a production unit to rival the legendary Freed Unit at MGM, the film's failure put an end to this idea. In 1985 he served as executive producer and co-host of That's Dancing! - a celebration of the history of dance in the American musical. After his final on-screen appearance introducing That's Entertainment! III in 1994, his final film project was the animated movie Cats Don't Dance, released in 1997 and dedicated to him, on which Kelly acted as uncredited choreographic consultant.
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 an African-American dancer Dancing Dotson, who he saw at Loew's Penn. Theatre c.1929, and 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 thirties. As Hirschhorn explains: "As a child he used to run for miles through parks and streets and woods - anywhere, just as long as he could feel the wind against his body and through his hair. Ballet gave him the same feeling of exhiliration, and in 1933 he was convinced it was the most satisfying form of self-expression." He also studied Spanish dancing under Angel Cansino, Rita Hayworth's uncle. 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 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. Examples of this abound in Kelly's work and are well illustrated in the "Prehistoric Man" sequence from On the Town and "The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick's Day" from Take Me Out to the Ball Game. 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 and if he does it well he does it better than a woman." He railed against what he saw as the widespread effeminacy in male dancing which, in his opinion, "tragically" stigmatised the genre, alienating boys from entering the field. However, he was careful to avoid accusations of homophobia: "dancing does attract effeminate young men. I don't object to that as long as they don't dance effeminately. I just say that if a man dances effeminately he dances badly - just as if a woman comes out on stage and starts to sing bass. Unfortunately people confuse gracefulness with softness. John Wayne is a graceful man and so are some of the great ball players...but, of course, they don't run the risk of being called sissies." In his view, "one of our problems is that so much dancing is taught by women. You can spot many male dancers who have this tuition by their arm movements - they are soft, limp and feminine." He acknowledged that, in spite of his efforts - in TV programs such as Dancing: A Man's Game (1958) for example - the situation changed little over the years.
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 manner born - I put them on and look like a truck driver."
Gene Kelly was a lifelong Democratic Party supporter with strong progressive convictions, which occasionally created difficulty for him as his heyday coincided with the McCarthy era in the US. In 1947, he was part of the Committee for the First Amendment, the Hollywood delegation which flew to Washington to protest at the first official hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His first wife, Betsy Blair, was suspected of being a Communist sympathiser and when MGM, who had offered Blair a part in Marty (1955), were considering withdrawing her under pressure from the American Legion, Kelly successfully threatened MGM with a pullout from It's Always Fair Weather unless his wife was restored to the part. He used his position on the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, West on a number of occasions to mediate disputes between unions and the Hollywood studios, and although he was frequently accused by the Right of championing the unions, he was valued by the studios as an effective mediator.
A gregarious and highly articulate individual, he retained a lifelong passion for sports and relished competition. With his first wife, he organised weekly parties at his Beverly Hills home which were renowned for an intensely competitive and physical version of charades, known as "The Game".
Kelly died in his sleep at 8.15 a.m. on February 2, 1996, in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 83, after a stroke – he had previously suffered a stroke the year before. His body was cremated the same day and he had left instructions that there was to be no funeral and no memorial services. Kelly's papers are currently housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.