There is a great pool of extremely talented actors from the studio era who never (aside from an honorary award, in some cases) won an Oscar. Ironically, many of these actors who were ignored by the Academy during their heyday have become old Hollywood’s most enduring and beloved stars.
One such man is Gene Kelly, born Eugene Curran Kelly on August 23, 1912.
The Pennsylvania native had aspirations of becoming a journalist when he graduated from high school in 1929, but gave up those dreams to find a job and help his family survive the Depression. Having been interested in dance since childhood, Gene and his brother earned money by competing in local talent contests and performing in night clubs.
When he finally did make it to college in 1931, Gene became involved in a club that put on original productions, usually in the musical comedy genre. After graduating with an economics degree in 1933, Gene planned to pursue a graduate degree in law, but also continued to pursue dance as a career, opening a studio with his family. After two months of law school, he dropped out and focused completely on finding success in the entertainment business.
Finally, in 1938, Gene got a break on Broadway as a dancer in a Cole Porter show. Things took off from there. He continued to be hired for stage gigs for the next few years.
Gene was a pioneer of the musical genre. His exuberantly energetic dance style was a hybrid of many influences, from ballet to tap. Though most people remember him as the star of such wonderful films as Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris (just to name two of his most beloved), Gene was an innovator behind the scenes, directing and choreographing some of the best dance sequences that Hollywood ever saw. He was stern and entirely dedicated to his craft, but all of that hard work paid off in leaps and bounds.
Aside from being a fantastic hoofer as we all know him to be, Gene was also a truly great actor. From those beautiful musicals to his more dramatic fare, he had a way of captivating the audience from his first moment on screen. It wasn’t just that he was a handsome man, though that is certainly true. Through his consistently believable performances and absolutely magnetic screen presence, he had no trouble making the audience become emotionally invested in his characters.
As a long-time fan of Gene, I have yet to meet a film of his that I didn’t like. (I’m still working on completing his filmography, but I’ve seen quite a few!) Below are just a few of my favorite performances from him.
For Me and My Gal (1942)
This was Gene’s first film, but you’d never guess it by watching. Alongside Judy Garland, whom he had a very strong mutual respect with, Gene shines in this film. Judy championed him for the role after seeing his performance in Pal Joey on Broadway.
I’ve mentioned before that they’re one of my favorite on-screen couples, and if you don’t understand why, all you need to do is watch this film. Gene portrays Harry Palmer, a vaudeville artist who falls for Garland’s Jo Hayden. The two characters were once rivals, but had such a natural chemistry together that they teamed up for a stage act and ended up finding romance in the process. Things get complicated when the war threatens to come between them, just before they’re supposed to get married.
The film itself is a sweet, sentimental tear-jerker, but Gene gets the chance to showcase many of his talents here. He dances, he sings; he shows his knack for comedy, and is able to flex his dramatic chops a bit.
Cover Girl (1944)
MGM loaned rising star Gene out to Columbia for this delightful musical costarring Rita Hayworth. Gene is Danny McGuire, a night club-owning dancer who serves as the mentor and love interest of Hayworth’s chorus girl character, Rusty “Chicken” Parker. Chicken wins a contest and becomes a popular (and well-paid) magazine cover girl.
While the plot may not sound like anything groundbreaking, this film was a landmark for both Columbia’s musicals and Gene’s career. For the first time, Columbia decided to release a musical in brilliant Technicolor. It received five Academy Award nominations including best cinematography, taking home one of the five trophies, for best musical scoring.
Also for the first time, Gene was given the freedom to choreograph, which had not been allowed of him at MGM. His control over the film’s dance numbers and the way that they were staged was a major contributor to the film’s success and its lasting legacy. Altering the soundstage and using trick photography, Gene created very memorable sequences, including the “Alter-Ego Dance.”
The Three Musketeers (1948)
Adventure films usually aren’t my thing, but I’m a total sucker for this one, which features one of Gene’s non-musical performances.
Based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas (the first Technicolor adaptation of the book), the film follows Kelly as d’Artagnan, a man who travels to Paris to join the King’s Musketeers, an elite branch of the military. Swashbuckling fun and a number of mishaps ensue for d’Artagnan and his buddies as they set out on their quest.
Gene stars alongside a slew of great performers in this film: Lana Turner, June Allyson, Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury, Vincent Price and the great and powerful Frank Morgan, among others. He more than sufficiently holds his own as a member of this powerful ensemble cast. The brilliantly choreographed conflicts also allow Gene to show off some fancy footwork even though the film isn’t a musical. He pulls them off, as always, gracefully and with high energy.
The Pirate (1948)
The Pirate sees Gene once again costarring alongside Judy Garland, the lady who helped give him his big break. He stars as a traveling circus performer named Serafin who poses as legendary pirate Mack “The Black” Macoco in order to win over the beautiful Manuela Alva (Garland), who is supposed to marry the mayor of her village. Serafin fell in love with her at first sight and is unwilling to let her go.
Though the film was plagued with production problems and was met with very poor box office results, it’s a pretty spectacular musical, mixing Gene’s skills as a dancer with the adventurous side of him that audiences saw in The Three Musketeers. Top that off with wonderful songs by Cole Porter, and you’ve got a winner in my book.
The film itself aside, The Pirate is notable because Gene famously campaigned for the inclusion of the Nicholas Brothers in the film. Fayard and Harold Nicholas were a team of supremely talented African American siblings who appeared in films such as 1943’s Stormy Weather. (Sidenote: If you haven’t seen their big number from Stormy Weather, look it up on YouTube. It showcases their phenomenal, acrobatic style and was filmed in only one take!) Though their dance numbers in The Pirate were unfairly removed by exhibitors in the South (some of whom banned the film completely), the Brothers are in top form for these dance numbers, and the fact that Gene fought for them shows what a wonderful man he was.
On the Town (1949)
Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra sharing the screen in uniform – what’s not to like? On the Town, which may be my favorite musical of all time because it’s so much fun to watch, stars Gene as a sailor named Gabey with one day of shore leave in New York City. Gabey falls for “Miss Turnstiles” after seeing her picture on a poster in the subway. He and his buddies (who aren’t much help, after finding romance of their own with an anthropologist and a female cab driver) set off on a mission to track her down for a date before his leave is up.
The chemistry between the cast of this film is perfect, and on top of that the script and songs are both amazing. It is really impossible to hate this movie, and Gene is adorable in his love-struck role of Gabey. This is, in my book, one of his most endearing performances.
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Inherit the Wind has Gene sharing the screen with two fellow classic greats: Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.
The film is a dramatic retelling of a real 1925 case (the Scopes trial), in which a science teacher (portrayed here by Dick York) was arrested for teaching evolution in the South. Tracy and March battle it out as the two lawyers on the case, and Gene stars as E.K. Hornbeck (a character based on H. L. Mencken), a newspaperman who is very influential and fully supports the teacher, personally seeing to it that one of the best lawyers in the country represents him.
As someone with a great interest in anthropology, and primatology/evolution in particular, I love this film as much for the subject matter as I do for the phenomenal performances of the cast. The Scopes trial is a very interesting case surrounding a theory that’s still hotly debated today. Though Tracy gives the film’s most powerful performance, Gene also stands out and more than holds his own in the sea of talent that the film showcases.
Xanadu has a reputation for being cheesy as hell, and it is. It’s also Gene’s final role in a musical film.
Gene stars alongside Olivia Newton-John as Danny McGuire, the man who helps Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) bring to life his dream of opening a huge roller-disco. (Fun fact: Danny McGuire is also the name of Gene’s character in Cover Girl, which stars Rita Hayworth. Hayworth’s film Down to Earth served as the inspiration for Xanadu).
As an avid fan of cheese, I really love this film for what it is: an odd, quirky, nonsensical Olivia Newton-John vehicle. Gene reportedly hated the finished film because even though he did all of his own stunts during the big number in the roller-disco, they chose not to show his feet. Why the filmmakers decided not to showcase Gene’s fancy footwork is beyond me (and was beyond him, as well). Still, he gives the film’s best performance and easily wins the audience over.
The world lost Gene in 1996, but his legacy will always survive through wonderful performances such as these. On this day, which would have been his 100th birthday, TMP remembers and honors this beautiful, multi-talented performer.