Over the weekend, The Boston Globe published “Remembering Gene Kelly, True Song-and-Dance Man.” At first glance, this column, written by arts critic and occasional-professor Mark Feeney, serves as yet another precursor to Gene Kelly’s centennial celebration on August 23 and yet one more reminder to get yo’ tickets for TCM’s nation-wide screening of Singin’ in the Rain this Thursday night. Seriously, get ‘em.
To this end, I nearly glossed over the post. After all, I don’t need to read another critic blathering on about Kelly’s 103-degree fever, shrunken wool suit(s), and the milk/rainwater in “Singin’ in the Rain.” This is a TOTAL MYTH! No milk was used. But I’m glad I didn’t pass up this one. Feeney’s piece on Gene Kelly differs from most of the other recent write-ups I’ve seen. Aside from his claim “It’s impossible to talk about Kelly without talking about Astaire” (actually, it can be done), here are a few reasons I like it.
Huh, Girls? What Girls?
First, Feeney’s post opens and closes with two lesser-known Gene Kelly films, ones that most mainstream audiences and even some self-described Kelly fans have likely never heard of: Les Girls and The Young Girls of Rochefort.
Opening: “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.
Closing: 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 [...] 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).
When I saw these references, I knew (or at least, hoped) I was reading a journalist more deeply familiar with the song-and-dance man’s legacy than the majority of the other critics covering Kelly’s centenary and/or the upcoming Singin’ in the Rain screening. So far, I believe I’m correct.
Gotta Dance?! Well, Not All the Time, Gene
Feeney is also confident enough in his knowledge of Gene Kelly’s (slightly?) ego-centric, pretentious persona and oeuvre — um, dude performs a number called “I Like Myself” (which is actually quite awesome) – to take down Kelly a notch or two. I actually laughed aloud when I read Feeney’s commentary on Kelly’s ballet sequences, which can be both riveting and frustrating to watch:
“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).”
I understand Feeney’s argument here: for the most part, Kelly’s dream ballets do halt the narratives to which they’re (loosely) attached. But at the same time, I could never imagine Singin’ in the Rain without “Broadway Melody” or An American in Paris without that nearly 20-minute ballet in which freakin’ French Impressionist paintings come to life. Here, revisit a little bit of both numbers; I’ve included the sexiest parts for you cause that’s just the kinda gal I am:
Along these same lines… while Feeney humorously mocks Kelly’s ballet sequences in his column, he also rightly acknowledges why the star creates, choreographs, and inserts such elaborate and imaginative numbers in his film musicals: “There’s this fundamental restlessness to Kelly. In terpsichorean terms, he’s always lighting out for the territory, seeking something new, better, different…” This, of course, also explains Kelly’s dancing with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, with trashcan lids in It’s Always Fair Weather, and with himself in Cover Girl.
Kineticism and Gene Kelly’s Writings
Third, I appreciate the enthusiasm and language with which Feeney discusses Kelly’s title number from Singin’ in the Rain:
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.
It’s the last bit that especially makes me smile, this talk of kineticism, as it reminds me of some of Kelly’s writings.
When I browsed Gene Kelly’s archives at the Boston University library earlier this year, I came across a box of essays Kelly wrote for publications like fan magazines, Sports Illustrated, and Seventeen (yep, that one). It’s widely known that classical Hollywood publicists (as well as those today) penned, distributed, and planted articles and photos in the media on behalf of their star employers. A few reasons for such fabrication: to maintain the star’s image (the key goal), to skirt or detract from a scandal, to keep stars in the public eye, to offer fans “intimate” confessions and “real-life” looks at the star and his/her family. Regarding the latter, I came across several fan magazine clippings at the archives that highlighted “the real” Gene and Betsy, e.g., Betsy Blair and Gene Kelly, the nicest twosome around…eating steak and drinking milk…Gene’s world revolves around Betsy and their daughter Kerry…etc.
In other words, I am aware all of this manufacturing existed then, just as it does now (heard anything about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes lately?). At the same time, after reading “Gene Kelly’s essays” from Box 3 (of 29) at the BU archives, I don’t know that someone else penned them. If so, it had to be someone who was a dancer and choreographer and stage performer and filmmaker. Some of the details are too specific, the terms too technical, the history of cinematic and Broadway dance too exhaustive for a marketing professional. So while I cannot confirm that Kelly wrote these articles, based on their content, I’m going to assume he did. (Another scholar who’s spent more time in the archives than I agrees; she thinks he penned them and a publicist perhaps helped clean them up.)
In these lengthy papers — some around 10 double-spaced typed pages — on cinematic dance (or cine-dance), Kelly writes eloquently and knowledgeably about his body, the dancer’s body, and its relationship to the camera, frame, and narrative. For example, in one essay for Sound Stage (1965), the musical star informs his readers that because dancing is “a three-dimensional art-like sculpture,” it is actually not a good medium for motion pictures. In fact, he continues, when such movement is transferred to screen, “you lose most of the muscular or physical force (dancers call it ‘kinetic‘ force). You also lose the presence of the dancer, which might be termed his three-dimensional personality — not necessarily the facial expressions, the look, or the feelings, but the personality of the dancer’s whole body, which coupled with line and style, form the basis of a dance performance.” These are some of the reasons Kelly (and his co-director Stanley Donen) worked so arduously to modify the way dance numbers were shot onscreen.
Kelly also discusses in this article why singing doesn’t translate as well onscreen as it does onstage (“a song can sustain four times as long onstage as it can on film…”) and the rarity of triple-threats, which can now “be counted on one hand” (at the time of writing, his hopes were pinned on Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke). And among other things, Kelly waxes poetically about the future of film musicals, which were dying rapidly by this point in time: “It’s like trying to walk across a foggy moor on the flatlands of Wales. You know what might lie ahead, but you can’t see it. You can only sense a stir, a feeling of excitement, an undercurrent of movement toward a great new world of the original movie musical.”
This sense of optimism as well as love of the industry and the people therein is something else Feeney points to in his Boston Globe column:
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.
I don’t know that I’ve much more to add at this time as Feeney has done a nice job “Remembering Gene Kelly, True Song-and-Dance Man.” I do hope, however, that whoever’s reading this will recognize some of the above attributes in Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen Thursday night. You are going, right?