Gliding through space on roller skates in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), Gene Kelly—the film’s star, co-director, and choreographer—sings “I Like Myself,” perhaps the most self-evident declaration in musical history. I mean this as high praise: The effortless, down-to-earth confidence, optimism, and ebullience in Kelly’s performances are what made so many of the MGM classics of the 1940s and ’50s that he was an integral part of soar. Crucially, unlike the top-hatted and tuxed swells Fred Astaire played in musicals of the 1930s, Kelly integrated dancing with characters several notches down on the socioeconomic scale. As the actress Betsy Blair, Kelly’s wife from 1941 to 1957, writes in her 2003 memoir, The Memory of All That: “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.” Walter Reade’s 23-film Kelly salute showcases not only his work in musicals, both behind and in front of the camera (often both at once), but also his work as a dramatic actor and director of hoofing-free comedies.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1912, Kelly and his brother Fred briefly had a local dance act in the early 1930s; Gene diversified by studying ballet in Chicago. In 1938, he moved to New York, where his breakthrough stage role was playing the lead in Pal Joey in 1940. Two years later, at age 29, he made his screen debut opposite Judy Garland in Busby Berkeley’s World War I–set For Me and My Gal. Wearing an enlistee’s uniform for the first of many times, Kelly, playing a highly self-regarding vaudeville hoofer who, after a failed draft-dodging attempt becomes a war hero in battle, established an important alliance—and easy on-screen chemistry—with his tremulous female lead. Garland, according to Clive Hirschhorn’s 1984 biography Gene Kelly, helped shield her newbie co-star from Berkeley’s animosity; Kelly, in turn, “taught her all he could about dancing.” As proof of his loyalty to Garland, Kelly, though he found the script corny, agreed to play the male lead in Summer Stock (1950), a role originally intended for Mickey Rooney. During one of Garland’s frequent neurasthenia-induced absences from the set, Kelly developed, with the film’s choreographer, Nick Castle, his ingenious newspaper-and-squeaky-floorboards tap solo set in a barn—a dance number that transforms the most quotidian sounds and objects into something that astonishes both the ear and the eye.
Using old copies of the Los Angeles Times as a dance partner was only one of Kelly’s many innovations. For Anchors Aweigh (1945)—his first of three films with Frank Sinatra, in which they both play sailors on four-day leave in Hollywood—Kelly, the film’s choreographer, convinced Louis B. Mayer that he should spend an additional $100,000 and two months shooting an intricate eight-minute cartoon-and-live-action sequence: a seamless, fluid bit of fancy footwork between the actor and Jerry Mouse.
As ecstatic and boundary-breaking as Kelly’s number with the animated rodent might be, no musical has ever matched the nonstop exhilaration of On the Town (1949), Kelly’s directorial debut (a task he shared with frequent collaborator Stanley Donen). On 24-hour leave in New York, three horny, hopped-up seamen played by Kelly (has any actor ever made Navy whites look so sexy?), Sinatra, and Jules Munshin burst into “New York, New York” after racing down a gangplank onto the Brooklyn Navy Yard—one of several actual Gotham locations used in the film, which Kelly insisted on, making it one of the first movie musicals to break free of studio sets. Another rarity: Kelly’s ballet sequences in the movie, which he feared might alienate male audience members. But as Bob Fosse noted in Hirschhorn’s bio, the fellas bought it: Kelly was “like a guy on their bowling team—only classier.” (To further prove just how “virile” the terpsichorean arts could be, Kelly oversaw the production of an episode of the educational TV series Omnibus entitled “Dancing Is a Man’s Game” in 1958.)
Not all of Kelly’s ambitious experiments succeeded, however. After his triumphs in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951)—for which Kelly received an honorary Oscar, citing his “brilliant achievement in the art of choreography on film”—and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), co-helmed with Donen (and regrettably not included in the Walter Reade retro, owing to a studio-imposed moratorium pending the film’s July 16 Blu-ray release), he began working on a pet project, a dialogue-free film in which all the roles would be performed entirely through dance and mime. An anthology consisting of three separate, elaborate stories, Invitation to the Dance (1956) was Kelly’s noble attempt to bring the best ballet dancers from around the world to the masses (though initially he had no intention of appearing in his film, which he directed and choreographed, MGM insisted). Back then, the masses stayed home—but you shouldn’t. The film gets much better after the trying first sequence, a commedia dell’arte showcase featuring Kelly as the white-faced Pierrot.
With the heyday of the movie musical over by the late ’50s, Kelly still kept busy, doing solid supporting work as an H.L. Mencken surrogate in Stanley Kramer’s dramatization of the Scopes “monkey trial,” Inherit the Wind (1960). He directed comedies, including Gigot (1962), starring a mute Jackie Gleason, and the cameo-glutted infidelity romp A Guide for the Married Man (1967).
During Hollywood’s sporadic, often disastrous attempts to revive the glory years of tuners, Kelly was still called upon on occasion: to direct the elephantine 1969 adaptation of Hello, Dolly!—accurately assessing the movie’s biggest liability, Walter Matthau, quoted in Hirschhorn, said of his co-star, “The trouble with Barbra [Streisand] is she became a star long before she became an actress”—or to class up the roller-boogie fantasia Xanadu (1980), his last feature-film appearance. (Kelly died in 1996 at age 83.) But the greatest use of Kelly’s talents after MGM’s halcyon era took place thousands of miles away from Southern California backlots in a port town in southwestern France. In Jacques Demy’s transcendent American-musical homage The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Kelly, still foxy in his mid fifties in a pink polo shirt and snug, pressed white trousers, appears to descend from heaven, believably stirring romantic yearning in Françoise Dorléac, an actress 30 years his junior. He still likes himself, and we love him for it.