This buoyant American film star of the 1940s and ’50s was a renowned dancer-choreographer, the embodiment of proletariat good-guy cheer, and a key figure in shaping the golden age of the Hollywood musical.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Kelly was the son of a theatrical manager and an actress. He and his brother Fred performed a dance act for the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. After an unsuccessful screen test for RKO in 1935, Kelly turned to stage work, making his Broadway debut in the chorus of “Leave It to Me” in 1938. After a dramatic turn in William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” (1939), he scored his biggest stage triumph as Joey Evans, the antihero of the Rodgers and Hart/John O’Hara musical “Pal Joey.” The latter caught the attention of film producer David O. Selznick, who signed Kelly to a seven-year contract.
Selznick immediately loaned his new star to MGM for Busby Berkeley’s FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942), a musical romp about a vaudeville couple (Kelly and Judy Garland) determined to play the Palace Theater. Kelly’s star was on the ascendant and MGM bought out his contract with Selznick. He was cast in the all-male THE CROSS OF LORRAINE as a prisoner of war. In 1944, Kelly added choreographer to his resume when he created the dance sequence for the “Alter Ego” number in the stylish COVER GIRL, in which he was a Brooklyn club owner romancing an up-and-coming actress-model (Rita Hayworth). This marked the beginning of a long string of MGM musicals that starred Kelly, including 1945’s ANCHORS AWEIGH (notable for the sequence in which Kelly dances with cartoon mouse Jerry of TOM AND JERRY fame), and two directed by Vincente Minnelli, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1946), in which he dances “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” which had been popularized onstage by Adele and Fred Astaire, and THE PIRATE (1948), which reteamed him with Garland and featured a lively Cole Porter score, including Kelly’s tours de force, “Nina” and “Be a Clown.”Kelly branched out into directing with ON THE TOWN (1949), which he co-helmed with Stanley Donen. Adapted from the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green Broadway hit, ON THE TOWN followed the adventures of three sailors (Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) on leave for one day in New York City and the women (Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, and Betty Garrett) they encounter. Kelly and Sinatra reteamed for Busby Berkeley’s TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (also 1949), as turn-of-the-century ballplayers coping with a new female owner (Esther Williams). Kelly and Donen co-directed the “Strictly USA” segment and received an overall story credit. But it was the Oscar-winning AN AMERICAN IN PARIS that marked Kelly’s artistic triumph. Directed by Vincente Minnelli and written by Alan Jay Lerner, the musical was an original story that interpolated a lushly arranged Gershwin score. While the plot was fairly standard (American man, Kelly, torn between wealthy Nina Foch and gamine dancer Leslie Caron), the staging was imaginative, including a spectacular 18-minute ballet sequence that still ranks as one of the best ever filmed. The film won a total of eight Oscars as well as a special award for Kelly, citing his “brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”
- "Best Foot Forward"
- "Flower Drum Song"
- "Leave It to Me!"
- "Pal Joey"
- George Abbott
- Fred and Adele Astaire
- Oscar Hammerstein II
- Lorenz Hart
- Mary Martin
- Cole Porter
- Richard Rodgers
When film dancers are considered, two usually come to mind: Astaire and Kelly. Astaire represented refinement; Kelly, athleticism. Kelly was a swaggeringly virile dancer of incomparable grace and charm. He pushed the boundaries of film dancing beyond the established limits, particularly with AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and INVITATION TO THE DANCE.
Source: Excerpted from Baseline. BaselineStudioSystems — A Hollywood Media Corp. Company.
Photo credits: Photofest and Culver Pictures