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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Tribute to Gene Kelly

Today, I am posting something a little different.  Still counting movies for the countdown, but today is a tribute to a man who has had a profound influence on my life: Gene Kelly.

Gene and I began our relationship when I was around 2 or 3, when I first watched Singin’ in the Rain.  At the time, it was just a flash of Technicolor fun, but as I grew older, I developed an appreciation for the film, and for Gene’s brilliance. 

For a while, I would only watch musicals from the Arthur Freed Unit with Gene Kelly or Judy Garland.  I adored the three movies they made together.  I only wish they’d made more.

I remember clearly the day Gene Kelly died.  I was getting out of rehearsal for the winter play at Hanover High School.  I had the ACT exam the next day.  As I got in the car, my sister informed me of Gene Kelly’s passing.  Tears filled my eyes.  

After the ACT the next day, my sister and I talked about his movies, and in his honor, we watched An American in Paris.  I spent the next week watching all of the movies we owned starring him.  The following is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order (aside from Singin’, because I already did an entire post about that one):

#326: For Me and my Gal (1942).  This was Gene’s first movie, and he starred alongside film veteran Judy Garland.  She held his hand and guided him through the film making process, a favor he would later return to her.  Gene and Judy always had insane chemistry together, apparent from the get-go.  The movie was made right around the time WWII was in full swing, but is about WWI.  Gene plays a Vaudeville actor who partners up with Judy, with big dreams of playing The Palace.  He also freaks out about being drafted and purposefully ruins his hand to avoid going to war.  This movie has a lot of heart and fun, but also has a darker side to it.  Gene’s performance is a wee rough around the edges, but still great to watch.

#325: Take me out to the Ballgame (1949).  This was the second time Kelly was paired with Frank Sinatra (the first being Anchors Aweigh, which is ok, and famous for the dance sequence with the animated mouse, Jerry, but I like this one better).  Kelly plays a hotshot baseball player, who is a Vaudeville performer in the off season.  Sinatra is one of his teammates, along with Jules Munshin.  Kelly is a serious playboy, complete with a little black book.  The boys find out that the club owner has died and left the club to his relative, K.C. Higgins, who they assume, is a little know-nothing dude.  Turns out, K.C. is a know-everything chick, played by the amazingly sexy Esther Williams.  Of course, they fall in love.  This is a fun little flick, which was actually Kelly’s idea to begin with.  Well done, Gene.

#324: Thousands Cheer (1943).  One of the lesser known movies, also an early Kelly film.  This movie teams Kelly up with Kathryn Grayson.  Kelly plays an aerialist (read: trapeze artist) who has been grounded via the draft.  He wants to be a pilot, but is forced to be a foot soldier.  Grayson is the head Officer’s daughter, and love interest.  There’s this weird thing in the middle of the movie in which MGM hauls out its current array of stars to put on a USO-type show, which while entertaining, completely screws with the flow of the film.  I tend to fast-forward through a lot of it, but it’s worth watching if you’ve never seen it.  Aside from that, it is actually quite charming.

#323: On the Town (1949).  The third, and final, teaming of Kelly and Sinatra, plus Munshin.  An adaptation of the Comden and Green Broadway musical, it follows three sailors in New York City on 24-hour leave.  Hijinks and romance!  Also featuring the ever witty Betty Garrett, the always lovely Vera-Ellen, and the always spectacularly saucy Ann Miller.  At Kelly’s request, they shot much of this film on location, virtually unheard of for any movies, let alone musicals.  It was a smart move, though – the city itself plays a nice role in the film. 

#322: An American in Paris (1951).  Most people think of tap or modern dance when they think of Gene Kelly.  But what a lot of people don’t know is that Gene’s true dance love was ballet.  This movie was his love letter to ballet.  There is only one Featuring the music of the Gershwin Brothers, stunning choreography, and a lot of beautiful artwork, this is a must-see for any and all musical lovers. 

#321: Marjorie Morningstar (1958).  This is one of the rare non-musical, dramatic films Gene Kelly starred in.  Also starring Natalie Wood as his love interest (just go with it) and Ed Wynn.  He plays a guy who is a big fish in a small performing arts camp pond, who does not have the chops to make it as a serious, professional playwrite/composer.  It’s a decent movie, but the acting is, at times, very over the top – not just Gene’s, but Natalie’s as well.  The book is a great read, as well, check it out!

#320: Inherit the Wind (1960).  Gene plays the cynical journalist E.K. Hornbeck, based on journalist H.L. Menkin.  This is where he shines in a more dramatic role.  The movie is stunning and relevant today, and beautifully acted. 

#319: The Pirate (1948).  This was the second paring with Judy Garland, and is often overlooked, but stunning and smart.  Kelly performs with the Nicholas Brothers at the end of the movie to the Cole Porter song “Be a Clown”, showing off his tumbling skills.  This really is a unique movie, so you should check it out at least once.

#318: Summer Stock (1950).  This was not only his final film with Judy Garland, but it was her last film at MGM, and who better to work with than Gene?  Just as she took his hand and guided and supported him through his first movie, he did the same for her.  The two of them are insanely magnetic together, and the movie is a lot of fun.  It’s like the old “Let’s put on a show!” movies that Judy used to do with Mickey Rooney back in the day.  Definitely a must-see.

Gene Kelly was my first crush, an artist to look up to and emulate, and the reason I moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where I had the most amazing 3 ½ years of my young adulthood.  The influence he had on dance and the perception of male dancers is profound.  He was a tremendous talent, fiercely loyal, and stood by his convictions until his last days.  Happy 100th Birthday, Gene Kelly.  You are my lucky star.

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