He created, choreographed and starred in some of the most acclaimed musicals in Hollywood history such as 'Singin' in the Rain' in 1952 which has been voted the single most popular movie musical of all time.
Kelly's dancing style was very different to Fred Astaire's, more masculine and informal, and his singing voice was stronger than Astaire's. He was the only male dancer to approach Astaire's astonishingly high standards.
Gene Kelly is ranked at number 15 on the American Film Institute's list of Greatest Male Stars and in 1951, the Academy awarded him a special Oscar for 'An American in Paris' for his extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography'.
BiographyGene was born Eugene Curran Kelly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 23, 1912 into a large comfortably off Irish family. He was one of three brothers and he also had two sisters. He started dancing at the age of eight when his mother enrolled him into classes with his elder brother, James, although neither brother initially enjoyed the experience. As a young boy Kelly was more interested in sport than dancing.
He graduated from Peabody High School in 1929, and enrolled in Pennsylvania State College to study journalism but after a year the economic crash forced him to leave and seek work to help the family finances.
Dancing for a LivingHe and his younger brother, Fred began entering, and winning prize money, dancing in talent contests and then developed an act for local nightclubs with routines developed by Gene. When he was eighteen, with his father descending into alcoholism, Gene and Fred joined their mother who had taken over a dance studio in Pittsburgh.
Whilst teaching at the family's dance studio Gene studied at the University of Pittsburgh and obtained a BA in Economics in 1933. He then went on to briefly study law, but dropped it in favor of his increasing love of teaching and performing. He eventually decided to make a full time career in showbusiness, and in 1938 he moved to New York to seek work as a dancer and choreographer.
Broadway Dancer 1938Within a year he was able to join his first Broadway show, in the chorus of 'Leave It to Me', and in 1939 he got a bigger part, doing a total of eight routines in the revue 'One for the Money'. Gene was becoming well known and he got his breakthrough role in November, 1939 in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'The Time of Your Life'.
In 1940 he won the lead role and got his biggest stage triumph to date, as Joey Evans in the original Broadway production of 'Pal Joey'. The show was a major success and things now began to move fast for the up and coming young star.
Hollywood CareerHe was signed by film producer David O Selznick to a seven year contract and was brought to Hollywood to appear with Judy Garland in 'For Me and My Gal' in 1942. Then in 1943 he was cast opposite Lucille Ball in 'Du Barry Was a Lady' and in the same year he performed a mock-dance with a mop in 'Thousands Cheer'.
1944 saw him co-star with Rita Hayworth in 'Cover Girl' where he again memorably danced with an unusual partner - his own reflection. The following year his innovative choreography was rewarded when he was nominated for the Best Actor Award for his performance in 'Anchors Aweigh' in which he sensationally danced with a cartoon Jerry Mouse.
Kelly teamed up with Fred Astaire in "The Babbitt and the Bromide" dance routine in 'Ziegfeld Follies', released in 1946, although actually produced in 1944, before leaving the studio for wartime duties with the U.S. Naval Air Service. He starred in several Navy films and became involved in writing and directing documentaries whilst serving in the Photographic section in Anacostia, DC.
He returned to Hollywood in 1946 and was cast in a number of forgettable 'B' movies, but then he entered a period of creativity in which he changed the movie musical for ever. With Judy Garland and directed by Vincente Minnelli he starred in 'The Pirate' in 1948. The movie was not well received but was ahead of its time and is now regarded as a classic and in it Kelly was able to continue to develop his own uniquely masculine and athletic style of dancing.
In 1949 he was assigned his own movie to co-direct with Stanley Donen and the result was the innovative and influential 'On The Town', his third film with Frank Sinatra, and the first musical film shot on location. Kelly handled the choreography, including a unique modern ballet sequence and Donen looked after the more traditional director's duties.
After this major success Kelly took a straight role in 'The Black Hand' later in 1949, followed the following year by another musical with Judy Garland 'Summer Stock' in which he memorably dances with a newspaper and a squeaky floorboard.
Creative PeakKelly followed this with his two masterpieces, 'An American in Paris', and 'Singin' in the Rain'. Made in 1951 'An American in Paris', with its amazing and daring 17 minute ballet sequence, earned seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Kelly himself was awarded a special individual Oscar. The following year Kelly actually improved on this phenomenal achievement and made 'Singin' in the Rain', in which musical comedy reaches sublime heights not reached before or since. The movie tells a tale of Hollywood at the start of the sound era, and it perfectly mixes singing and dancing with delightful comedy and a romantic interest. The performance of the title song by Gene Kelly is one of the best known and most unforgettable sequences ever filmed. 'Singin' in the Rain' received two nominations but no Academy Awards, but has gradually risen in public and critical estimation and is now regarded by many as the best musical ever made.
In just ten years Kelly had risen to the pinnacle of Hollywood achievement but he would never again reach these heights. The remainder of his career was in many ways a long-drawn out anticlimax. The era of the classic Hollywood musical had ended and the specialist Freed unit at MGM was wound down. Kelly continued to appear in musicals, such as 'Brigadoon' in 1954 and 'It's Always Fair Weather' in 1955 but none reached the heights of his previous work.
His ambitious 1956 movie, 'Invitation to the Dance' in which the characters perform their roles entirely through dance and mime, and which he wrote, choreographed, starred in and directed, was not well received although it is now regarded as a landmark film.
Kelly began to play more non-musical roles as in 'Inherit the Wind' in 1960 and he expanded his skills into directing such movies as 'A Guide for the Married Man' in 1967 and 'Hello, Dolly!' in 1969. Thereafter he appeared on screen less frequently, most often as host or narrator of TV specials or of film compilations as in the 'That's Entertainment!' series of 1974, 1976 and 1994, and their companion piece, 'That's Dancing!' in 1985.
PersonalKelly married three times and his first two marriages were to dancers. He met Betsy Blair in the show 'Diamond Horseshoe'. They married in 1941 and had one daughter, Kerry before divorcing in 1957.
His second marriage was in 1960 to Jeanne Coyne, who had been his dancing assistant for many years and who had divorced Stanley Donen in 1949 after a brief marriage. They had two children, Bridget and Tim and the marriage ended with Jeanne's death of leukemia in 1973. Gene raised their two young children alone, refusing any work which would take him away from the Los Angeles area.
In 1985 Kelly met author Patricia Ward when he was narrator on a television special that she was writing. They married five years later, the marriage ending with his death.
Gene Kelly died in his sleep on February 2, 1996, in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 83, after a stroke. He left instructions that there was to be no funeral and no memorial services.
He was a dancing genius and he left a timeless body of masterly work which still amazes and thrills us.
Gene Kelly Academy AwardsNo Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actor ... Anchors Aweigh (1945)
"In appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film." (1952)
Gene Kelly Filmography
Du Barry Was a Lady
The Cross of Lorraine
Living in a Big Way
The Three Musketeers
On the Town