The fella with the umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain — that will always be the way movie fans remember Gene Kelly, who died on Feb. 2 at 83 after a series of strokes. He was the guy who took hold of a lamppost as if it were a woman’s waist, swinging round it, and, with his open umbrella upside down, sang and splashed through backlot puddles with uncontained boyish delight.
Could that scene, which Kelly choreographed, performed, and directed, be the greatest sequence in the greatest movie musical of all time? Lots of pop-culture pooh-bahs think so. And why? Perhaps its creator was on to something key: the sheer, irrational silliness of love and the movies’ ability to capture it through the medium’s preposterous artifice.
Gene Kelly’s work as a screen actor, choreographer, dancer, singer, and director — from Anchors Aweigh (1945) through Singin’ in the Rain (1952), right up to the effervescent It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) — endures, above all, as the expression of a brashly American kind of grace. ”Funny thing,” Kelly once said with his usual disarming simplicity, ”we Americans are extremely afraid of the word graceful applied to men. I’ve never seen an athlete who was not graceful — from a football player running with a ball to Mickey Mantle at bat. And moving with grace means you are relaxed — best way to be.”
To watch the compact Kelly glide across the screen in a T-shirt and loafers is to see the fusion of classical ballet’s rigor with the casual abandon of American pop. Kelly was never a show-off, performing gymnastic feats gratuitously; his muscular style was always true to his regular-guy roles. He took his work, but never himself, seriously. It was his determined intention, he said, to develop a bigger, bolder ”American style” of screen dance, abandoning the approach moviegoers had come to expect at the movies: the intimate, elegant steps of Fred Astaire in top hat, white tie, and tails.
The Pittsburgh-born Kelly seemed, at first, the guy least likely to revolutionize dance in the movies: He had planned to become a lawyer. Drawing on childhood dance training, he set out to make a buck while attending the University of Pittsburgh and got involved in some local musical-comedy productions. That so effectively sparked the dance bug that he soon opened two dance schools with his family.
At 26, Kelly landed a job the second week after he moved to New York, in the chorus of a Broadway musical called Leave It to Me; soon after, he won notice as the tap-dancing Harry the Hoofer in the William Saroyan play The Time of Your Life. The Broadway part that made him a star was the title role in Pal Joey, the seminal 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical in which the hero was a heel. Soon, Hollywood was on the phone.
Kelly’s trademark film ingenuity began with Cover Girl (1944), in which his store-window reflection literally jumps out at him and he dances with himself; it continued with Anchors Aweigh, where his partner was an animated Jerry the mouse. For Singin’ in the Rain, he choreographed a number in and around and atop a sofa (and don’t forget that lamppost), and for It’s Always Fair Weather, he danced a dazzlingly romantic solo on roller skates.
Among Kelly’s other tours de force in choreography, dancing, and acting during the golden age of MGM musicals were The Pirate (1948), Summer Stock (1950), Brigadoon (1954), and Les Girls (1957). On television, he played an ideal role for an Irish Catholic who’d been christened Eugene Curran Kelly, Father O’Malley in the 1962 series Going My Way. He turned most of his attention to directing in the ’60s, with the films A Guide for the Married Man (1967) and Hello, Dolly! (1969).
His private life and portraits of him in the press suggested a well-adjusted, rather ordinary fellow: no scandals, no controversies, just a quiet but busy life. Divorced once (from actress Betsy Blair in 1957), widowed once (Jeanne Coyne, a dancer, died in 1973), and married since 1990 to writer Patricia Ward, Kelly is survived by three children from his earlier marriages.
Although Singin’ in the Rain was not Kelly’s personal favorite (that movie was On the Town), he said that in it, ”I wanted to bring audiences back to their childhoods…to make them feel like they were in love. A fellow in love does silly things.” This particular fellow, Gene Kelly, did wonderfully silly things on screen for more than half a century, leaving behind quicksilver images of impossibly pure happiness and high spirits.