GENE KELLY b.1912
He never set out to be a dancer. As a teenager, Gene Kelly claimed, he took dancing lessons only because you got to hold the girl. ”Dancing was courtship,” he explained. ”Only later did I discover that you dance joy. You dance love. You dance dreams.”
Few did it like Kelly. Arriving from Broadway in 1942, he brought brash new life to the Hollywood musical. He was athletic, exuberant, seemingly spontaneous in the way he splashed down the sidewalk in his greatest hit, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. You could feel the joy in his dancing. You could see it in his face, in that dazzling smile, as he danced on rooftops or roller skates.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that he was a handsome devil. But Kelly’s real appeal was his regular guy-ness. He was just a middle-class kid from Pittsburgh who’d dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pirates. Let Fred Astaire wear the top hat and tails; Kelly would take the sweatshirt and khakis.
Not just blessed with fancy footwork, Kelly was also a brilliant, innovative choreographer. Whether stunting with Jerry the cartoon mouse (1945’s Anchors Aweigh) or taking to the streets of New York for the first musical ever shot on location (1949’s On the Town) or creating an all-dance film without a word of dialogue (1956’s Invitation to the Dance), Kelly never stopped raising the bar for himself.
Though he would later dabble in dramatic roles (1960’s Inherit the Wind) and directing (1969’s Hello, Dolly!), at heart he was always a hoofer. Even 30 years past his prime, skating in a roller-disco number in 1980’s lamentable Xanadu, he was still the same old Gene: still sparked by unstoppable energy, still lighting up the screen with that incandescent grin. — Michael Sauter
ELLA FITZGERALD b.1917
Bandleader Chick Webb wasn’t so sure about the girl singer one of his musicians had been raving about after seeing her win the Amateur Night contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Still, he decided to give the untrained 16-year-old a shot at the mike during a 1934 Yale dance. ”If the kids like her,” Webb said, ”she stays.”
Ella Fitzgerald stayed. Over the next 61 years, the shy, awkward kid from Virginia blossomed into ”the first lady of song,” a jazz vocalist of unparalleled technical mastery and serene emotional power. Ironically, she never quite conquered her insecurities: Though Fitzgerald recorded more than 100 albums, was awarded 18 Grammys, and won Downbeat magazine’s best female jazz singer poll for 18 consecutive years, she often asked bystanders ”Did I do all right?” as she came off stage.
Her combination of girlishness and chops fueled her first big hit, 1938’s ”A-Tisket, A-Tasket” — a nursery rhyme deconstructed into scat essentials. When bebop erupted after the war, Fitzgerald was there to give it voice. ”Ella can do anything to a melody except damage,” said critic Leonard Feather. But it took new manager Norman Granz to point her toward her enduring legacy: the series of ”songbooks,” starting in the mid-’50s, devoted to such great American tunesmiths as Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, and Duke Ellington. Her singing wasn’t about struggle — for that, hear Billie Holiday — but if you doubt that Fitzgerald was an astoundingly subtle mistress of emotions, listen to the shadings she packs into a song as simple as the Gershwins’ ”Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Rest easy, Ella. You did all right.