Gene Kelly had a storied career as dancer, singer and choreographer. He also partnered with many of the greatest actresses and dancers in show business. He taught dance at his family’s Pittsburgh dance school while attending college and then law school. He gave that up when he decided to act and choreograph on Broadway. He had success acting in The Time of Your Life in 1939 and then Pal Joey. He came to Hollywood to make his first movie in 1941 for MGM, the soon to be classic For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. With great chemistry, smashing good-looks, and his athletic dancing style, Kelly made a star of himself in this sentimental vaudeville-themed movie. What should have been obvious somehow eluded MGM, as he was next placed in straight roles as a pilot in WW II in Pilot #5 and then as Alec Howe/Black Arrow in DuBarry was a Lady,
Columbia Pictures knew exactly how to use Kelly in his next movie: Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth in its first Technicolor film. In this story of the Hayworth character’s yearning to make it as a star on Broadway, Kelly danced and choreographed as well. Although un-credited, Columbia and director Charles Vidor gave him license to choreograph and direct the “alter-ego” scene, assisted by Stanley Donen whom he had worked with on Broadway. In the scene he dances with himself (his inner conscience) as partner. Cover Girl was a hit for Columbia. It won an Oscar for Best Musical Score and had three other nominations including for Best Song: Long Ago and Far Away.
With MGM’s Anchors Aweigh in 1945, Gene Kelly hit full maturity on film. The movie co-starred Frank Sinatra and singer Kathryn Grayson. Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on shore leave looking for fun and romance – and find so much more. In a scene that made movie history, Gene Kelly’s dance partner was Jerry the Mouse of the Tom and Jerry cartoon characters. MGM had wanted to use Mickey Mouse but Disney wouldn’t grant permission. Instead they developed their own animation unit. Stanley Donen worked for most of a year with the animators to animate Jerry’s dance with Gene Kelly. Kelly appeared next in an all-star MGM musical, The Ziegfeld Follies in 1945. The movies didn’t have a plot but was a series of musical numbers and comedy skits much like an old Ziegfeld Revue. Gene Kelly’s dance partner in this movie was also a historic pairing: Fred Astaire. They only danced together twice in their career, and the second time was 31 years later for That’s Entertainment. In Ziegfeld Follies they danced in the The Babbitt and the Bromide number. The characters are personality types based on literary characters made into a Gershwin song. Gene and Fred pussy-footed around each other to work out a dance number, each used to being the lead. Gene showed deference to Fred’s seniority and they settled on this older number even though it wasn’t a stretch for either of them.
After Gene Kelly’s service during WWII and his starring in Living in a Big Way, his next starring role was The Pirate in 1948. Here he was reunited with Judy Garland in the Vincente Minnelli directed romantic comedy. The movie was an ideal vehicle to showcase Kelly’s dancing, athleticism, and plain good looks in buccaneer costumes. Kelly doesn’t really dance with Judy as the character Manuela in this movie, but as the character Serafin/Macoco he dances and performs for her to win her affection. He does dance with the amazing Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard. And partners with Judy Garland in their wonderful Be a Clown number. The latter’s melody was the same used as “Make em Laugh” by Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. The following year, 1949, Kelly started with the dramatic dance number in Words and Music to “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” with his dance partner Vera-Ellen. The movie was about the composing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe and Valles designed the men’s. Although in their scene together both Gene Kelly’s costume and Vera-Ellen’s are smart and sexy, their colors don’t complement each other- neither opposites (complementary) nor matching. Gene was in black pants with a violet top. and Vera-Ellen had a scarlet dress with a striped yellow top.
Nineteen forty-nine was a good year for Gene Kelly. He next starred in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, co-starring Frank Sinatra , Esther Williams and Jules Munchin. The story was about early 1900s baseball players performing Vaudeville at night. The team’s owner K.C. Higgins just happens to be the beautiful Esther Williams. Since Vaudeville is part of the plot, many of the scenes are songs and skits. Kelly did a dance scene partnered with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was at a low ebb in his career at this point. Dancing was not one of his skills, but since Kelly had been a dance instructor he taught Sinatra some basic steps to keep up with him in their song and dance number, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Gene Kelly and Esther Williams had one dance number together in “Baby Doll,” but it was cut for the final release. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. She was particularly talented at designing turn-of the-20th century costumes, and did a fabulous job here. Valles likewise did a great job with the men’s outfits. And then there was On the Town. The movie was based on the Jerome Robbins New York ballet from 1944. MGM bought the movie rights before the musical even opened, but then Louis B. Mayer didn’t like the results. Betty Comden and Adolph Green had written the original book and were asked to re-write it for the movie. Leonard Bernstein composed the original score. Four of his songs were kept and he wrote six new ones for the movie. For the first time, Stanley Donen directed the film, with Gene Kelly also credited. Kelly’s co-stars were Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Jules Munchin, Ann Miller, and Betty Garrett. The movie also complement the story of Anchors Aweigh of sailors Gene Kelly (Gabey) and Frank Sinatra (Chip) now joined by Jules Munchin (Ozzie) on shore-leave. But here they have leave in “New York, New York a helluva town,” only the censor wouldn’t allow them to sing “helluva” so the word was substituted by “wonderful.” Nonetheless, with Gene Kelly’s insistence, location shooting in New York was done for several scenes including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Fifth Avenue. The story line is sailors out to see New York but naturally they get sidetracked looking for women and getting into adventures. Kelly as Gabey can’t get past the subway without falling in love with a photo of “Miss Turnstiles” on a poster. His love interest is the lovely Vera-Ellen. He catches up with her as she becomes his story dance partner in two of the several great dance numbers: “Main Street;” and the colorful “A Day in New York Ballet.” The latter number introduced the great dancer Carol Haney to film. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. The lead men stayed in their Navy whites, which made the colorful yellow, rose, and green costumes of the women stand out as an ideal choice.
In 1950 Gene Kelly did a favor to Judy Garland by starring in Summer Stock. Not that she asked for this favor, but she was starring in the movie coming off of a suspension from MGM and three months in a drug-cure clinic. She needed support and Kelly was there to give it to her as was friendly director Charles Walters. Even then it was rocky for Judy. She had gained weight in the clinic and costume designer Walter Plunkett designed loose blouses and dresses with open collars that emphasized her face. Since the story was about a theater summer stock company living and rehearsing in a farm barn owned by Judy’s character, she is often dressed in overalls. Town and country soon clash in the story but love also develops. The reason they came to the farm was because Judy’s sister Abigail played by Gloria DeHaven wanted to be in show business and her boyfriend was the theater troupe manager. The character was Gene Kelly, and before long he was falling for Judy Garland (Jane). Jane had some talent too. Besides driving a tractor she could sing and dance. And in “Portland Fancy,” Gene and Judy do a great tap dance number for the far farm community. But Summer Stock also featured Judy’s finale number,, “Get Happy.” It was filmed two months after principal photography was finished and a big closing number was sought. Judy had lost weight in the interval and looked very trim compared to the beginning of the movie. She wore just a black tuxedo jacket, white blouse, fedora, and black hose. The costume was a hold-over from a scene in Easter Parade that had been deleted. It was a knock-out number based on a Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler Christian revivalist song. Gene Kelly never had high hopes for Summer Stock. Yet one of his best career numbers was his solo dance with a newspaper in a barn, and Judy’s “Get Happy” was a memorable number. As it happened, this was also Judy’s last movie for MGM.
Gene Kelly’s next movie was to be his most ambitious yet, and a highlight of his career: An American in Paris. Working closely with Vincente Minnelli, the movie would be about an American artist living in Paris, with many of its scenes danced through landscapes inspired by famous French and International painters.
The decision by producer Arthur Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute dance sequence was bold and risky. In 1948 the success of The Red Shoes filmed in England would serve as inspiration. But in An American in Paris, the art scenes as background depicted the emotional state of Kelly as the protagonist. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner.
Costume designer Irene Sharaff was one of three designers for the film. She had been a Broadway designer and had worked for Minnelli at MGM previously.. Minnelli convinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets. Ames had been an architecture student in Paris, and could quickly envision the set designs. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?
Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafts.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers (firemen) for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next. And so Gene Kelly dances through the various scenes, with Leslie Caron as his partner Lise Bouvier. The dance scene is not the entire movie, but it represents Kelly as Jerry Mulligan’s love for Lise, with a red rose as its symbol.
In addition to Irene Sharaff, two other costume designers worked on the film: Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for the “Black and White” Ball scene, including Kelly’s and Caron’s costumes, and Orry- Kelly designed the other costumes in the films. He also designed Leslie Caron’s green dance costume for the dance scene in the Fountain of the Concorde. Plunkett also designed one of Caron’s ballet costumes. An American in Paris was Gene Kelly’s favorite film. It won six Academy Awards for: Best Picture; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Screenplay; Best Music Scoring; and Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett.
More about Gene Kelly’s movies and dance partners will be covered in PART II of SILVERSCREENMODES.COM