Gene Kelly: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Choreographer

by Melannie Svoboda SND on July 25, 2016

Recently I turned on the movie channel and chanced upon a showing of An American in Paris. After watching it for just a few minutes, I was hooked. In fact I ended up watching the entire film.

This 1951 musical features the music of George Gershwin and the dancing of Gene Kelly.

Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly

Was there ever a more brilliant and entertaining combination? The movie won eight Oscars including a special one for Gene Kelly who not only starred in the film, but co-directed it and did all the choreography. I confess, Gene Kelly’s dancing has always utterly amazed me! So I did a little research on the man.

Gene Kelly was born in 1912 and raised in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. At the age of eight, he and his younger brother were forced by their mother to take dancing lessons. They hated these lessons—mostly because the other boys called them sissies. Besides, Kelly’s dream at that time in his life was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates—not to dance! As a teenager, however, he resumed his dancing, mostly in staged musicals. In college he majored in journalism, but when the Depression hit, he quit college to help support his family. In 1932 his family opened a dance school and eventually Kelly decided to pursue a career in dancing. He moved to New York and, through hard work and exceptional talent, he began landing roles in stage productions and then movies.

Gene Kelly dancing with Frank Sinatra in "Anchors Away."

Gene Kelly dancing with Frank Sinatra in “Anchors Away.”

Kelly’s dancing has been described as “athletic and muscular.” Fred Astaire, whom he admired and worked with on occasion, danced mostly in a top hat and tails. Kelly, in contrast, often danced in T-shirts and ordinary pants. Astaire’s dancing was called “aristocratic, classical, aerial” whereas Kelly’s was labeled “democratic, romantic, terrestial.”

Kelly was always the innovator. He was the first to use the split screen in a musical. He also combined live action with animation. For example, in Anchors Away (1945) he dances with an animated character named Jerry Mouse. In another film he tap dances wearing roller skates! Another time he tied garbage can lids to his feet and used the lids as taps!

By all accounts Kelly worked very hard to make his dancing appear effortless. One dancer

Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain."

Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.”

said that after rehearsing for eight hours, all the exhausted dancers left the theater—except Kelly who stayed on to practice his steps even more. In his later years he seemed most proud of helping many neophyte actors with their careers. It was Kelly, for example, who picked Debbie Reynolds for Singing in the Rain. She was only 18 years old  at the time and didn’t know how to dance. But Kelly taught her and she ended up becoming a great dancer, explaining, “I learned from the best.”

In his personal life, Kelly married actress Betsy Blair in 1941. They had one child but later divorced. He then married Jeanne Coyne with whom he had two more children. They were married until her death in 1973. In his later years Kelly was married to Patricia Ward until his own death in 1996. Although raised Catholic, Kelly became disillusioned with the Church when it supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Later, after visiting Mexico, he became even more estranged from the Church for aligning itself with the rich and powerful while neglecting the poor. Sadly, he became an agnostic. In the 1980’s Kelly suffered two strokes. At his death, he requested that there be no funeral or memorial service.

What will Gene Kelly be most remembered for? Probably his dance to the song “Singin’ in the Rain.” Kelly was ill the day that dance was filmed. In fact, he had a temperature of 103! Yet he dances with vitality and power. At the beginning of the dance he leaps onto the lamp post with ease. He later turns his umbrella into his dancing partner. And at the end he splashes in the puddles like a little kid. For me, the song and dance encapsulate the transforming power love can have on a person’s life. Love can transform even rainy days into beautiful times! The Boston Globe said of Kelly’s dance: “Has exultation ever been expressed more memorably?” I think not!

I am closing with two short videos. The first is Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” dance. The second is a montage of his dancing. I hope you enjoy one or both of them!

 

“Singin’ in the Rain”:

 

 

“Montage of Gene Kelly Dancing”:

What are your thoughts on Gene Kelly? On music and dance? On the power of love to transform our life?

PS: Thank you for your prayers for the spirituality day I shared with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Watertown, NY. And thanks to Sister Eamon and all the SSJ’s for their warmth, hospitality, prayerfulness, and fun!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

John Hopkins July 25, 2016 at 7:11 am

Dear Sister Melannie!

That was truly amazing, like watching a psalm in motion! Thank you!

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Rosemary July 25, 2016 at 10:16 am

Happy Monday, Dear Sister
I, too, am a lifetime admirer and lover of Gene Kelly. Talent, personality,
motion unsurpassed puts me in another place……filled with joy, wonder and happy feet!!! Who can be still while watching him dance ❣
My favorite movie with him is Singing in the Rain…and on some of Ohio’s never ending rainy days, I find myself singing along . Let a smile be your umbrella on a rainy, rainy day.
The videos are awesome!!!! As always, hugs and love to you.

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Sr. Irene Novak July 25, 2016 at 10:16 am

Thank you, Melanie. I am absolutely amazed at the many topics from which you draw so much inspiration and your willingness to share this procedure of interior recollection with so many of us.

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Ilene July 25, 2016 at 10:29 am

That was jubilant! Just what I needed to get moving in the morning after oversleeping.

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Sonya Gonzalez July 25, 2016 at 11:11 am

Dear Sr. Melanie,
I was wrestling with a title for a painting I completed last night until I read today’s Sunflower Seeds. I call this painting “The Power of Love “.
I am going to send it separately. Let me know if you receive it. Share if you like.
I read Sunflower Seeds every Monday –a great way to begin the week!
Thank you! SG

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Linda July 25, 2016 at 11:54 am

Thank you, sister Melanie! My mom introduced us to Gene Kelly. These two videos brought a big smile to my face. Just loved this!

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Karen July 25, 2016 at 12:59 pm

I have always loved his athleticism, talent and dedication. I read somewhere that both Gene Kelly & Fred Astaire were very focused on making their work not just “good enough”, but “great”. This didn’t always make them easy to live with, but who can argue with the results? I see him as a great role model of someone who truly lived their craft and was devoted to always improving it. We all know many people who have “one year experience, 20 times over” and then, if we’re lucky, we have the privilege to know just one person who has spent 20 yrs refining their art. Whatever we do – whether it is art, or our profession, or even our prayer life, we should never settle for just “good enough” and know there’ is always room to grow in depth and understanding. Last thought: I always bristle when I hear people “dismiss” some artists as having “natural talent”, as if that negates the need for practice. I always try to remember that artists like this who “make it look so easy” have put a huge amount of effort and heart into making it appear “easy”, but it never is.

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Rose July 25, 2016 at 1:33 pm

I am always inspired and uplifted by one’s heart and that is definitely what Gene Kelly was driven by. Loved his movies although I do lean more towards Fred Astaire.

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Patty July 25, 2016 at 1:50 pm

Thank you, Sister.

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Anita July 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm

Hi Sister
I like your honesty about how he drifted from the church due to things he didn’t agree with. I certainly understand his sentiments and don’t fault him for his actions. However, I do hope he found a way to keep God in his life despite being disillusioned by the church. I also think our church has come a long way from those days. Hooray!

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Sister Mary Eamon Lyng July 25, 2016 at 8:41 pm

Sr. Melannie,
How I enjoyed to the two clips of Gene Kelly. He was one of my favorite dancers. My mother enjoyed all of his movies and got me hooked as well.
We enjoyed your presence with us last week!

Many blessings upon your ministry!
Sr. Eamon

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Beverly Palumbo, RSM July 26, 2016 at 9:48 am

Thanks…a real contrast to what is often offered as entertainment today….joy is so important. God bless

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Cathy Baier July 26, 2016 at 10:25 am

It is sad to think of him being a Catholic and then being gradually drawn away from his faith until he was an agnostic. It is a reminder of how we have to “guard our faith” and surround ourselves with people of faith to support us.
You can’t watch him dance without smiling!

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ElizabethDear Melannie, Once again you bring a timely message. Today, I start anew, You have reminded me to b e aware of the blessings of TODAY . Thank you for your always timely message. July 31, 2016 at 10:52 am

Dear Melannie,
You can always bring back beautiful memories. Thanks. Your videos lifted my spirits. They took me back to one of your handouts which I often refer to, Fallow Time. Very inspiring and joyful. Blessings, Eliazbeth

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