That Old Feeling: Danciní Man

  • Share
  • Read Later
If Gene Kelly were around today (he died in 1996), he might find this poignant. What is the most popular movie genre in the world today? Not melodrama or comedy or horror or teen pop-star showcases. Correct answer: the musical.

All right, thatís a trick answer. It happens that the Indian film industry called Bollywood (not the American one called Hollywood) makes the most movies per year, and that in virtually every Indian picture is a musical. Though fans of Kellyís "On the Town," "An American in Paris" and "Singiní in the Rain" might not recognize the form, the fact is that, whether an Indian movie is a love story or a period epic or a four-hour saga about cricket, at some point people will sing and dance in dazzling, delirious production numbers. And as often as not — perhaps because India is monsoon country — theyíre singing in the rain.

But thatís Indi-tainment. Pretty much everywhere else — including places like France, Britain and Hong Kong, where decades ago musicals were a prominent, sometimes predominant form — the musical is dead. Nowhere is it more dormant, of course, than where it all started, in Hollywood.

In the 30s perhaps one of every three films — and I mean not just the Busby Berkeley and Astaire-Rogers musicals, but westerns, weepies, Marx Brothers farces — had original songs. In the 40s and 50s it had Kelly and his MGM team, and that was more than enough; that was heaven. Even in the 60s, when the genre was long past its vital prime, yet the industry keep producing bantamweight musical series starring Doris Day, Elvis Presley, Frankie and Annette. As recently as the 90s, Disneyís tremendously successful cartoon features were musicals, with songs that hit the top of the charts. For ages, the genre was both popular and officially revered: nine times in the first 40 years of Academy Awards, and five times between 1958 and 1968, the top Oscar went to a musical.

Then it all stopped. Today, thereís next to nothing. The Oscar nomination for "Moulin Rouge" is the exception that proves the rule (and that film was the inspiration of an Aussie bloke in love with a vanished movie form). One reason is that pop music, which once was known, accepted and shower-sung by everybody, was commandeered by rock ín roll and became a niche market — a huge one, but still... — for kids. Rock and old-fashioned pop were mutually exclusive: the sort of song that would attract one part of the audience would invariably repel another.

Thatís only part of the explanation. Remember that musicals were song-and-dance shows. There were dance stars, like Eleanor Powell, who didnít sing, didnít really act, only danced. And just about everyone else — Gable, Sinatra, Garbo, Welles — was asked to dance a little. Many of them (Cagney, Stanwyck) were quite good at it, having made a living as Broadway hoofers before they went west. Broadway and vaudeville were training grounds for a lot of 30s stars, and for the early talking picture format as well. The idea was to give the movie audience a little bit of everything: comedy, drama, song, dance. Young moviegoers saw the dancing, liked it, and wanted to try it. When talent matched ambition, a new generation of dancers was born, restocking Broadway and Hollywood.

Audiences intuitively understood the language of film dance, knew what it meant as a skill and as an expression of emotion. For moviegoers, moving pictures of moving figures could be so ... moving. Poetry in motion. As the girl was swept into the boyís arms, viewers were swept into the deepest empathy. Thatís why, to many people, the most romantic film couple was not Gable and Lombard but Astaire and Rogers — because Fred and Ginger translated feelings of love, depression, jealousy, joy in the integrated choreography of their bodies. In this more inhibited era, holding a woman or lifting her or spinning her across the ballroom floor was the most explicit metaphor for the whole range of intimacies in a love affair. And it was surpassingly beautiful, enthralling, to watch.

Like most great things, it couldnít last. Hollywood stopped dancing long before it stopped singing. Directors, influenced by European films, pursued "realism" in stories, behavioral acting and sets. Who danced in real life? And who needed the dance metaphor for eroticism, now that Hollywood could show the real thing? So dance disappeared from movies ... and no no no no no, Britney Spears rotating her tush in "Crossroads" is not movie dancing.

Itís all such a pity, if only because it stranded Kelly. He had come in at the end of the musical cycle, and helped extend it. He had democratized dance, and brought the movie musical to a new maturity. And while he was on his game — essentially from the 1944 "Cover Girl" to the 1955 "Itís Always Fair Weather" — Kelly gave the audience plenty to think about, smile about, move to and be moved by.

GREEN GENE

"Gene Kelly created his own style," choreographer Kenny Oretga says in "Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer," a documentary airing this weekend on PBS (Sunday, March 3, on the "American Masters" series, with reruns surely galore on your local stations). "He was the most athletic, the most exciting, the most masculine, the most commercial dancer of his time. He created a technique. He was his own technique."

Destined to be a video-store perennial, Robert Trachtenbergís 85-min. bio-doc, narrated by Stanley Tucci, does a nice job of Gene-splicing: inter-cutting Kelly movie clips with comments from an unusually wide range of friends and savants. The friends (wife Betsy Blair, daughter Kerry, director Stanley Donen, actress Debbie Reynolds) are neither fawning nor vengeful. The experts (biographers Clive Hirschhorn and Stephen Silverman, critics Elvis Mitchell and Jeanine Basinger) are helpful, precise and affectionate. It turns out that even Peter Wollen, the most serious film theoretician in the English language — Lacanís brain encased in Beckettís skull — loves Kelly with an acute enthusiasm.

Trachtenberg is as aware as everyone else of Kellyís achievements and limitations; these were sometimes the same thing, like his ambition, which was great for movies, tough on his co-workers. The Hollywood numbers are smartly chosen, and thereís some rare footage: of the teen Gene dancing, and of Gene in "Pal Joey," filmed surreptitiously by a fan. (The documentary also commits a mortal sin. In the middle of the single most famous shot in the Kelly oeuvre — from "Singiní in the Rain," when Gene is whirls on the rain-drenched street and the camera cranes back and up — Trachtenberg cuts to a talking head. Unforgivable! Hey, Joe, get me a tarantula!)

The documentary efficiently, handsomely lays out the Kelly story. In brief: Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh on August 23, 1912. He was already a teenager when his brother Fred, four years younger, taught him to tap dance. The family opening two dancing schools, tutoring the locals and occasionally serving as a "dance doctor" to vaudevillians passing through town. Even when he was green, even with his loving folks, Gene could drive a hard bargain. Since he was the driving force of the family enterprise, he fought for his name above the title — Gene Kelly Studios of Dance — and won. He would keep fighting and winning for the next quarter century.

Late coming to dance, Kelly was late coming to Broadway: 25 when he came to New York. He made his Broadway debut in the chorus of "Leave Her to Me," then played Harry the Hoofer in William Saroyanís "The Time of Your Life" — "the first time," Kelly recalled in 1976, "I realized you could make a characterization out of dancing." While creating dances for "Billy Roseís Diamond Horseshoe," he met a chorine named Betsy Blair; they married in 1940 (divorcing in 1977). He reached Broadway stardom as the title heel in "Pal Joey" and, at the same time, choreographed "Best Foot Forward." (This guy did everything!) MGM boss Louis B. Mayer offered him a contract. When Mayer reneged on a promise that no screen test would be required, Kelly, furious, signed with David O. Selznick — who didnít make musicals. So the actor wound up at MGM, and stayed for 15 years.

Through the 40s and 50s Kelly would make about two "straight" films for every three musicals. Selznick wanted him to concentrate on being a dramatic actor, but that was idiocy, blindness — couldnít the mogul see that Kelly "got-ta dance", that his feet had to do their stuff? Mayer was slow coming around too; Kelly didnít become a star until he was loaned to Columbia for "Cover Girl," where he was paired with Rita Hayworth and, behind the scenes with an old Broadway pal (actually a young one, since he was 19 at the time), Stanley Donen. Off and on, mostly on, for the next decade, Kelly and Donen would shape their filmís dances, then their dances and direction. They co-directed "On the Town," "Singiní in the Rain" and "Itís Always Fair Weather." Their work together was, in Silvermanís words, "a magical combination of Gene Kellyís charisma and Stanley Donenís chutzpah."

FRED AND GENE

Before there was Gene Kelly (and after), there was Fred Astaire, the creator and apotheosis of movie dance. By the time Kelly got to Hollywood in 1941, Astaire had already completed his amazing series of RKO musicals with Rogers. Among other things, this run of eight films — from "Flying Down to Rio" in 1933 to "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" in 1939 — established the gangly Fred Austerlitz from Omaha as the most elegant man in the world.

Astaireís achievement can be considered alone; heís solus rex. But Kelly, more than any top Hollywood star I can think of, cannot be discussed without reference to another star; he must be appraised in relation, or opposition, to Astaire. Kelly was the younger brother, way brasher, more overtly ambitious, letting the steel and sweat show — Gene was No. 2, he had to try harder. Fred was No. 1 with a ballet. And in American movie dance, there was no third.

Whatís interesting about Kelly is that he wasnít an imitation of the older man; he wasnít the 40s Fred. He was the anti-Astaire. As Kelly himself said, in 1975: "Fred represents the aristocracy when he dances. And I represent the proletarian." As TIMEís Richard Schickel noted in his 1996 obit of Kelly: "Astaire put us in touch with our romantic ideals and with that perfection of manner the rest of us attain only in our more blissful daydreams. At his best, Kelly reminded us that, in reality, we are obliged to improvise our happiness with such rough materials as fall to hand." But donít take Schickelís word ó what do critics know? Listen to another director-choreographer, Bob Fosse: "He looked like a guy on your bowling team, only classier."

In the two men, oppositions abound. Fred was grace, Gene was energy. Fred was poise, Gene was power. Fred was ethereal, Gene was earthy. Fred was the Continental (he danced it too); Gene was all-American. Fred was top hat, white tie and tails, Gene was a baseball cap, T-shirt and jeans. (Can you imagine Astaire in a baseball cap? Can you imagine Kelly without one?) Fred would just materialize, a slim apparition who hardly noticed the impact he made; his attitude said, in a sidelong glance and sidewise murmur, "Ooh, is someone out there?" Gene came barreling toward you, arms outstretched in — not supplication, never that — an offer his smile told you he thought you couldnít refuse.

Astaire danced on clouds, descending to earth occasionally to sweep a lucky woman into his arms; Kelly was grounded, seemingly welded to terra firma, and when he held a woman, she felt the imprint for days. Cyd Charisse, who danced with Kelly in "Singiní in the Rain" and, the next year, with Astaire in "The Band Wagon," says her husband always knew which dancer sheíd been working with. "If I didnít have a mark, it was Fred Astaire. And if I was black and blue, it was Gene Kelly." Not to say that both men didnít work their leading ladies hard. Debbie Reynolds, co-starring with Kelly in "Singiní in the Rain," was rehearsed so relentlessly she suffered exactly the same ailment as Rogers had with Astaire on "Top Hat": bleeding feet.

You could say Gene was a football player and Astaire, maybe, a tennis star of the Bill Tilden era. But who knew whether Astaire had biceps? Was there even a body inside those elegant clothes? If there was, it Astaire seemed relaxed; Kellyís body was tense, like an Olympic skater planning the big jump and knowing how much was at stake, how much to be lost. Astaire, who never appeared to entertain the possibility that he could lose, had a magnificent diffidence, polar opposite to the neediness Kelly suggested. Geneís trademark — the outstretched arms, grasping for a connection with the little people out there in the dark — hinted at the overachieving of a fellow who begged, demanded to be loved.

Their techniques were polar opposites as well. "Gene always liked to dance low," Charisse says, "and Fred always liked to dance high." Fred had an ethereal buoyancy, the ability to walk on air, and dance on it, and not make a big deal of it. Gene had gravity. His power would burrow up from the floor, through his powerful thighs, up to his strong, sloping shoulders; and heíd hit those tap steps hard, nailing them, pounding them into the floor so hard they almost left permanent depression marks in the wood. You saw the grinding work, as much as the fun, in Kellyís favorite maneuvers. Some of them — like the chop step with straight, churning arms, or the bit in "Singiní in the Rain" where he briskly windmills his arms — could be adapted to a power-workout regimen. Kelly could be imitated, and was, widely. Astaire and his finesse were inimitable; they could only be appreciated.

SCREEN GENE

Which is precisely why Kelly is the more influential of the two. Astaireís style, tailored to his unique talents and gifts, had to die with him. Kellyís persona, the Ordinary Joe (yeah — Joe Genius), could be adapted by dozens, hundreds of young dancers. It took lots of hard work, as Frank Sinatra learned when he shared a dance number with Kelly in "Anchors Aweigh": the sequence took eight weeks for Sinatra to learn and perform. But with that industry and application, young men could copy the standard Kelly posture: torso erect, legs swerving as if jellified. Thatís the legacy of Kellyís teenage tap-dancing. Tap has just that contradictory posture: Buster Keaton from the waist up, Jim Carrey from the waist down. The form has a built-in irony, one half of the body counterpointing and commenting on the other half.

A viewerís eyes always go to Kellyís body; not for nothing is the documentary called "Anatomy of a Dancer." You might start with the face: its cartoon-hero smoothness, with that possibly synthetic Pepsodent smile, is mocked by the crescent of a scar on his left cheek (childhood bike accident). But youíd soon notice his form-fitting couture: the sleeves of a tight white sweater rolled up to expose Popeye forearms or, in the dream sequence of "An American in Paris," the nowhere-to-hide body suit in which he assumes the impossible poses of Toulouse-Lautrecís Chocolat character. Like so many middle-class guys, he was an athlete and a salesman. His work was his cheeriest, most seductive pitch for his idea of dance and, of course, for himself.

And because his muscular masculinity was a crucial component of his appeal, Kelly blew away the perfume of sissy-hood that clung to serious dance like a too-tight tutu. His last major choreographic statement was a 1958 "Omnibus" special called "Dancing: A Manís Game," explicitly aligned dance with sport: Bob Cousy makes a few sassy dribbling moves; Mickey Mantle plays catch with our star. Kelly, the kid who aspired not to dance stardom but to play shortstop for the Pirates (and, considering their record in the 40s, they could have used him) brought out the manly athleticism of entrechats and pliťs.

Another patch that Kelly had on Astaire: his movies were far superior as integrated works of popular art. Astaireís prime-time vehicles with Ginger were pretty inane, except for the glorious terping, and his directors added little but traffic management to the packed Astaire brought. Kelly worked for better directors — Busby Berkeley on "For Me and My Gal" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," Vincente Minnelli on "An American in Paris" and "Brigadoon" — but, as co-director of two of his best films, he could take a measure of credit for their success, even as Astaire, who was "only" the star and choreographer, could avoid blame for his filmsí inadequacies.

To be sure, on his dance numbers, Astaire supervised the camera movements — or, rather, non-movement. It sat obediently immobile, like an attentive member of the audience, cutting very rarely from long shot to medium shot. In a Kelly film (or Kelly-Donen, or Kelly-Minnelli), the camera was more than an observer in the musical drama; it was a participant, prowling and swooping to keep up with Gene, to dance with him. In film after film, Kelly and his team met the challenges of capturing dance on film. As Oretga describes it: "Putting the camera in the place where itís gonna capture the greatest dynamic of the dance, and then knowing where youíre gonna go from there and how youíre gonna build your arc so, at the end of it all, youíve captured the energy and the movement of the dance in the best possible way."

Fred, like his movies, was nowhere when not dancing. In his filmsí long dialogue scenes, the actor Astaire seemed both stiff and fluttery, feckless — not superhuman, as he did in the big numbers, but sub-par. Indeed, thatís one thing that made his dances stand out: they were so much more suavely realized than the rest of the enterprise, and Astaire came truly alive only when he was in them. Kelly, a believer in artistic integration, gave just as much attention to "the rest of the movie." He acted-danced with the same concentrated energy that he danced-acted. Maybe he attended to Selznickís advice after all.

It happens that Kelly and Astaire sang in movies as much as they danced. Both men showed the strain of natural dancers trying to hit the high notes in a form that didnít automatically suit them. But Geneís smoky tenor voice was more assured than Fredís wispy tenor was. So why isnít Kelly cherished as a singer? (Thereís just one CD of Kelly songs, to Astaireís dozen or so.) It could be that most of Fredís tunes were written for him, while most of Kellyís were oldies; and the new songs that Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote for "On the Town," "Singiní in the Rain" and "Itís Always Fair Weather" didnít click. But the title number from "Singiní in the Rain" is nearly as memorable for Geneís pipes — the giddy catch in his voice at "And Iím ready for love," the unaffected "doo-dle-oo-doo"s at the start and the unsheepish "Iím danciní and singiní in the rain" at the finish — as for the great hoofing.

Kelly wanted to put his own spin on the friendly rivalry: "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, Iím the Marlon Brando." Oh, not really. Itís true that, like Brando, Kelly wore T-shirts and, though he came from far west of the Hudson River, spoke in a working class Noo Yawk accent. But he was stuck with that pre-1950 smile, the professional good nature, the go-getting optimism that defined showbiz in the 20th centuryís first half. The second half, led by Brando, was serious, surly, studiously indifferent to giving pleasure or generating affection. Kelly was impudent but not arrogant. His real movie siblings are James Cagney — who had the same low center of gravity, the same relentless forward movement — and Douglas Fairbanks, the chunky fellow with the big smile and the grand stunts. Kellyís "The Pirate" and "The Three Musketeers" are both tributes to and evocations of the hardworking Fairbanks-ian derring-do.

KEEN GENE

Iím speaking of Kellyís movie personality, as semaphored by his body language, and perhaps as filtered not by the age that he emerged from but by the one that followed him. In fact, according to the PBS film, the private Kelly was as "grounded" as his dance style. Unlike half of Hollywood in the 40s, he was not in analysis "Some people are successfully blocked," says playwright-screenwriter Arthur Laurents, "and he was one of them. He was happy with himself." His theme song could have been the solo he sings in "Itís Always Fair Weather": "I like myself."

Astaire, when asked who his favorite partner was (people wanted him to say Ginger, and he didnít), would declare that it was... Kelly. Kellyís favorite may have been himself. He was his own partner (and nemesis) in the "alter ego" number from "Cover Girl." He expressed both love and self-love — the potent giddiness of feeling that surge of ardor, ó etc. in "Singiní in the Rain." He danced with a mop in "Thousands Cheer," and he sometimes led his leading ladies the same way. A different leading lady, often a movie ingenue, in almost every picture: Leslie Caron in "An American in Paris," Reynolds in "Singiní in the Rain" (both were 19 when the films were shot), Charisse in "Brigadoon." As Schickel notes: "There is no Ginger Rogers linked immortally to Kellyís name, and thatís no accident. For he was a solipsist who did not share the screen easily with anyone. Suspiciously good at playing hammy, self-serving show folks ... he occasionally made you wonder: Is he exercising egocentricity or satirizing it?"

If Kelly reminds me of any modern star, itís George Clooney: a rugged Irish-American, an intense competitor, a manís man most at ease with other manís men. That was certainly true of the on-screen Gene, with the manly bonding of "On the Town," "Fair Weather" and "The Three Musketeers." Says Andre Previn, who wrote the "Fair Weather" music: "Gene always did like to have a trio, himself and two other men, two other fellas for him to play off, who could dance and sing — if possible, not quite as well as he."

Kelly was a strict taskmaster on the set, an obsessive games-player in team charades at home with friends. (Gene and Betsy Kelly were a bit like the Kennedys, athletic, competitive and clannish; late in life, Gene looked like a much fitter Teddy.) Playing volleyball in the backyard, he became so vexed at his inability to score that in anger he stomped his foot, broke an ankle ó and convinced friend Fred to come out of his first retirement and take over the Kelly role in "Easter Parade."

What Kelly had in common with the Kennedys (and not with Clooney) was a compulsion to excel, to write his own history, even if it meant rewriting othersí. Turning "On the Town" into a movie, he and his team threw out most of Leonard Bernsteinís Broadway score. More daring was Kellyís decision to restage the Jerome Robbins ballet that is at the heart of (and was the inspiration for) the original show. Darn it, heíd do his own darn ballet. Similarly, he honored and caricatured the great gallery of Impressionist paintings in the ballet for "An American in Paris" — this time starting from scratch, and inhabiting the vivid worlds of Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Dufy and Utrillo. The last words in the film are spoken almost 20 minutes before it ends; from then on itís all ballet and mime on the grand movie canvas, popular art swaggering toward an embrace with high art.

Kelly, even more than Astaire, saw it as a sacred duty to bring art-dance to the masses, and after many hits he had the clout to persuade the MGM bosses to agree. Balanchine and Agnes De Mille were serious-ing up Broadway; why couldnít Gene do it in pictures? He could so he did, in "On the Town," "American in Paris" and "Singiní in the Rain." These big climactic numbers didnít always fit the tone of the story that preceded them; it was like serving Cristal at the end of a frat-house toga party. Or, as Wollen says: "They were like little islands within the rest of the film. But they were very important to him because it was a way of showing the breadth and variety of the forms of dance." Kelly finally did a whole movie in the serioso mode: "Invitation to the Dance," shot in Europe in 1952 with French, English and Russian ballet stars. MGM withheld its release for four years. The film flopped, and Kelly never regained his sure cinematic footing.

SINGINí AND DANCINí GENE

We should not mock artistic ambition, especially in a movie time when there is so little of it. But Kellyís most secure achievements are the brighter, more intimate pieces, like the one in "Summer Stock" with a squeaky floor board and a newspaper folio; finally Gene tears the paper into two, four, six, eight pieces — with his feet. It was in these solo "stunt" numbers that Kelly and Astaire seemed to compete with each other most explicitly; each invented ever-more outlandish and amazing virtuoso bits with props and especially film tricks. Gene dances with his shadow self ("Cover Girl") or with Jerry the cartoon mouse ("Anchors Aweigh"). Fred dances slo-mo in the foreground while the background dancers move in regular time ("Easter Parade") or up a wall and across the ceilings ("Royal Wedding"). And though the "Got-ta Dance" ballet in "Singiní in the Rain" is terrif, itís not the number that lodged itself in film history like a diamond in a locket.

Comden, who wrote the fabulous script with her partner Green, says of the original project, "All we knew was thereíd be some scene where someoneíd be singiní, and it would be raininí." They concocted a period piece, set way back at the coming of talking pictures, 24 years earlier. (That would be like doing a retro-musical today based on the songs and movies of 1978. Shall we have a disco version of "Smokey and the Bandit"?) Kelly, Reynolds, Donald OíConnor and Jean Hagen make for a wonderfully comic quartet. And the unsung star was Roger Edens, who took a sheaf of 20s and 30s songs by Herb Nacio Brown and Arthur Freed (producer of this film and most of Kellyís other musicals) and soldered them into a perkily coherent score.

In the pouring rain, on the night he realizes heís in love, Gene walks Debbie to her front door. Before he goes danciní in the rain, he kisses Debbie goodnight at her front door, and does it without bending any part of his body — just leaning, as if he were wearing clown shoes for balance. Then he goes into his act. Heís got one prop, an umbrella, and his dance exhausts its every use: as a cane, a pointer, a balancer on the tightrope of a curb, a cyclotron whirling him inside a whirlwind. But often he just holds it — who needs protection from the elements when youíre in love? "Come on with the rain! Iíve a smile on my face!" At the end he splashes, stomps his feet in the water; ecstasy makes him infantile. And that showbiz grin never seemed so genuine.

Kelly had bad luck in midlife and later. Betsy left him; his second wife, Jeanne Coyne, whom heíd known since Pittsburgh (and who had previously been married to Donen), died young of leukemia; he lost his knack and clout in Hollywood; and the genre he loved disappeared. So Iíd like to think that achieving the nonchalant masterpiece of "Singiní in the Rain" — a greatness that, for once in his career, never revealed whatever agony went into it — gave Kelly immediate and sustaining joy. At one of the many tributes he received late in his life, he said of his life on the screen: "Thatís what you do up there. You dance love, and you dance joy, and you dance dreams."

Is there another Kelly out there, who might with the slightest encouragement bring that love of creation, that joy of motion, those dreams and ambitions back to Hollywood? Will the movies ever revive this primal pleasure. Come on with it. Somebodyís gotta shout, "Got-ta dance!"