Legend Or Monster? A Look Back On Gene Kelly’s Legacy

Making Of An Icon

They may say that true genius only comes around once in a generation, but when it comes to a performer like Gene Kelly, it seems even in the two decades since his death, there’s been no one who can match his talent. He was not simply a gifted dancer and a handsome movie star, he was a pioneer of film choreography who constantly refined the way dance was shown on film. However, did he push himself and others over the limit?

Making Of An Icon

Bring Forth The Revolution

Since the decline of the movie musical in the 1950s, Hollywood actors who can truly dance are few, leaving Gene Kelly to maintain his legacy. Though he was often compared to his peer, Fred Astaire, the truth is Astaire was far more focused on his own dancing rather than innovating the form of dance on film. They also had major personality differences that would cause their peers and fellow actors to much prefer Astaire to Kelly, with many even despising him…

Bring Forth The Revolution

Becoming His Mission

Born into a family of dancers, Gene Kelly would find it hard to escape from the expectation of carrying on the family business. His parents were the owners of a Pittsburgh dance studio, which was all the more reason for Kelly and his brothers to dance. Though he didn’t realize it in his youth, dance and choreography would become his calling. Not just to present it on screen, but to blur the lines between styles, turning it into a form of his own.

Becoming His Mission

Dreams Of The Outfield

As a youngster, Gene Kelly had no desire to pursue such a “girly” outlet like dance. It’s clear from his later work that he was intensely athletic. In his childhood, Kelly was intent on becoming a baseball player. With the Pittsburgh Pirates playing nearby, the young Kelly wanted nothing more than to be a shortstop on the team. However, by the time he reached an age to play professional baseball, Kelly found that his aspirations had drifted. That athletic sensibility would continue to follow him.

Dreams Of The Outfield

Hiding From Shame

There was a brief moment where Kelly almost didn’t become a dancer. The other boys in the neighborhood had no kind words when it came to the Kelly boys taking dance lessons. As the Kellys would recall, “We didn’t like it much and were continually involved in fistfights with the neighborhood boys who called us sissies  … I didn’t dance again until I was 15.” By then, Kelly realized his purpose was to make dance acceptable for other men.

Hiding From Shame

The Grit Of His Teeth

When comparing Gene Kelly’s style to his contemporaries, Fred Astaire in particular, it’s glaringly obvious that while Astaire was perfectly graceful and light on his toes, Kelly was the opposite. His movement was heavy, grounded, and athletic. Not because he lacked Astaire’s ability for grace, but because he was also so determined to transform the art of dance into an athletic pursuit. Kelly’s constant display of masculinity, however, had a darker side…

The Grit Of His Teeth

Trapped At Home

Unlike many of his Hollywood peers, Gene Kelly took his education seriously, enrolling more than once in a university. After earning a degree in economics, Kelly almost enrolled in law school. However, during the Great Depression, he had been forced to drop out of school and teach dance with his parents in order to pay the bills. There, he developed the skills to become a talented choreographer, but it would be too easy for him to stay close to home.

Trapped At Home

Breaking Out Of The Box

Success and fame came late for Gene Kelly. He finally managed to make the leap to New York City, but by then he was already 26 years old. Still, Kelly quickly gained a foothold, finding his first role as a background dancer in a Broadway show. His next role, however, would showcase his star power front and center as the lead in the musical Pal Joey. With a Broadway choreography project under his belt to boot, it was no surprise when Hollywood came knocking.

Breaking Out Of The Box

Betting On Betsy

Gene Kelly’s life was on an upward path by the time he was 28, but the up and comer still felt that something was lacking. Some say it was an inherent lack of confidence that caused Kelly to latch onto younger women, which is exactly what he did when he met Betsy Blair. Blair certainly had showbiz aspirations, and Gene could help her to achieve some of them. However, she was only 16 to his 28 when their romance began…

Betting On Betsy

Whisked Away To Hollywood

Kelly was determined to bring excitement to his 17-year-old bride’s life. He took her to glamorous parties, helping her make Hollywood connections rather than forcing her into the role of stay-at-home wife. The two made their official move to Hollywood shortly after their wedding, where they became known for being prolific party hosts. However, with World War II on the horizon, their lives would be drastically shaken up. Kelly, for one, was not going to miss a chance to serve his country.

Whisked Away To Hollywood

Under The Perfection

Kelly’s wife gave birth to their daughter when she was only 18 years old. However, the young couple soon found that they were living in a country at war. Kelly joined the Navy, but felt that he shouldn’t leave his wife alone to care for their infant daughter. Instead, he shipped her off to his parents back in Pittsburgh. Following the war, however, Kelly would throw himself back into innovating dance in Hollywood, spending far less time than he should have with his daughter.

Under The Perfection

Ups And Downs

Professionally, Kelly’s career was progressing like a dream. He was able to have a considerable amount of creative control over his projects, but try as he might, he couldn’t do the same in his marriage. Though neither he nor Betsy were unhappy, it became clear to Blair at least that she had married too young. She began affairs, informing Kelly that she wanted to see what else the world held for her. Kelly was committed to the marriage, but it didn’t matter.

Ups And Downs

Behind The Smiles

One of Kelly’s biggest hallmarks was the charming grin that effortlessly flashed across his face in each of his film roles. He invited audiences into his dances, both through his attitude and through the camerawork he so carefully directed. However, many who worked with him tell of a very different man working behind the scenes, one who such a controlling taskmaster that his costars were frequently reduced to tears. It was Debbie Reynolds who first began to break the illusion.

Behind The Smiles

More Than Just A Movie Star

Kelly’s good looks may have made him a natural for Hollywood, but his aspirations were also focused on how to use dance within his films. When it came to cinematography, Kelly wanted the camera to almost dance alongside the performer. However, at the time, they didn’t quite have the technology that Kelly needed in order to compose the camera angles he wanted for his films. Undeterred, Gene Kelly just decided to invent a camera piece he could use.

More Than Just A Movie Star

Breaking The Anchor

Kelly managed to break the mold once again when it came to working on the film Anchors Aweigh. He became the first person to ever dance on screen with a cartoon, as he twirled and tapped alongside Jerry the Mouse. However, Jerry wasn’t the first mouse that Kelly wanted to work with. He had first tried to get the rights to Mickey Mouse for the film, but Disney refused his offer. Either way, it became an iconic film moment.

Breaking The Anchor

Swashbuckling Judy

Gene Kelly may have made his film debut opposite Judy Garland, however, when they were cast alongside one another in The Pirate, they found the experience to be decidedly different. Judy hadn’t been fully sold on making the film, which was being directed by her then-husband, from the beginning. However, after beginning to work with Kelly, she worried that she would be overshadowed because his role was much flashier. Kelly had been excited to give his artistic input, but it made Judy even more insecure.

Swashbuckling Judy

Just Passable

For as much as he was able to innovate as a dancer, Kelly struggled with insecurity after moving to Hollywood. He felt his skills as an actor were better suited to the stage than to film, where both he and his critics felt like he was overselling. Kelly would reflect, “I would have loved to have been as good an actor as Spencer Tracy or Marlon Brando,” said Kelly. “I was a very good stage actor but in films I never was quite as good, just passable.”

Just Passable

Quest To Perfect

It was in Gene Kelly’s nature to constantly push to not only break the mold, but to do it perfectly. However, it led the actor to be both demanding and competitive. Many other stars who were guests at Kelly’s home spoke about how fierce he was even playing a friendly game of volleyball. This tendency towards anger when he perceived himself as failing would cost him when he broke his ankle in anger after losing a match. He was forced to drop out of Easter Parade.

Quest To Perfect

The Babbit And Bromide

Though the two men have forever been linked in the American consciousness, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire surprisingly only ever danced together twice onscreen. The first collaboration came in a short number for the variety show style film, Ziegfeld Follies, in which the two men performed a charming number, “The Babbit and the Bromide,” which they’d choreographed themselves. The wouldn’t reunite until the 1970s, long after their prime dancing years when they both appeared in That’s Entertainment.

The Babbit And Bromide

What Debbie Said

Debbie Reynolds may be one of Gene Kelly’s best-remembered costars, likely because there are far fewer people who are aware of his collaborations with stars like Judy Garland. Given Debbie’s youth when the two filmed Kelly’s biggest hit, Singin’ in the Rain, she had distinct memories of Kelly’s onset conduct, memories she didn’t hesitate to share when she penned an autobiography. Much of what she had to say about Kelly paints a portrait of a very different man.

What Debbie Said

Pushing The Limits

In a film full of iconic moments, one of the most memorable cameos came from Cyd Charisse, a notable ballerina who Kelly chose for his fantasy dance sequence in “Broadway Melody.” Though she was accustomed to grueling conditions as a ballerina, working with Kelly really pushed Charisse to her limits. She would say at one point that her husband always knew she was working with Kelly by the bruises she came home with. She had no such problem with Fred Astaire.

Pushing The Limits

Never Good Enough

Singin’ in the Rain couldn’t have been an easy entry into the world of Hollywood for Debbie Reynolds. In her book she wrote, “[Gene] criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement.” Instead, Reynolds found that Kelly’s pursuit of perfection kept her dancing until her feet would bleed. Feeling certain that she could never tell him, Reynolds instead told Astaire one day that she wanted to quit. More encouraging than Kelly, Astaire pushed her to keep going.

Never Good Enough

Starting In Shock

One of the most revealing passages that Debbie recorded about working on Singin’ in the Rain came during their first kissing scene. At only 18, Reynolds expected only a chaste kiss. Instead, she recounts, “The camera closed in. Gene took me tightly in his arms . . . and shoved his tongue down my throat.” Reynolds was alarmed by the force of the action, especially as she hadn’t experienced it before. For Kelly, his taste for younger women would ultimately have a different effect on his life…

Starting In Shock

Swimming Upstream

The Olympic swimmer, Esther Williams, only worked with Gene Kelly on one film, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which was released in 1949. However, upon the release of her memoir, she revealed some more of Kelly’s rougher edges. She wrote, “[Kelly was] one of the most winning and likable of men onscreen, he was nothing less than a tyrant behind the camera.” She continued to call him “merciless” explaining that “his words dripped sarcasm with every step.”

Swimming Upstream

Skin Of His Teeth

The title song is one of the most memorable moments in film history, but Gene Kelly didn’t reserve his impossibly high expectations just for others. While filming the title song. Kelly found himself extremely sick with a fever of 103F. He wouldn’t stop production just to recover, despite taking a few days off of directing duties. No matter how he was feeling, he threw himself into the performance, creating a piece of film history.

Skin Of His Teeth

Lost Cause

Kelly’s competitive nature would once again foil his career. On a ski trip in Switzerland that he took in 1958, Kelly found himself on the slopes alongside Olympic skiers. Never one to balk from a challenge, Kelly tried to beat them at their own game, only to end up tearing something in his knee. He recognized what the stunt had cost his career, saying that “[w]as the end of serious dancing for me.” He still had a career, of course, and time for a new love.

Lost Cause

Patting His Heart

In 1985, Gene Kelly was tapped to begin work on a documentary. Working alongside him was a young woman named Patricia Ward. Though Kelly was already in his early 70s, Ward was still in her late 20s. Despite the age difference, the two found that they had a lot in common, including a love of poetry. Even in his twilight years, Kelly couldn’t help but be a romantic, and soon wanted to woo the young woman who seemed smitten by his old-school charm.

Patting His Heart

The Biggest Gap Yet

Even in Gene Kelly’s last few years, he managed to invoke shock when he married his third and final wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, who was only 31, while Kelly was 77. They had met when Kelly hired her to help him write his memoirs, but he found romance bloomed, even in his twilight years. No matter the devotion that Patricia still holds for her late husband, his children, all of whom are older than Patricia, chose not to attend.

The Biggest Gap Yet