What A Glorious Feeling: The Gene Kelly Centenary

Legendary dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, producer and director Gene Kelly was born 100 years ago today. Although his career included several dramatic roles – including a memorable performance as a reporter based on H.L. Mencken in 1960’s Inherit the Wind – Kelly is best known for his immense contribution to that uniquely American art form – the musical comedy.

The musical was nothing new in the 1940’s and 1950’s when MGM was producing epic classics in all their Technicolor majesty. Ever since the dawn of sound recording in film, our first instincts were to sing – starting with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) through Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing away the 1930’s cheek to cheek right up through the Kelly-helmed masterpieces of the genre including Anchors Away (1945), An American in Paris (1951) and the inimitable Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which takes place during those transitional years from silence to sound. Not even bad weather, it seems, can keep us from singing on film.

Often times, in fact, the songs themselves weren’t even new.  Part of this may have been convenience; however, we are talking about showbiz here, so a strong motivating factor was most likely finances. Many of the glamorous MGM musicals were created under the musical direction of Arthur Freed, a songwriter and film producer with roots going back to the vaudeville stage days. He and his famed “Freed Unit” production team, responsible for many of the landmark MGM musicals, often reached into his own back catalog of tunes when conceiving new musical films and numbers. Singin’ in the Rain, for example, contains only one newly written song – the charming linguistics lesson “Moses Supposes.”

The extraordinary Donald O’Connor show-stopper “Make ‘Em Laugh” was also newly written, but is essentially a reworking of a Cole Porter number, “Be A Clown,” which originally appeared in another Gene Kelly film, 1948’s The Pirate, produced by – you guessed it – Arthur Freed. Cole Porter apparently never pursued legal action, but you be the judge:

O’Connor’s performance in “Make ‘Em Laugh”  is such a physical tour de force, the heavy smoker reportedly had to be hospitalized after filming the sequence.

The songs may have been old, but Gene Kelly revolutionized the way musicals were made, and the way people danced. Singin’ in the Rain, met with relatively modest commercial success upon release, has come to be considered a crowning jewel in not only musical film, or even film, but in general American popular culture. As the star, director and musical stage director, Singin’ in the Rain remains Gene Kelly’s finest hour.

So come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face.

Happy birthday, Mr. Kelly.

(c) 2012, Matt Powell

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