Selznick sold half of Kelly’s contract to MGMand loaned him out to MGM for his first motion picture: For Me and My Gal (1942) with Judy Garland. Kelly was “appalled at the sight of myself blown up twenty times. I had an awful feeling that I was a tremendous flop” but the picture did well and, in the face of much internal resistance, Arthur Freed of MGM picked up the other half of Kelly’s contract. After appearing in the B-movie drama Pilot #5 he took the male lead in Cole Porter’s Du Barry Was a Lady opposite Lucille Ball. His first opportunity to dance to his own choreography came in his next picture Thousands Cheer, where he performed a mock-love dance with a mop.
He achieved his breakthrough as a dancer on film when MGM loaned him out to Columbiato work with Rita Hayworthin Cover Girl (1944), where he created a memorable routine dancing to his own reflection. In his next film Anchors Aweigh (1945), MGM virtually gave him a free hand to devise a range of dance routines, including the celebrated and much imitated animated dances with Jerry Mouse, and his duets with co-star Frank Sinatra. Anchors Aweigh became one of the most successful films of 1945 and it garnered Kelly his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) – which was produced in 1944 but not released until 1946 – Kelly collaborated withFred Astaire – for whom he had the greatest admiration – in the famous “The Babbitt and the Bromide” challenge dance routine.
At the end of 1944, Kelly enlisted in theU.S. Naval Air Serviceand was commissioned aslieutenant junior grade. He was stationed in the Photographic Section, Washington D.C., where he was involved in writing and directing a range of documentaries, and this stimulated his interest in the production side of film-making
After a fruitless search, Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, to his first position as a choreographer with the Charles Gaynor musical revue Hold Your Hats at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in April, 1938. Kelly appeared in six of the sketches, one of which, “La Cumparsita”, became the basis of an extended Spanish number in Anchors Aweigh” eight years later.
His first Broadwayassignment, in November 1938, was as a dancer in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me! as the American ambassador’s secretary who supports Mary Martin while she sings “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. He had been hired by Robert Alton who had staged a show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and been impressed by Kelly’s teaching skills. When Alton moved on to choreograph One for the Money he hired Kelly to act, sing and dance in a total of eight routines. In 1939, he was selected to be part of a musical revue “One for the Money” produced by the actressKatharine Cornell, who was known for finding and hiring talented young actors.
Kelly’s first career breakthrough was in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life, which opened on October 25, 1939, where for the first time on Broadway he danced to his own choreography. In the same year he received his first assignment as a Broadway choreographer, for Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. His future wife,Betsy Blair, was a member of the cast. They began dating and married on October 16, 1941.
In 1940, he was given the leading role in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, again choreographed by Robert Alton, and this role propelled him to stardom. During its run he told reporters: “I don’t believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand. While I am a hundred percent for ballet technique, I use only what I can adapt to my own use. I never let technique get in the way of mood or continuity.” It was at this time also, that his phenomenal commitment to rehearsal and hard work was noticed by his colleagues. Van Johnson who also appeared in Pal Joey recalled: “I watched him rehearsing, and it seemed to me that there was no possible room for improvement. Yet he wasn’t satisfied. It was midnight and we had been rehearsing since eight in the morning. I was making my way sleepily down the long flight of stairs when I heard staccato steps coming from the stage…I could see just a single lamp burning. Under it, a figure was dancing…Gene.”
Offers from Hollywood began to arrive but Kelly was in no particular hurry to leave New York. Eventually, he signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood at the end of his commitment to Pal Joey, in October 1941. Prior to his contract, he also managed to fit in choreographing the stage production of Best Foot Forward.
Kelly was born in theHighland Parkneighborhood ofPittsburgh,Pennsylvania. He was the third son of Harriet Catherine (née Curran) and James Patrick Joseph Kelly, aphonographsalesman. His father was born inPeterborough, Canada, to a family of Irish descent. His maternal grandfather was an immigrant fromDerryin northern Ireland and his maternal grandmother was of German ancestry. At the age of eight, was enrolled by his mother in dance classes, along with his elder brother James. They both rebelled, and, according to Kelly: “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 fifteen.” He thought it would be a good way to get girls. Kelly returned to dance on his own initiative and by then was an accomplished sportsman and well able to take care of himself. He attended St. Raphael Elementary School in theMorningsideneighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA. He graduated fromPeabody High Schoolin 1929 at the age of sixteen. He enrolled inPennsylvania State Collegeto study journalism but the economic crash obliged him to seek employment to help with the family’s finances. At this time, he worked up dance routines with his younger brother Fred in order to earn prize money in local talent contests, and they also performed in local nightclubs.
In 1931, Kelly enrolled at theUniversity of Pittsburghto study economics where he joined thePhi Kappa Thetafraternity. While at Pitt, Kelly became involved in the university’sCap and Gown Club, which staged original, comedic musical productions. Earning a Bachelor of Arts in Economics with his graduation from Pitt in 1933, he remained active with the Cap and Gown Club, serving as its director from 1934 to 1938, while at the same time enrolling in theUniversity of Pittsburgh Law School. Also during this period, the Kelly’s family started a dance studio on Munhall Road in theSquirrel Hillneighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1930. In 1932, the dance studio was renamed The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance. A second location was opened inJohnstown, Pennsylvaniain 1933. Kelly served as a teacher at the dance studio during both his undergraduate and law student years at Pitt. In 1931, he was approached by theRodef Shalom synagoguein Pittsburgh to teach dance and stage the annual Kermess and was so successful that his services were retained for seven years until his departure for New York. Eventually, though, he decided to pursue his career as a dance teacher and entertainer full-time and so dropped out of law school after two months. He began to focus increasingly on performing, later claiming: “With time I became disenchanted with teaching because the ratio of girls to boys was more than ten to one, and once the girls reached sixteen the dropout rate was very high.” In 1937, having successfully managed and developed the family’s dance school business, he moved toNew York Cityin search of work as a choreographer.
Eugene Curran “Gene” Kelly (August 23, 1912 – February 2, 1996) was an American dancer, actor, singer, film director and producer, and choreographer. Kelly was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks and the likeable characters that he played on screen.
Although he is known today for his performances in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, he was a dominant force in Hollywood musical films from the mid 1940s until this art form fell out of fashion in the late 1950s. His many innovations transformed theHollywood musical film, and he is credited with almost single-handedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences.
Kelly was the recipient of anAcademy Honorary Awardin 1952 for his career achievements. He later received lifetime achievement awards in theKennedy Center Honors, and from theScreen Actors GuildandAmerican Film Institute; in 1999, the American Film Institute also numbered him 15th in theirGreatest Male Stars of All Timelist.