Kelly Forges New Directions in Cinematic Dance

During the heyday of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio’s musical feature films, Gene Kelly developed an eclectic style of cinematic dance drawing on ballet, tap, and folk elements to create a distinctive choreographic style designed for the camera.

Summary of Event

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the American musical film reached its apex of creative and popular success in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) releases starring the exuberant Gene Kelly. Although best known to the public for his screen persona as a genial yet rugged individual whose characters’ romantic and artistic quests were expressed in muscular yet lyrical dances, Kelly also made significant contributions, as a choreographer and director, to the development of the musical. [kw]Kelly Forges New Directions in Cinematic Dance (1944-1957)
[kw]Cinematic Dance, Kelly Forges New Directions in (1944-1957)
[kw]Dance, Kelly Forges New Directions in Cinematic (1944-1957)
Tap dance
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer];musicals
Hollywood studio system;musicals
Tap dance
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer];musicals
Hollywood studio system;musicals
[g]North America;1944-1957: Kelly Forges New Directions in Cinematic Dance[01080]
[g]United States;1944-1957: Kelly Forges New Directions in Cinematic Dance[01080]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1944-1957: Kelly Forges New Directions in Cinematic Dance[01080]
Kelly, Gene
Astaire, Fred
Berkeley, Busby
Donen, Stanley
Freed, Arthur
Minnelli, Vincente

Kelly’s filmography is impressive. From his first film for MGM, For Me and My Gal (1942), to That’s Entertainment (1974) and That’s Entertainment, Part 2 (1976), Kelly’s credits for that studio include such glittering classics as Anchors Aweigh (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Pirate (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Brigadoon (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), and Invitation to the Dance (1957).

Kelly’s specific contributions fall into two broad realms, conceptual and practical. First is the career-long concern with working out a theoretical framework for cinematic dance; for Kelly, that framework started with the concept of the integrated musical, an ideal fusing of story and dance into a seamlessly interconnected and unified dramatic whole. Second is Kelly’s work, his musicals for MGM in which theory was transformed into practice, with each film’s particular narrative and musical elements contoured to fit the paradigm of the integrated musical. In that process, Kelly helped create a uniquely American form of dance with an emphasis on American music and American character types. It was a form well suited to Kelly’s own brash personality and athletic grace, as well as to his eclectic borrowings from the highbrow world of classical ballet, avant-grade modern dance, the show business heritage of tap and soft shoe, and various vernacular and ethnic dance traditions.

It is also important to note that Kelly was fascinated with the film medium itself, its technology as well as its capacity for telling stories through music and dance. Therefore, though Kelly is usually thought of as a dancer who happened to be a star, he also should be regarded as a serious filmmaker, a director and choreographer whose comprehensive knowledge of and concern with the cinematic world make him a far more complex and complete cineast than his two worthy predecessors, Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire.

When Kelly arrived in Hollywood in 1941, he had a list of impressive Broadway credits, including the Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me (1938), William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life (1939), and the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical hit Pal Joey
Pal Joey (Rodgers and Hart) (1940). Playing the demanding title role of Pal Joey, the caddish nightclub entertainer Joey Evans, Kelly proved himself an able actor as well as a virtuoso dancer. He also choreographed his dance numbers, an opportunity he used to exploit his athletic dancing style in order to help create and mold his character.

Pal Joey, while making Kelly a star, also enabled him to make important if tentative steps toward realizing his goal of the integrated musical. The role also allowed him to develop means for creating a more complex character who could both outrage and charm audiences. “Joey was a meaty character,” Kelly recalled in one interview. “After some scenes I could feel the wave of hate coming from the audience. Then I’d smile at them and dance and it would relax them. It was interesting to be able to use the character to manipulate the audience.” Clearly, this was the voice of a director-to-be, as well as that of an actor, dancer, and choreographer.

At first, MGM was unsure how best to use Kelly. Although he debuted opposite Judy Garland under Busby Berkeley in For Me and My Gal, the studio assigned him straight acting roles for the 1943 war dramas Pilot No. 5 and The Cross of Lorraine. MGM then loaned him to Columbia Pictures for Cover Girl
Cover Girl (Vidor) (1944), an impressive musical with Rita Hayworth. Kelly was given choreographic carte blanche, which he used to great effect. The public was impressed; so were Hollywood and MGM, which thereafter gave Kelly the freedom to experiment and create under the aegis of producer Arthur Freed. World War II was to intervene, but before joining the United States Naval Air Service in late 1944, Kelly filmed two classic routines, the innovative dance-fantasy “The King Who Couldn’t Dance” with an animated Tom and Jerry in Anchors Aweigh, and the pas de deux with Fred Astaire, “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” from Ziegfeld Follies.

Gene Kelly swings around a lamp post in a torrential downpour during the title dance sequence from Singin’ in the Rain.

(Arkent Archive)

When Kelly was discharged from the Navy in 1946, it was with two years of experience as a writer and director of documentaries for the War Department’s photographic section, an experience that furthered his interest and expertise in film technique. Back at MGM, and with Arthur Freed’s backing and the support of the studio’s talent-laden musical production team, Kelly’s star was poised to light up the postwar cinematic firmament with a string of extraordinary musicals that stand as landmarks of the American musical film.


Kelly is in many ways a crowning figure in the history of the American musical. He brought the concept of the integrated musical to full realization by recognizing that he not only had to dance but also choreograph and direct. Consequently, in works such as On the Town, On the Town (Donen and Kelly)
An American in Paris, American in Paris, An (Minnelli) and Singin’ in the Rain
Singin’ in the Rain (Donen and Kelly)[Singin in the Rain] —arguably his most consistently satisfying and significant films—dance, story, setting, and song swirl together. Kelly’s synergetic meldings evoke composer Richard Wagner’s idealized notions of universal artwork, in which the elements of the music drama—music, lyrics, settings, and mises en scène—work harmoniously to serve the transcendent needs of the overall drama.

As a dancer and director, Kelly was aware of the challenges of transferring the three-dimensional dance medium to the two-dimensional motion picture. In order to emulate the kind of kinetic energy that Kelly believed spectators sensed when watching dance in a theater, he choreographed his camera and dancers so that the sensation of dancers moving toward the camera—and, therefore, psychologically toward the film audience—was emphasized. Conversely, in order to ease transitions at the end of production numbers from dance back into dialogue, Kelly often reversed the process, as in the title number from Singin’ in the Rain, when Kelly’s Don Lockwood walks away from the camera as it booms up and into a fade-out. Kelly also heightened the sensation of movement by placing vertical props in the foreground or background of shots using a panning camera, a strategy that created its own vectors of momentum and speed.

Kelly also was adept at using cinema’s unique resources for manipulating space and time. The “New York, New York” routine from On the Town, for example, is a “dance” that was created in the editing room with jump cuts that whisk three sailors (Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) around Manhattan, thus compressing what would have taken several hours into a three-minute whirlwind tour. Whether shooting on location or in the studio, Kelly took full advantage of the spatial dimensions of his sets. Instead of confining the dance to an implied proscenium arch, as Astaire was mostly content to do, Kelly moved his dancers through as much space as his sets allowed. For “Good Morning,” from Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly had himself, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor move from one room to the next, a ploy that added another force field to those already generated by the music, lyrics, dance, and camera movements.

Kelly’s stylistic eclecticism is another hallmark. Instead of using one dominant approach to the dance, Kelly plotted each film’s choreography on the basis of the particular characters and dramatic situations. Thus in An American in Paris, Kelly called on the resources of ballet to express his protagonist’s dreamlike reflections on art and the quixotic nature of romance. Set to George Gershwin’s classic 1928 tone poem, the seventeen-minute “American in Paris” ballet is perhaps Kelly’s culminating achievement. It also is an example of Kelly’s dedication to American music or, as he has said, the synthesis of old dance forms with new rhythms.

In contrast to the elegant, even aristocratic figure portrayed by Fred Astaire, Kelly’s persona was that of an earnest and hardworking though wisecracking and sometimes deceitful protagonist who comes clean in the end. It’s a persona fleshed out through Kelly’s muscular athletic abilities, an aspect of his raw physicality first displayed in the gyms and playing fields of his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It also is a persona carefully developed in a series of portrayals of “everyman” characters who were essentially just plain, regular guys—a sailor in On the Town and a former soldier and struggling painter in An American in Paris.

Even in Singin’ in the Rain, although Kelly plays a silent film star, the character has an engagingly common touch, a sense of decency and fair play, and a resourceful practicality reinforced by the revelation of the character’s rough childhood and struggle to make it to the top. Audiences could identify and associate with Gabey (On the Town), Jerry Mulligan (An American in Paris), and Don Lockwood (Singin’ in the Rain), three likable fellows whom anyone would be pleased to call “friend.” Kelly was a star in part because of his substantial yet often underrated acting skills as well as his universally recognized talents as a great dancer and choreographer.

Although Kelly has deprecated his own singing skills, like Fred Astaire he helped put over many a song with his raspy voice, sincerity, and winning smile. For example, when he intoned “You Were Meant for Me” to Debbie Reynolds’s Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, viewers believed him—and so did she.

By the mid-1950’s, Kelly, like the film industry itself, was increasingly buffeted by the competition for America’s leisure time from the “free” programming of network television. Hollywood, provoked further by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Paramount case mandating that the major studios divest themselves of their theater chains, was in turmoil. Like the other studios, MGM under mogul Nicholas Schenck ordered downsizings in production costs, salaries, and personnel.

For Kelly and the Freed Unit, the most immediate impact of this downsizing was MGM’s decision virtually to eliminate all original musicals. In place of the innovative and written-for-the-screen On the Town, An American in Paris, or Singin’ in the Rain, MGM opted for glossy adaptations of Broadway blockbusters such as The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), and Silk Stockings (1957). There were also comparatively easy-to-make biographies such as Love Me or Leave Me (1955), with Doris Day as Ruth Etting. The postwar teen market was another factor, especially with hits such as Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock (1957). Coupled with the box-office failure of Kelly’s most ambitious project, the experimental all-dance, no-dialogue Invitation to the Dance, and the disappointing Les Girls (1957)—Kelly’s eighteenth and last MGM musical appearance until his hosting chores for the studio’s That’s Entertainment projects of 1974 and 1976—it was clear that the heyday of the original musical had passed.

Kelly went on to direct The Tunnel of Love (1958), A Guide for the Married Man (1967), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). There also were acting opportunities, such as the role of newspaperman E. K. Hornbeck in Stanley Kramer’s production of Inherit the Wind (1960), as well as various television and theater projects. Although Kelly acquitted himself with his usual professionalism, he never again reached the heights he had attained with Freed’s MGM musical unit.

Kelly’s legacy is nevertheless secure. His MGM musicals continue to shine. They also have continued to influence dance talents as varied as Bob Fosse and music video superstar Michael Jackson. Among Kelly’s many honors is a special Oscar Academy Awards;special awards he received in 1951 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “in appreciation of his versatility as actor, singer, director and dancer, and especially for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” Tap dance
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer];musicals
Hollywood studio system;musicals

Further Reading

  • Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. An important scholarly treatment of the musical, with emphasis on genre theory and narratology as well as the musical’s historical evolution. Frequent citations of Kelly and his films. Illustrated.
  • Delamater, Jerome. Dance in the Hollywood Musical. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1981. The most authoritative study of dance in the Hollywood musical, with comprehensive chapters on the contributions of Kelly, Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, among others. Includes an informative interview with Kelly by Paddy Whannel plus a useful bibliography.
  • Fordin, Hugh. The World of Entertainment! Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals. New York: Doubleday, 1975. A detailed chronicle of the two decades of films produced by MGM’s musical unit under Arthur Freed’s supervision. Includes detailed filmography. Illustrated.
  • Hirschhorn, Clive. Gene Kelly: A Biography. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1974. Hirschhorn’s lively book provides a well-drawn account of the evolution of Kelly’s dance style as well as useful information on the Freed Unit at MGM and each of Kelly’s films.
  • Thomas, Tony. The Films of Gene Kelly: Song and Dance Man. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1974. An incisive account of each of Kelly’s films, with credits and publicity stills. Thomas’s introductory chapter, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Dancer,” is a brief but especially good overview of Kelly’s background, unique persona, and accomplishments. Includes Fred Astaire’s appreciative “Foreword.” Copiously illustrated.
  • Yudkoff, Alvin. Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams. New York: Back Stage Books, 1999. This biography is best on Kelly’s early life and struggle to achieve success, but it also covers his Hollywood career and contributions to cinematic choreography. Bibliographic references and index.

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