By Jen Johans
An actor jumps onto a lamppost on a rainy California night. Three sailors on leave fling their arms out wide to greet the “wonderful town” of New York. A painter dances in the fountains of Paris with Leslie Caron. The images that fill our heads when someone says the name Gene Kelly are endless but there's a good chance that they come from one of his three most iconic movies — namely SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, ON THE TOWN, or AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.
Timeless and awe-inspiring, those are his most universally beloved pictures for a reason… but with his groundbreaking work throughout Hollywood's Golden Age, the Philadelphia born and raised actor-dancer-singer-choreographer-filmmaker left us with many more films to savor, starting with these five you shouldn't miss, available to rent now from DVD Netflix.
COVER GIRL might have a pretty thin plot but the picture foreshadowed Kelly's future as a cinematic innovator. Shot over at Columbia, it was the first film to use pan and dolly techniques in a double exposure sequence, resulting in one of Gene Kelly's most technically dazzling early numbers wherein he dances with his own “Alter Ego.” The passionate routine has left such a legacy that — even including all of the wonderful pictures he'd directed in his own right — when asked in an interview what his favorite musical number was, Kelly's legendary FOR ME AND MY GAL director Busby Berkeley did not hesitate to name “Alter Ego” from COVER GIRL.
Establishing some of his hallmarks as a choreographer, the film uses open air settings and everyday objects as dance props to showstopping effect, most notably in the bravura sequence “Make Way for Tomorrow” where Kelly and co-stars Phil Silvers and Rita Hayworth dance their way out of a restaurant, down the street, and all the way home. And from start to finish, Kelly and apprentice Stanley Donen's artistry elevate an otherwise forgettable musical about Hayworth's nightclub performer who wants to be a star.
Lit from within by her recent engagement to Orson Welles off-screen and adorned in a series of jaw-droppingly beautiful gowns on-screen, Hayworth is radiant in the film. Furthermore her chemistry with Kelly — who, years earlier, had studied Spanish dancing from her uncle — absolutely sizzles in director Charles Vidor's COVER GIRL.
Even if you're animated, when you dance with Gene Kelly, you need to be perfect. In the case of ANCHORS AWEIGH this meant sending back ten thousand hand-painted frames of Hanna-Barbera animation to make sure we can see Jerry the Mouse's reflection as he dances with Kelly in a staggeringly difficult mix of live action and animation, which took two months to complete. If it looks familiar and you're a Gen Xer, there's a pretty good reason as Kelly and Jerry the Mouse's tap dance duet famously inspired the music video for Paula Abdul's “Opposites Attract."
The brainchild of Stanley Donen, while that sequence took two months to complete, Kelly was busy dreaming up ideas for the rest of the movie and whipping Frank Sinatra into dancing shape for the crooner's first big film (and the first of three collaborations with Kelly).
Although it reportedly took Sinatra eight weeks to master, the duo's hard work paid off well nonetheless in the infectious umber “I Begged Her,” which finds the two dancing up a storm and — perhaps even more impressively — jumping on a series of beds aboard their navy ship in unison. Later recalling his work on AWEIGH and his evolution into not just a singer but a dancer, Sinatra told an interviewer that Kelly made him feel like he “actually had some talent.”
Playing two sailors on a four day leave in Hollywood who fall for Kathryn Grayson’s lovely Susie after they cross paths with her adorable runaway nephew (played by a young Dean Stockwell), AWEIGH's admittedly predictable plot revolves around Kelly and Sinatra's attempts to help Grayson become a star.
Still although director George Sidney's film might sound like any other Golden Age genre effort on paper, the end result is anything but routine thanks to Kelly and Donen's tireless efforts to bring song and dance movies into the modern era. An everything and the kitchen sink musical that's strengthened by Kelly and Sinatra's easy rapport, ANCHORS AWEIGH also features a rousing performance of Liszt from José Iturbi and a group of young pianists at the Hollywood Bowl.
With his trademark minimal backgrounds and vertical props to focus the viewer's eye on the dancer in the frame and also create a greater illusion of movement, Gene Kelly gets his Irish up in the terrific tap number “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick's Day” in Busby Berkeley's TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME.
A passing of the torch movie from the old guard to the new as Berkeley's health caused him to take a backseat to the always eager Kelly, who, alongside Donen, filled in as uncredited directors of the vaudeville era baseball movie, BALL GAME convinced MGM that the two were ready to co-direct 1949's ON THE TOWN.
Having described himself in a contemporaneous interview as “a frustrated writer,” Kelly — who grew up wanting to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and later played alongside Buster Keaton on MGM's softball team — kicked around the idea for the film for three years before penning it as an original story with Donen and selling it to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
A fun trifle centered on two baseball players (Kelly and Frank Sinatra) who perform vaudeville during the off season, BALL GAME offers us a welcome reprieve from traditional Tinseltown centric musicals by giving Esther Williams a delightful role as the new owner of Kelly's team. Talk about a far cry from a girl who simply wants to be a star!
And while the famous swimming star did not get along with her admittedly controlling co-star, fortunately there's little evidence of their friction on the screen in this amusing work of flag waving nostalgia.
Coming right after his groundbreaking experiments with jump cuts and location shooting in the forward thinking ON THE TOWN, in 1950, the last thing that Gene Kelly wanted to do was make an old-fashioned “let's put on a show” style musical that MGM produced with assembly line efficiency a decade earlier starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. But with Mickey Rooney no longer the box office titan he was back in his ANDY HARDY days and Kelly's good friend and former mentor, Judy Garland going through one of the most difficult personal and professional periods of her life, Kelly happily signed onto SUMMER STOCK to lend Garland his support.
Dreaming up ways to improve upon an otherwise forgettable script about a theater troupe (led by Kelly) who turns farmer Garland's life upside down when they stage a show in her barn, Kelly and director Charles Walters worked together to make sure STOCK set itself apart from the dated ANDY HARDY movies of yesteryear right from the start.
Traveling from the exterior of a farmhouse on up into Garland's second floor bedroom where she belts out “Get Happy” in one still impressive opening sequence, in the film, cinematographer Robert Planck's visuals do not disappoint. And he enhances Garland's powerful vocals later on, slowly panning around our romantically conflicted heroine to dreamy effect as he reveals Kelly sitting nearby in a technique made famous by Russell Metty in Douglas Sirk's MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION.
In the end, though we're here for the dancing and Gene Kelly outdoes himself in one of his best solo efforts, “You, Wonderful You,” which finds the dancer-choreographer creating the beat of the song — which will eventually ease into the background — with only the sounds of his tap shoes, a creaky board, and a discarded newspaper onstage to guide him. Proof of his commitment to the routine, although the wistful number might look laid back, it required a painstaking search from the prop department to find a certain set of newspapers published several years earlier to achieve the precise sound and tear needed for perfectionist Kelly's musical execution.
Originally conceived as a Broadway musical sequel to ON THE TOWN and meant to star the same actors who'd appeared in Kelly and Donen's 1949 directorial debut, it was Kelly who convinced writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to make IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER an MGM musical.
Exploring what Comden called “the corrosive effect of time” on the relationship between three ex-G.I.s who reunite in New York ten years after they returned home from World War II, although not officially a follow-up to TOWN (and starring Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd alongside Kelly), FAIR WEATHER still plays best as an indirect sequel.
Forced to face their own disappointments when they see their own lives mirrored back at them in the eyes of the people who'd meant the most to them in the world a decade earlier, FAIR WEATHER's darker theme combined with what evolves into a satire on television and the advertising industry inevitably make it a film ahead of its time.
Building upon Kelly and Donen's bold cinematographic work in ON THE TOWN, in “The Binge,” Kelly, Dailey, and Kidd run and dance through the streets of New York in a sequence that seems to foreshadow WEST SIDE STORY, rushing toward the camera so quickly that you'll feel like they're about ready to pop out of the screen.
The final collaboration between Kelly and Donen, from a scene that splits the screen into three to the bittersweet, contemplative solo Kelly number “I Like Myself,” which he performs in roller skates (later made famous in Luc Besson's LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL), there's a whole lot going on in the daring FAIR WEATHER that deserves a closer look.
A walking movie encyclopedia as well as a three-time national award-winning writer, the only time that Jen Johans ever got into trouble in school as a child was for talking about movies during quiet time. Discovering that writing about film works just as well, when she isn't doing just that on her site FilmIntuition.com, she can be found watching movies and talking about them on Twitter (@FilmIntuition) where there's where there's no such thing as quiet time.