New Gene Kelly biography makes all the right moves
HE’S GOT RHYTHM: THE LIFE AND CAREER OF GENE KELLY by Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 560 pages. $39.95 retail.
The name Gene Kelly (1912-94) instantly conjures images of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), widely regarded as Hollywood’s greatest musical – a genre to which the Pittsburgh-born entertainer will forever and inexorably be linked.
He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, written by twin siblings Cynthia and Sara Brideson, is not the first biography of Gene Kelly and probably won’t be the last, but it’s certainly one of the best. The authors’ expansive knowledge of – and equally expansive affection and respect for – their subject is unmistakable, to say nothing of infectious.
But He’s Got Rhythm isn’t a mere valentine to Gene Kelly. It’s an extensively researched, expertly assembled, and almost compulsively readable chronicle of a talent who made it to the top through sheer determination, hard work, and not a little talent.
The Bridesons previously co-authored Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer (2015) and Also Starring … Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965 (also 2015), both well-researched and widely regarded, but He’s Got Rhythm may be their ultimate triumph. Sadly, the triumph is bittersweet given Sara’s untimely death earlier this year.
The product of a close-knit, blue-collar family, the young Gene exhibited considerable athletic ability early on, establishing a dance school that prospered even in the depths of the Depression. By the late ’30s he was making a name for himself on the Broadway stage, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned. He made his screen debut opposite Judy Garland, who would remain a friend until her death, in the Busby Berkeley musical For Me and My Gal (1942).
Unceasingly ambitious, Kelly choreographed most of his early films, then made the leap (no pun intended) to directing in On the Town (1949), co-directing with fellow choreographer Stanley Donen. Kelly earned an Oscar nomination (his only one) as Best Actor in Anchors Aweigh (1945).
He’s Got Rhythm puts to rest the long-held myth that Kelly and Fred Astaire, with whom he’d appeared in Ziegfeld Follies (1946). If they were rivals, they were the friendliest of rivals. Whereas Astaire exemplified elegance, Kelly exemplified sheer strength. To compare the two is a fruitless (but likely entertaining!) endeavor
Of course, Kelly’s classic musicals are many: The Pirate (1948), Summer Stock (1950), the Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) and, naturally, Singin’ in the Rain. For these alone he would be rightfully revered. But Kelly could be equally effective in dramatic roles, including Black Hand (1950), one of the first Hollywood depictions of the Mafia, and particularly as the cynical newspaperman in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 screen version of Inherit the Wind, in which he held his own – and then some – against such formidable co-stars as Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. (Years later, Kelly would call the experience “the great climax to my career.”)
An intensely private man with strong scruples and a strong sense of family, Gene Kelly did possess the proverbial Irish temper, and also quintessential Irish charm. He could be demanding (as much of himself as others) and stubborn (even refusing to shoot a climactic parade scene in Hello, Dolly!), but was also generous and compassionate.
Even during the days of the Red Scare and Hollywood Blacklist, when speaking on behalf of labor unions was very much an iffy proposition, Kelly never lost his sympathy for the working man – whom he strongly identified given his own hardscrabble background.
With the erosion of musicals, following a spate of big-budget, late-’60s behemoths – including Hello, Dolly! (1969), which he himself directed – his big-screen career waned with it. He would occasionally do a TV special, or appear in character roles (yes, 1977’s infamous Viva Knievel! rates a mention here).
Yet for the most part he seemed content in being an elder statesman of the musical genre. He appeared in That’s Entertainment (1974), a compilation of classic musical moments that became an unexpected box-office hit, then appeared in and directed the 1976 sequel, That’s Entertainment – Part II. He dusted off his dancing shoes, and donned roller skates, for the ill-fated retro/disco musical Xanadu (1980), which he freely admitted was “terrible.”
Following the death of his second wife Jeanne in 1973 – he’d previously been married to the actress Betsy Blair (whose 2003 memoir The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York and Hollywood and Paris is among the many sources here) – Kelly chose to spend much of his time with his three children, content in his accomplishments and secure in his legacy. He had nothing left to prove, and he knew it.
In 1990, at age 77, Kelly married his third wife, the much-younger Patricia Ward. With his death in 1996, following a series of strokes that left him incapacitated – a tragic irony for someone as agile and athletic as he’d been – a part of old Hollywood seemed to go with him. Yet He’s Got Rhythm isn’t written to bury Gene Kelly, but to praise him – higher and higher, up to the stars where he belongs, and where he still shines brightly.