WEIRDLAND: Gene Kelly: the Lone Hoofer

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gene Kelly: the Lone Hoofer

“Everything that Gene was, or was later to become, was already there in that act [‘The Magazine Page’ show in 1939]. His qualities were immediately apparent, and the surprising thing was, when you first looked at him, what struck you most was his charm and his clean-cut good looks. He was full of grace and vitality, and what I remember most of all was the effect he had on an audience. They just loved him. He could do no wrong. There was this magic - this “star quality” he exuded. His dancing was very athletic and he had the wonderful ability to make the most complicated things look ridiculously simple.” -Adolph Green ("Singin' in the Rain" screenwriter) on Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair with daughter Kerry (born on 16 October, 1942)

Betsy Blair had met Gene for the first time when she auditioned for Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe in 1940. She had borrowed a cousin's fur jacket plus a pill-box hat with protruding violets and, looking like Ann Sheridan, made her way to the Capitol Hotel. When she arrived, the ballroom was deserted. She looked around and saw Gene, 'I have a call from Mr. Rose', she said. 'He´s auditioning for dancers'. 'That's not until tomorrow', Gene said, 'You´ve made a mistake..., Are you a good dancer?' Betsy looked at this total stranger, whom she took for a busboy, thinking he was quite fresh! 'Actually I happen to be a very good dancer', she retorted. 'In that case', said Gene, 'I´ll see you tomorrow'. And he smiled at her. It wasn't until she returned the next morning that she realised he was the choreographer.

Betsy Blair visiting Gene Kelly during the run of "Pal Joey" (1940)

During the run of "Pal Joey" Gene Kelly was dating Betsy (who was 17 years old). By now her relationship with Gene was becoming serious, but remained 'pure'. 'I was doing everything in my power for it to be a bit less pure, but until Gene considered it was serious enough, he didn't touch me. His not making love to me was his way of showing me that he did love me, though at the time I didn't understand that and wondered what the hell was wrong with him - or me for that matter. I wasn't used to being treated with such consideration by men - particularly not men in the theatre. So I just had to be patient and wait'.

Gene Kelly's contract with David O. Selznick would begin, officially, in November of 1941. Gene decided that he was definitely 'serious' about Betsy and proposed to her. He said he couldn't go off to California without her and that, with a movie contract all signed and sealed, the time was at last right for him to marry and settle down. So, at 5 am one morning, outside the all-girls hotel at which she was still staying, he proposed to her. They got married on September 24, 1941. On November 11, they arrived in Los Angeles and made straight for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

In her autobiography, "The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris" (2003), Betsy Blair wrote with notable affection towards Gene: “He treated me like a little angel... Gene was an honorable young man. What remained of his Catholicism manifested itself in his attitude to women. There were ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’, and I was an exaggeratedly good girl. He never made me feel rejected, rather that he was taking care of me. He’d let me spend the night sometimes, but he didn’t make love to me... He’d kiss me gently and explain that I was too young for more than that.” Gene said to her: “What I want is what I have, you — to pick flowers and read by the fireplace and sing around the house — my little white dove with the burnished feathers that wakes up every morning smiling.”

Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair in Central Park, 1941

Saturday and Sunday were the Kelly's volley-ball days, a sport Gene took as seriously as his work - and according to Bob Fosse, Gene played to win: 'He had a competitive streak in him that was quite frightening. At the same time, he had this tremendous Irish charm, and if he saw you were unhappy, he'd flash that smile at you and all was well'.

Kerry loved the idea of her father being famous, but again the 'prevailing ethos' in the Kelly household was that one must not be too proud, or boast. 'Though he was always surrounded by people who believed him to be as outgoing in his private life as he was on the screen, he was very complex and really rather lonely', Kerry recalled of his father, 'He was always restless - trying to prove something to himself all the time'.

Because Betsy was aware what the failure of their marriage would mean to Gene, she felt guilty about having to go through with the divorce. She also felt bad that their break-up coincided with the virtual disappearance of the screen musical. Now there wasn't even that to which he could cling. Nor did he have any really deep friendships.

'For all the scores of people he surrounded himself with', Betsy said, 'he was a very private man. People liked, respected and enjoyed him. But few people understood him. I always thought this was a pity, and never more so than after the divorce when, apart from Kerry, the only other person he could turn to was Jeannie [Coyne]. But he had no real close male friends. After Dick Dwenger, his best friend, was killed in the war, I felt that he should have another 'best friend'. I even introduced him to Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote 'Marty', because I knew that politically they were on the same side of the fence and should have a lot in common. But it didn't happen. After fifteen years of marriage and hundreds of people passing through our lives, I had to face the fact that Gene was a loner.

"Gene Kelly liberated the Hollywood musical and infused it with an infectious joie de vivre. He is one of the rare handful of originals who brought to the American cinema individuality and style. In a world starved of the special brand of innocence with which he invested Harry the Hoofer in 'The Time of Your Life' way back in 1939, Gene Kelly is more cherished now than ever before". -"Gene Kelly Biography" by Clive Hirschhorn


Becca said...

what are your favorite films of Gene Kelly? I've only seen Singing in the rain and On the Town

Kendra said...

Becca, I'd recommend to watch most of his films if you enjoy his dancing style, "An American in Paris" is one of his masterpieces, it's difficult to single out just a few titles, because in most of Gene Kelly's filmography there are great dance routines, so you cannot miss "Cover Girl", "The Pirate", "It's always fair weather", "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (to start with). I've also enjoyed immensely "For me and my gal", "Invitation to the dance", "Les Girls" and "Les demoiselles de Rochefort". And I cherish his diverse non-strictly musical roles, too, as in "Christmas Holidays", "The Three Musketeers", "Inherit the Wind", "Marjorie Morningstar".