Centennial Tribute to Gene Kelly: A Forward-Looking Legacy
A sold-out tribute for the ground-breaking performer featured personal accounts of his life and career
I spent a magical evening the other night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. Kicking off a yearlong celebration of dancer/actor/singer/choreographer/director Gene Kelly to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, the huge auditorium at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater was filled to capacity with Kelly’s family, friends, colleagues, and fans.
The evening, which lasted over three hours, was hosted by Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly. Devoted to her husband’s legacy (Gene Kelly died in 1996 at the age of 83), Patricia shared many stories about Gene, some of them surprisingly intimate anecdotes that produced laughter and tears from the adoring crowd. Interspersed throughout the evening were film clips presented on the Academy’s glorious screen.
Moving away from the more well known examples of Kelly’s work, Patricia showed clips that were Gene’s favorites, each one accompanied by memories he had shared with her about the number or film. After watching the amazing “Alter Ego” clip from “Cover Girl” (1944), in which Kelly dances with a ghost image of himself, Patricia said that Gene felt this was the most difficult number he ever filmed. In those days long before digital photography or special effects, the number was created by double-exposing the film inside the camera and required Gene to do two separate dances with such precision that everyone on the set thought it would be impossible to achieve.
Kelly hated making “Living in a Big Way” (1947) and only agreed to do it to help out star Marie McDonald. The film was a mess but director Gregory La Cava took pity on Gene and let him choreograph three dances that ended up being among the best he ever put on film. We watched the incredible construction site number that Gene did (with no special effects or stunt men) in which he is bounding across tiny planks of wood and soaring through the air on a ladder that is hurling from one building under construction to the next. Kelly’s athleticism was evident in every clip, with many featured guests talking about his unbridled masculinity. (“If a man looks like a sissy when he’s dancing,” Gene once said, “he’s just not a very good dancer!”)
Take a look at the amazing construction site number after the break.
Throughout the evening, Patricia pulled out several of Gene’s prized possessions from a heap of boxes that were piled to the right of the stage. His very own Irish sheleighly that he kept near his bed, the emerald green hat he worse in “The Hat Me Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day” number from “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and the singed sheet music (Kelly’s house burned to the ground in the early 1980s) of the song “Singin’ in the Rain” featuring his elaborate handwritten dance notations (“…put umbrella on left shoulder here”).
Patricia said that when she showed “An American in Paris” (1951) in France a few years ago, French officials commented that she must be thrilled to be in the city where her husband had made the film. She had to remind them that the entire film was shot on the MGM lot in Culver City! For the charming “I Got Rhythm” number, the children of all the French ex-pats in Hollywood were called into the studio. Gene loved working with kids, but he preferred the non-professionals and they really came through in this scene which we watched. Patricia then introduced one of the young children from the clip who was in the audience (and is now a senior citizen!).
Scenes from Kelly’s powerful dramatic performance in “Inherit the Wind” were shown as well as a rare 70mm print of the lavish “As the Parade Passes By” from “Hello, Dolly” (1969), one of Kelly’s directing efforts, but not one he had a great time making thanks to his warring co-stars, Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.
In a surprising move, Patricia did not ask any of Kelly’s living co-stars to speak at this event, but instead included a variety of much younger performers whose careers were influenced by Kelly’s work. This emphasized her interest in projecting Gene's legacy forward rather than rooting it to the past.
Hugh Jackman led things off. The musically gifted actor couldn’t be present because he is overseas shooting “Les Miserables” but sent a filmed tribute to honor his mentor that also provided a nice sneak preview of the upcoming musical:
The eclectic mix of folks who spoke about Gene Kelly’s influence included Justin Timberlake, Penelope Ann Miller, Harry Shum, Jr., Nastassja Kinski, and choreographer Kenny Ortega, who explained how he convinced Kelly to perform one final dance number on film at the age of 68 in the film “Xanadu.” The film was pretty awful, of course, but the number (with Olivia Newton-John) was beautiful and quite impressive for a man his age. Miller, who played Jean Dujardin's first wife in "The Artist," explained how Dujardin was basically doing Kelly's Don Lockwood in his Oscar-winning role as George Valentin. When asked by reporters where he got the character's dazzling smile, he always answered the same way: "Gene Kelly!"
It was a one-of-a-kind evening that reminded us again how much Gene Kelly revolutionized the movie musical with his fluid, athletic dancing style and other innovations. I look forward to more tributes during this centennial year as well as the book Patricia Ward Kelly is putting together from the many hours of interviews she did with her late husband about his long career.
Throughout the evening, Patricia emphasized how much Kelly adored his first movie co-star, Judy Garland. Here’s a clip of the two of them from that film.
I remember those days and movies with Gene Kelly..He was a master of his craft, My favorite movie was Brigadoon,,I loved him and Cyd Charisse when they danced together..They moved as one..They dont make them like that anymore..Such style and class..Earls wife
I adored Gene Kelly. When he was dancing you couldn't take your eyes off him. I can't pick a favorite movie I loved them all. There are many talented dancers but there was only one Gene Kelly. He was a musical genius.