Even fairly casual fans of Gene Kelly learn early on that he was known for being highly competitive and a perfectionist and that, moreover, he expected those he worked with to work as hard as he did. This attitude extended into how he played, and nowhere perhaps is this more evident than with The Game.
A variation on charades, The Game was a fixture of Kelly house parties between roughly the mid 1940s through the early ’50s when Gene and his first wife, Betsy Blair, lived on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The parties were an almost weekly occurrence throughout this period, beginning perhaps on a Saturday and lasting through the following evening, with people coming and going as they pleased.
Most of what we know about the rules of The Game can be found in Blair’s memoir, The Memory of All That. We can imagine that many if not all of Gene’s guests were active participants in it. These were members of the show business elite; people like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Van Johnson, and Phil Silvers were regular visitors. Visits from the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Harold Arlen, Sammy Cahn, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were also commonplace. In short, it was a wonderful mixture of creative and talented people. To be a participant or even a casual observer during such proceedings must have been an absolute delight.
The Game was another outlet not only for Gene’s competitiveness but also his intelligence, curiosity, and physicality. It was accompanied by a great deal of laughter, although winning or losing was taken very seriously. Gene and his wife could be intolerant and critical of those who showed little talent for it. One can imagine the dismay of being on Gene’s team and being the cause of a lost point! And surely such an occurrence would not be unlikely, as playing The Game with the Kelly crowd was not easy. One story, seemingly apocryphal, involves several friends struggling to come up with something that would stump Gene. Reportedly the phrase they settled on, taken from Freud in an obscure reference to a form of schizophrenia, was guessed by Gene in a matter of 40 seconds: “Dementia praecox is very unfortunate hanging on the family tree.” Who among us can compete with that? Gene rarely fails to impress.
Blair, Betsy. The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Cadman, Sue. “…hangin’ round my door.” Gene Kelly, Creative Genius. 2007. <http://www.freewebs.com/geneius/hanginroundmydoor.htm>
Hirschhorn, Clive. Gene Kelly: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.