Thank You, Gene Kelly, for Not Directing Cabaret

This entry is part 6 of 13 in the series Essays / Analyses.

Last week I stumbled across several 1976 newspaper articles in which Gene Kelly discusses his return to movies. After the death of his (second) wife, Jeanne Coyne, Kelly turned down virtually any film project that would take him away from the couple’s two young children, Tim and Bridget. At this point, single fatherhood was his life. But with the blessing of his kids, he returned to the silver screen in the dramatic (not musical) role of Evil Knievel’s “grease-monkey sidekick” in Viva Knievel (1977). (Further reading: The AV Club considers Viva Knievel in their series “Films That Time Forgot.”)

Also mentioned in the newspaper columns is that Kelly “turned down the lead role opposite Liza Minnelli in Cabaret because [he] would have had to jerk the kids from their surroundings and have taken them to Europe [to film].”

Hmmm, Gene Kelly in Cabaret’s primary male role? First, WTF? Second, that could go one of two ways. He could play either

  • Joel Gray’s Master of Ceremonies, or
  • Michael York’s bisexual character, Brian Roberts (featured below).

And although I (prematurely) tweeted my findings, casually assuming that Kelly would have taken on the character with the most singing and dancing, neither role really seems plausible. Here’s why.

First, in many ways Gene served as an doting uncle to Liza Minnelli. Daughter of MGM power-couple Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland, young Liza frequently romped around the sets of movie musicals, several of which Gene Kelly was filming on. In her Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne, which we’ve covered here, Liza fondly remembers Gene paying attention to her on the lot, occasionally teaching her dance steps between his takes. Adorably, she even recalls once trick-or-treating at his Beverly Hills home, she a tiny witch of whom he was supposedly “terribly frightened.” Consequently, it would have been rather preposterous — not to mention, creepy — for Gene Kelly, about 60 years old at the time, to play Liza’s love interest in Cabaret (Michael York’s role).

I’d argue the same regarding Joel Gray’s flamboyant Emcee. While Gene Kelly donned gobs of makeup in Invitation to the Dance [pic] and What A Way To Go [pic], and made many an exaggerated face onscreen, I don’t see him enacting such a stylized version of “Willkommen.” Nor do I see Kelly, especially at that age, playfully spanking and/or rubbing the backsides of his dancing female co-stars as does Joel Gray’s Master of Ceremonies. (I would, however, like to see that, at least just once.) So what gives? What the hell is Gene Kelly talking about in this Viva Knievel interview?

Further research indicates that Kelly was asked to DIRECT Cabaret (1972), not co-star in it, as the studio initially wanted a recognizable name behind the camera. See, for example, PBS’s Anatomy of a Dancer, Not Starring.com, and AuntSuzy‘s sources on Gene Kelly: Creative Genius. Gene Kelly also confirms this in an interview with Burt Prelutsky for the book The Secret of Their Success (published 2008):

“I regret that I couldn’t get to direct and choreograph [Cabaret], but did recommend to the producers that they go with Bob Fosse, who wound up winning the Oscar. I honestly don’t think I or anybody else could have done a better job” (circa 1994-95).

Ah yes, Gene Kelly as the director (rather than co-star) of Cabaret seems much more tenable. Or does it?

Along with musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Tommy (1975), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) is generally considered a “stylistic game-changer” in the history of the genre (Cohan 6). Indeed, these “lusty musicals,” my colleague Kelly Kessler claims (10-11), are much more ambivalent in their form, narratives, characters, and morals than the unified, idealistic studio-driven musicals in which Gene Kelly starred as well as those he directed later in his career, e.g., Hello Dolly! (1969), That’s Entertainment II (1976). For example, sex is no longer implied but simulated (or at least thrown into the viewer’s face); heterosexual coupling is not necessarily the norm; and drugs, skimpy costumes, and choppy editing supplant the bright white sets, elegant top hats/tails, and gliding camerawork of the classical period. Therefore, it would seem out of character for Kelly to have directed Cabaret, not to mention perhaps outside his expertise.

Before readers begin hatin’ and such, I say these things about Mr. Kelly as a compliment, not an insult. Arguably an auteur (at least a “performing auteur”), Gene Kelly possesses a defining style both behind and in front of the camera that does not necessarily jive with the tone, music, storyline, etc. of a musical like Cabaret — and that’s okay. Gillian Kelly has paired down Kelly’s auteur personality to these three elements:

  • control of the body, filmic space (especially in his numbers), mise-en-scene, technology (behind/before the camera), his co-stars (i.e., teaching Debbie Reynolds and Frank Sinatra how to dance), and his characters’ relationships
  • authenticity: casual clothes/shoes and wartime uniforms reinforcing an All-American persona, on-location shooting, his use of bricolage (i.e., interacting “spontaneously” with everyday items like a squeaky board or a trashcan lid)
  • innovations in mise-en-scene: on-location shooting (On the Town, Hello Dolly!), double exposure (Cover Girl), three-way split screen (It’s Always Fair Weather), and animation vs. real life (Anchors Aweigh, Invitation to the Dance)

Certainly, Gene Kelly had the technical skills to direct Cabaret. But the sensibilities to produce a 1970s musical “game-changer”? Probably not. And again, that’s a good thing. Where Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and On the Town (1949), for example, soared because of Kelly’s (and Stanley Donen’s) creative direction, jubilant mise-en-scene, and tight control (see “You Were Meant for Me” for “control”), Cabaret does the same because of Fosse’s stylized, cynical sexuality, jazz hands, and gritty sets. Different styles, different auteurs, different types of films. So no worries, Gene Kelly and the fans thereof. As Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) once charmingly informed one unsuspecting Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger), we like you, just as you are.

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  • Jennifer

    Interesting post. I had no idea Gene was ever approached with this project. CABARET would have been a different film in Gene's hands. For the reasons you've articulated, I simply do not see it working. I imagine that Gene would have felt uncomfortable, and we would have sensed his awkwardness. He was no prude, but his direct, boy meets girl, heart-on-his-sleeve style of choreography (and direction, ultimately) would not have lent itself well to the subject matter. It just wasn't his time.

    • Ah, a great line you've written here: "It just wasn't his time." Thanks!

  • rett miller

    glad I have found you. I spread the word by getting anyone who will listen to watch vera-ellen and gene in slaughter.

    of course there is much of 42nd street in it, but, did it inspire fosse somewhat?

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