Gene Kelly vs. Fred Astaire: A Fan Weighs In

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Essays / Analyses.

Over the years, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have been compared and contrasted endlessly.  They were often featured together in retrospectives in film, television, and even in a commercial.  I shouldn’t be surprised if they got a bit tired of seeing each other at some level!  And yet such a practice on the part of the public is understandable: when it came to male cinematic dancing in the 1940s and ’50s, the two of them were virtually all we had.  I have had plenty to say on the matter myself in the years I have been a fan of both.

The average viewer doesn’t necessarily know how to quantify any differences between them, but surely almost anyone can see that they are indeed very different.  I do not possess a great deal of technical knowledge about dancing, but I have spent untold hours watching them and I think I can speak articulately on not only their dancing, but also their singing and acting.  By necessity, I will be speaking in broad terms and making some generalizations.  Of course there will always be exceptions to generalities.

Starting Out

Before I dive in to the particulars, it’s important to discuss a bit of what was happening behind the scenes when they were first getting their relative starts.  Fred Astaire was 13 years older than Gene Kelly and was on Broadway by the time he was 18 (Gene didn’t go to Broadway until he was almost 30).  Because he arrived so much earlier and there was little to no competition from the cinema until much later, Fred spent much more time on Broadway than Gene.  In fact, he met George Gershwin before the name Gershwin meant much of anything, and the maelstrom of creative activity that ensued was a boon to the careers of both men.

In Fred’s day, the musical stage comedy was far less integrated than it was in Gene’s day.  Things were beginning to move toward a more integrated form, but for the most part, the average musical consisted of a loosely connected string of comic sequences tied together with catchy songs and pretty girls in scanty dress.  It was, in short, a venue for new hit songs to make a first appearance, and the action seemed to have been written around the songs.  For this reason, Fred is responsible for introducing dozens of songs that would go on to become popular standards (i.e., songs that belong to what is often referred to as “The Great American Songbook”).

When Gene was on Broadway, George Gershwin was gone.  Some of the greats such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter were still working, but many of their legendary tunes had already been written and were performed by others (including Fred Astaire).  Gene’s first Broadway show, Pal Joey (1940), featured songs by Rodgers & Hart – songs that flowed immediately from the surrounding action because they had been written specifically for such a purpose.  While Pal Joey was a much darker musical in many respects than Gene would ever be a part of again, the idea of a more integrated production was one that would stick with him throughout his career.  In brief, the dancers’ Broadway beginnings would shape their later Hollywood careers: Fred would concern himself largely with dancing and routines, while Gene’s primary concern was a larger one, advancing the art of cinematic choreography and the film musical genre.

Acting

All of this background information is important because it affected how the two approached acting.  For example, when Fred Astaire is onscreen, there is a humble “shrugging” quality about his acting that seems to be apologizing for itself.  He’s eminently likeable, but he seems to be saying, “I know I’m not very good at this, but I’m sure you’ll be kind enough to put up with me until we get to the next song.  Oughta be one in (glances at watch) just a few minutes.”  In fact, fellow dancer and some-time costar Ann Miller once recalled sitting next to Fred at an event in which scenes from his films were shown.  Reportedly, Fred made dismissive and embarrassed comments about his acting to himself as he watched. Similarly, director Vincente Minnelli stated that Fred “lacks confidence to the most enormous degree of all the people in the world.  He will not even go to see his rushes…He always thinks he is no good.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I agree; it’s just that within the realm of musical comedy, he tended to play the same sort of charming and affable character over and over again.  And in all but a very small minority of his musical films, this charming and affable character was a role familiar to Fred: that of a professional dancer.  The typical Fred character didn’t get angry or upset very often, and tended to take life as it came.  He never seemed to be trying all that hard because he didn’t have to.  The role didn’t demand it.

Gene couldn’t have been more different.  The character he tended to play was more brash and outspoken, and due to the more integrated form of musicals he was a part of and the resulting increase in their relative complexity, the roles he played were a bit more demanding.  Gene only played a professional dancer once, in his first role, Harry Palmer in For Me and My Gal (1942). But even this role was rather demanding when compared with most of Fred’s as it called for a dark edge: Harry was an opportunist and a draft dodger.

If Fred is “guilty” of not trying hard enough – something that managed to work in his favor; less is usually more when it comes to acting – Gene is equally as guilty of trying too hard.  The New Yorker’s Russell Maloney put it this way in a review of Thousands Cheer (1943): “Gene Kelly … is a beautiful dancer, but he’s not a musical-comedy actor…The horse of sincerity in the bathroom of musical comedy, that’s Gene Kelly.”  Gene reportedly once admitted that he couldn’t do a close take very well.  Because he didn’t always trust himself as a natural actor, there is a tendency to screw his face up a little bit harder, or put another inch or two of inflection in his voice.  This is why he was at his absolute lovable best when he played hammy actors, such as Don Lockwood (Singin’ in the Rain, 1952) or Serafin (The Pirate, 1948), or cocky sailors like Joe Brady (Anchors Aweigh, 1945) and Gabey (On the Town, 1949).  Over-acting becomes almost necessary.

Singing

A lack of confidence was common to both men when it came to their singing ability.  Fred appeared as the mystery celebrity guest on What’s My Line? in 1955.  When the blindfolded panel tried to ascertain his identity by asking if he was a singer, his answer was no.  When his identity was finally revealed, Dorothy Kilgallen protested and told him she thought him one of the finest singers who ever lived.  Fred demurred charmingly and almost bashfully.  While Ms. Kilgallen may have been a bit effusive in her praise, it is true that Fred was and is highly regarded not so much as a singer but as an interpreter of popular song, by fans and songwriters alike.  Greats such as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Burton Lane heaped praise upon his singing.  Irving Berlin reportedly got a bit nervous when Gene Kelly was initially tapped for the male lead in 1948’s Easter Parade because the songwriter had such confidence in Fred’s “conception of projecting a song” and less in Gene’s. (Fred eventually got the role anyway, after Gene broke his ankle.)

Fred’s lack of confidence stemmed, no doubt, from the quality of his instrument.  Thin and reedy like his frame, it does not project power or depth.  Nonetheless, it is warm and human and immensely charming.  Songwriters loved him because of his obvious respect for the lyric and where it should be placed in relation to the musical accompaniment.  No doubt Fred’s innate sense of rhythm, honed by years of dancing, contribute to his perfect timing and phrasing.  Additionally, he had the benefit of working with better musicians and arrangers – most notably with the jazz giant Oscar Peterson on 1953’s release Steppin’ Out: Astaire Sings.  There is no better showcase for Fred’s vocal talent.

Gene never gave us such a collection of gems.  Unfortunately, his albums suffer from poor production values and a general lack of quality material.  Perhaps he was never given the opportunity to produce something of better quality, but when it comes to singing alone, he does suffer somewhat from a comparison to Fred.  As much as I love Gene – and it almost pains me to admit it – I frequently enjoy listening to Fred in my car or on my iPod.  Outside of a few standout songs, I seldom listen to Gene just for the sake of hearing him.

Like Fred, Gene’s voice was thin, light, and oddly high pitched – and stands in stark contrast to the power and masculinity of his dancing.  He does have some shining moments, “Love is Here to Stay” from An American in Paris (1951) chief among them (below). But one senses he was often forced to stretch his voice beyond its powers.  The songs from 1954’s Brigadoon (particularly the outtakes) reveal his voice at its weakest (for more on Brigadoon, please see Marc’s post).  Unlike Fred, he seemed to lack the ability to translate to singing the musicality he so aptly expressed with his body.  The ability to project a song well is something we tend to feel more than we can quantify, but sometimes it does seem that Gene is guilty of trying too hard even when he is singing.  A case in point is a silly affectation that often adorns his voice – a tendency to purposely break it or put an overly cute and precious twist on it.  (One place this can be heard in “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” an outtake from An American in Paris).  But we can’t much fault him for this “flaw” as his own humility with regard to singing compels us to forgive him.  He never much liked his own voice and it was only with some reluctance that he agreed to sing at his own house parties.  Furthermore, his tremendous charm when putting over a song within the context of the film musical in many cases surpasses even Fred’s.  As much as I love Fred, I usually prefer watching Gene’s musicals.

Dancing

If it weren’t for their dancing abilities, neither Fred nor Gene would be famous today.  As implied above, their acting and singing skills alone would not have carried them to the legendary status their names now enjoy.  They were triple threats, but dancing was their true talent – and for this reason alone they are inextricably linked in the public consciousness.

As we’ve established, Fred came along first.  His dancing is characterized first and foremost by class and elegance.  Naturally, this is obvious when one considers that he often danced in top hat and tails, but his sense of class supersedes his wardrobe and any related label or socioeconomic standing.  It wouldn’t have mattered if he was in tatty burlap or rags (as he was in the fabulous “We’re a Couple of Swells” from Easter Parade), because he radiates inner elegance and graciousness.  He is like William Powell as Carole Lombard’s “forgotten man” in My Man Godfrey (1936) that way.  Everyone can see his inherent goodness, decency, and humility.

There is a supernal effortlessness about his dancing.  He worked like a pack mule to make it appear that way, but to the mere spellbound spectator, it’s as though God appointed His favorite angel as Fred’s celestial puppeteer.  He seemed to have invisible wings on loan from Heaven that allowed him to take flight in his shoes.  To borrow a bit from e.e. cummings, I would argue that nobody, not even the rain, has such soft feet.  His motions can be big and expansive, but no one is fooled.  It’s always tempered with sweetness and airiness.

Fred’s body was longer and leaner than Gene’s, and this higher center of gravity contributes to an overall lightness of form and movement.  No matter how fast he moves, he never seems to be working very hard.  In spite of his affability and his warm smile, this effortlessness gives him a remote, untouchable quality.  He almost becomes as one of the gods, and as John Updike once wrote, “Gods do not answer letters.”  We love him; we are charmed by him; we want to be like him, but he never quite lets us all the way in.  It has been said that Fred never let anyone watch him rehearse, and would keep guards on hand while he was working out a routine.  This carries over into his filmed performances: even when we are watching him, we aren’t seeing him.  The mechanism is never on display.

Gene’s dancing is in a different dimension, poles apart from Fred’s.  Where Fred is light and airy, Gene is powerful and earthy.  Gene was a bit shorter (5’7″ to Fred’s 5’9″) and more muscular and therefore always seems bound to the ground.  He had a greater desire than Fred to incorporate different styles of dancing into the mainstream musical, particularly ballet.  But when Gene leaps and soars he never quite takes off, because his thick and powerful legs anchor him to the terrestrial plain.  This muscularity and earthiness gives his dancing a greater vitality and dynamism – a volatile physicality and a pop that one can almost imagine hearing in addition to seeing.   Because he is so strong, he has tremendous control over his movements, so that even while he seems to be exploding in all directions at once, perfection and precision win out.  When he does a number with someone else, that other person is almost unwatchable in comparison because he or she can’t match Gene’s form and the immaculate lines of his body.  This becomes evident even with a strong dancer like Donald O’Connor in the number “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain.  If the breakneck speed of the action is paused at virtually any moment, Gene could almost pass for a statue, whereas Donald’s limbs are blurred; he seems to be flailing in comparison – out of control.

If Fred’s dancing is characterized by an innate sense of class, Gene’s is characterized by joy.  He has the gift of being able to impart joy to everyone lucky enough to set eyes on him.  His boundless boyish energy and enthusiasm is one reason why.  His dancing seems to say, “Hey!  Life is wonderful and you’ve been given another day to live it.  Get out there and make the most of it.”  Another way he imparts joy is in how he inspires a person to think that if s/he just tries hard enough, s/he might be able to do what Gene does.  Fred’s dancing says, “Pfft.  Forget it.  You’ll never be this good.”  Gene’s dancing, while equally as spectacular in its own way, is honest and human.  He allows us to see that he’s working hard – constantly pushing and pulling against the limits of gravity and the human body.  We can see it all: blood, sweat, tears, and, quite literally, scars.  Writer James Lileks once said that Gene so embodies the American spirit that his face should be on money.  What could be more inspirational and American than the notion that if one works hard enough, one can accomplish anything?  Gene’s dancing gives us that illusion and keeps that dream alive.

Together

While Fred and Gene shared the screen in the 1974 musical compilation/documentary That’s Entertainment (right), they only danced together once in their prime: in “The Babbitt and the Bromide” number from Ziegfeld Follies (1945). Video below.

It is perhaps impossible that two tremendous talents could ever fully satisfy us with only one number, and many fans find this particular number lacking.  The choreography is not particularly challenging or innovative, and has a distinctly old-fashioned feel.  And no wonder: it was recycled from an old Gershwin show Fred had been in with his sister Adele, Funny Face (1927).  Reportedly, Gene had wanted to do something new but acquiesced to Fred, the older and more established man.  The story is that both men went out of their way to be accommodating as the number was being developed and rehearsed, which resulted in a finished product that is pleasant to look at but doesn’t really capture the style of either man.  It is obvious that the two men admired and respected each other and enjoyed working together, but there is a certain lack of gusto in the performance.

Still, despite these flaws, to fans of both men it must stand on its own merit as an unadulterated treasure.  I would much rather have “The Babbitt and the Bromide” than nothing at all.  It gives us our only opportunity to compare them side by side in their prime and to witness firsthand how great they were.  We can see that neither was better than the other, just vastly different.  It is the only time Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly is dancing with a partner and I can’t decide which one is most worthy of my attentive eyes.  They both deserve our acclaim and our affection.

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