Gene Kelly vs. Fred Astaire: A Fan Weighs In

This entry is part 8 of 13 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.

About 

Jennifer can point to the exact day and time that she fell in love with Gene Kelly: February 24, 2002, probably about 8pm CST. She was watching An American in Paris, and Jerry Mulligan (Gene) was flirting with Lise (Leslie Caron). Jennifer is infatuated with almost everything from Hollywood's golden age of cinema. Her other loyalties (after God, nation, and family) are old music, literature, history, vintage pop culture, vintage baseball, and hanging out in the kitchen with a glass of wine. Her Tumblr covers much of the above.

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  • Ruth

    What a fabulous essay. I personally always preferred Gene and his style of dancing (and the type of films he made), but have the utmost respect for Fred as well. Their styles were very different, but as you say, comparisons were inevitable. What's definitely true is that they have both given people hours of pleasure, and we are so lucky that they have each left us with such a wonderful legacy.

  • Marc Orr

    Excellent piece, Jen. I love that despite your love for Gene, you clearly have a special regard for Fred, also; so many Gene fans seem to fall into the 'one or the other' category.

    I was greatly interested in your assessment of their respective acting abilities. Both men seemed to rely often on their personal charm, of which they had substantial reserves that threated to burn holes through the screen, but where Fred's was self-effacing, Gene's was self-aggrandizing. This suited Gene perfectly in the types of roles you mentioned, but hindered him somewhat in other roles: has their been a more irritating, hypoctritical, rude, precious, and self-obsessed character in film musicals than 'An American in Paris's' Jerry Mulligan?

    When I was a kid and watched both men dance, Fred gave the impression that he had temporarily alighted on earth from a distant star, but Gene made me go into the kitchen and try to dance… which emphatically proves your point in that respect.

    It's one of cinema's great ironies that Gene is indirectly responsible for Fred's greatest hour, in my opinion, and I have raised many a glass to that broken 'Easter Parade' ankle.

    • Has their been a more irritating, hypoctritical, rude, precious, and self-obsessed character in film musicals than ‘An American in Paris’s’ Jerry Mulligan?

      I'm guessing Summer Stock's Joe Ross is next on your list here??? 😉

      • Marc Orr

        Nope; Leo Gogarty.

        I have nothing against Joe Ross, how can you form an opinion on a character so bland as to be completely devoid of even the semblance of a personality? 😉

        • Ah, something we can agree on: Gogarty is annoying, well not as annoying as his wife and her family who say the name Gogarty 473 times throughout the movie. Blech.

  • Kathryn

    Well said 🙂

    As a big fan of both men, I have to say I find The Babbitt and the Bromide almost unwatchable. The choreography is dreadful, and in some parts actually manages to make both men look a little clunky. It feels kind of like going to see Cirque du Soleil and having the performance consist of nothing but cartwheels and handstands; its neither interesting nor challenging. Bah! Humbug!

  • Jennifer

    Thanks, all, for the kind words. And special thanks to Marc for his willingness to slog through this piece when it was in draft form and offer a few invaluable suggestions.

    Interesting to see Kathryn's comment about "The Babbitt and the Bromide." I didn't know if anyone else would agree with me (other than Marc) in that it leaves something to be desired. Sometimes we are so blinded by our affections that we don't see obvious shortcomings. But something fun, energetic, and difficult (like "Moses Supposes") or something as scintillatingly fabulous as, perhaps, Fred's duet with Eleanor Powell in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940 would have been more satisfying.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpRU-vyelks

    I do love both Gene and Fred. Gene was my first love, and I used to get annoyed with people who said Fred was better. But over the years, I've grown to appreciate Fred too – and at times he threatens to usurp Gene's place. Thankfully, the human heart has an infinite capacity to love, so there's room for both.

    • Marc Orr

      You are very welcome; it was a pleasure, not a slog. 🙂

      I've never been a huge fan of the 'Babbit and the Bromide' number, as you know, but I'm warming to it more as I get older. I certainly don't think it's nearly as bad as Kathryn claims. I love the first segment, even all the corny banter that precedes the dancing, which is unspectacular, but throughly enjoyable. The second and third segments are less successful and pretty tiresome at times, but there is a great rapport between Gene and Fred throughout.

      Not quite the number it could have, and perhaps should have, been, but better that than no Gene and Fred number, at all.

    • Thanks again for writing this piece on Fred and Gene, Jennifer! Yes, I too had hoped for something along the lines of "Moses Supposes" or that fabulous number with Eleanor Powell (she's such a talented tap dancer who's often overlooked).

  • Michelle

    @Jennifer: Thanks for posting such a well written essay; I thoroughly enjoy it and your view was very well taken. You have made several excellent points with regard to comparing and contrasting Gene Kelly's and Fred Astaire's career. I was going to be a mere spectator but I felt compelled to join the party and add my opinion.

    Like you, I have grown to truly admire Fred Astaire and marvel his agility and effortless dance numbers. In fact, I initially saw Fred Astaire before Gene Kelly in the number, "Dancing on the Ceiling" from Royal Wedding–which was fabulous. But when I saw rerun of Gene Kelly on Anchors Aweigh with Jerry the Mouse; I HAD to know who was this handsome dancer with that smile! I was all of 10 years old! It's not usual that Gene was so appealing to all age groups, especially children. I suppose that his many years as a dance instructor in Johnstown and Pittsburgh had given him an advantage in working with youths. Fred Astaire did not have that same appeal with the younger audience; perhaps it just was not his focus.

    One of the many things I like about Gene Kelly is that he wanted to strive beyond the spectrum of being just a song and dance man. We know about his efforts as a director and choreographer on stage and film. I feel Gene really was good actor too; he expanded his roles as he moved forward in his career. Towards the mid to late 1950s, musicals began to lose it luster and the birth of romantic comedies had emerged. Now, I don't know about you but Gene was a better actor in romantic comedies that Astaire. His roles were just more credible and some times he would add just the right about of satire to his character just to make it more interesting. I have heard the argument that Gene had the tendency to overact, to which I would agree. But I think he overacted more in the beginning of his career, at which time he did some dramatic roles (B type or noir movies). Also, he was just out of Broadway stage acting, which tends to be more broad in acting and expressions than what is required on film.)

    Back to the point: I had just finished watching, It's Always Fair Weather" while in NYC with hurricane Irene lurking outdoors. Although this film musical was somewhat dark and not a "true" romantic comedy, there is a scene that makes my point about Gene acting. This scene is with Cyd Charisse & Gene where Gene is attracted to Cyd's character and "bums" a taxi ride with her to get her attention. At one point Cyd quips, "Because as Shakespeare said in The Tempest, Act II, Scene VII, "Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly". . A little later in the scene, Gene says, "You know, there’s a lot of things you shouldn’t bet on. Like that Shakespeare quote, for instance. It ain’t The Tempest Act II, Scene VII, it’s As You Like It Act II, Scene VII: "Hey-ho, sing hey-ho unto the green holly, most friendship is feigning, most loving, mere folly." Then he proceeds to tell her if she wants to exercise her "male initiative", he would be at the gym; he proceeds to tip his hat, grins and walks away. Now people, either one may find him utterly annoying in that scene OR may feel totally intrigued and think the overture as quite sexy. (I vote for the latter!) But I'm sorry, I don't feel Astaire would've had the same effect on me (May be, I'm wrong!)

    Final point: I really like watching YouTube, if you can get pass some of the foolish comments! I was looking at the "I Like Myself" video from "Its Always Fair Weather" where Gene tap dances on roller skates. Take the time to read some of the comments and you will notice that there is always a firestorm of comments that compares Gene skating dance to Fred's dance on skates he had done in 1937 with Ginger Rogers. It's another example of their different dance styles, with Gene being more athletic. It didn't hurt that he was a hockey player in Pittsburgh too! Here is Fred & Ginger: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fb-G07i35eE
    Again, I loved your essay; I love that the subject matter always seems to generate great dialogue about what I like most: classic films and Gene Kelly!

  • Kristy

    Great article, I can never choose between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and both were equally talented. I was just curious if you have ever seen the film Christmas Holiday with Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin. Both play against type beautifully and Gene actually shows he has some fine acting skills in the film. The film isn't available on DVD, but it is up on Youtube, you should check it out!

    • Jennifer

      Hello, Kristy. Thanks for reading the article. Yes, I have seen CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. The first time I saw it, I quite frankly felt embarrassed for Gene. :-/ As much of a fan of Gene as I am, I must admit I am just not very comfortable watching him take on dramatic roles. Perhaps over time I have become too familiar with him; I feel I am "onto him" and the various tricks he employs. But I watched it again a year or so ago and was pleasantly surprised by the performance. There was greater depth and nuance in it than I had initially given him credit for. He will never be likened to Bogart or Stewart or Brando, but at times he could hold his own in a dramatic role. (But with some films, I still cringe at times – such as MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR. [Sorry!])

  • Howard Lucas

    Kelly was in Leave It To Me before Pal Joey, famously backing MAry MArtin. Other dancers were O'connot, Marc Platt, Gene Nelson, Jack Buchanan, etc.

    • Jennifer

      Hello, Howard. Thanks for commenting. You are right, of course, but it was not a leading role. (Wasn't he a member of the chorus?) He was also in "The Time of Your Life," but again – it was not the breakthrough, standout role that Joey Evans was. I didn't want to be pedantic in throwing out facts that don't really relate to the overall topic. 🙂

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  • Sam

    I'm a Fred Astaire fan but have grown in my appreciation for Gene. You've compiled a thoughtful essay. Whether you like Fred or Gene is like whether you like red wine or white wine. At the end of the day, it's a choice between two extremely unique and talented men

  • Rachel

    Great article. I've always been a big fan of musicals and generally like Fred over Gene but that was probably due largely thanks to numerous Fred & Ginger films I grew up watching. I always thought Fred was more willing to share his time on screen with his dance partner, where Gene Kelly tended to dominate his partners and not just in a leading-man kind of way.

    That was the first time I had seen the two perform that number together, and while it isn't either of their best work, it was still enjoyable to watch two masters at work.

    • Brian

      Saw this great essay, linked from the Internet Movie Database. I agree with every point — but Fred and Gene both had those great styles that have made them immortal — but I think of a dvd review site that reviewed the dvd release of "Singin' In The Rain" and one of the sequels to "The Matrix" — the reviewer started by stating this: "Let's get one thing clear — Gene Kelly could kick Keanu Reeves' butt"

      I think that would be another difference to add to the collection….

  • Shvetal

    Thanks for a great article. Since the website was called genekelly fans, I wondered if you would be fair to Astaire, and you have been very fair in your assessment of both!

    I love both Astaire and Kelly, though when it comes to dancing I prefer Astaire just a bit more. I think Gene Kelly's acting depends on the film too. I thought he was delightful in Inherit the Wind, and it was neither a dancing nor a romantic role.

  • Scott

    A wonderful article – you've managed to articulate so much of what is to be admired and respected in both artists. You point out something which has often occurred to me, but is rarely stated: in style, both men are really antipodes. For all the feuding, I think you can admire the grace of an Astaire and not diminish from the power of Gene Kelley. As poor as the choreography is, their styles are very evident in "The Babbit and the Bromide" – just watch the way they land. Kelley is a cat; Astaire is a bird.

    Thank you for a well written analysis of these two greats.

    P,S, – Also want to thank you for planting the thought in my head that Donald O'Connor was the Bob Uecker of American Dance. He would have been considered one of the greats – if not for the poor fortune to live at the same time as Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire.

    • Jennifer

      Thank you, Scott! I like the cat vs. bird comparison. Very apt. And as a fan of vintage baseball, how can I not smile at the Uecker reference as well? (Though I have to say that if dancing prowess were somehow compiled as a batting average, I think Donald O'Connor's would be higher than .200.) 🙂

    • I love that cat/bird comment as well — perfect, just perfect. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Scott!

    • Michelle

      "..Donald O'Connor was the Bob Uecker of American dance" I totally agree with that description! I think

      the reason may be partly due to Kelly, Astaire & Nicholas Bros.existence AND the misuse of O'Connor's talent by the studios in placing him in nonsense like Francis the Talking Mule series!

      Thanks for posting!

  • France

    BOTH FRED AND GENE ARE GREAT DANCERS. MR. ASTAIRE WAS CLASSY AND ELEGANT AND MR. KELLY WAS POWERFUL AND EARTHY. GOD BLESS BOTH OF THEM.

  • missgalchérie

    I absolutely loved the post! I love them both, and EVERYTHING you wrote was just so accurate… When I was younger (probably 8 or 9, I’m 21 now) I used to watch their films with my grandparents, and could always feel that magnetic thing Fred Astaire had. He was a total prince charming: elegant, regal, classy, poised, he moved like an angel, his posture was great, his body was a real “dancer body” and he looked awesome in any pose… and yes, he looked out of reach and a bit intimidating because he was too perfect. I always imagined that If we were to meet (which was not possible considering the fact he died before I was born) it would be hard to look at him straight in the eyes because he would make me feel self-conscious (because he was soooo perfect!). When I was around 13 and my grand0pa told me Fred was dead, I felt like a part of me had died too. Let’s say he was my first major crush =). Now that I’m older I notice how it has influenced me, as I prefer to date dancers rather than my fellow singers, and also men who are too thin and not too muscular, men who look important, it’s so funny.

    I also liked Gene Kelly, because he was funny and look like the guy next door. He’s also an important part of my life, to say it in a way. Being part of a family of classical singers, I was never completelly allowed to take up ballet when I was a child, because of the breathing technique, but I decided to try it at 16 anyway. I knew I couldn’t be as good as Fred, because he had been blessed with so many great qualities, whereas I was starting at a sort of old age… but one day I found myself looking at Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain. It had been an awful day at theatre jazz dance class and I was feeling so depressed about my flaws that I decided to watch a funny film to sing slong to. I had seen that film so many times before, but this time there was something different: I looked at Donald and saw what a great dancer he was, what a perfect body frame he had, and the lightless in his steps. I thought “lucky him! he’s got that ectomorph boody, those long limbs, that neck… some people are just lucky, I guess”. Then I saw Gene next to him, to be honest I had always thought he was sloppy and looked too clumsy for my taste. But this time he seemed different, I could see that slopiness and that extra weight he had in him complimented that gorgeous, killer smile. I changed my mind about him then, I thought “He’s doing it all! He’s energetic, he makes me wanna dance more! He has a mesomrph body like mine, a short neck and funny body proportions but… he’s so amazing! He’s making everything work: that smile, that guy next door body, that quirkiness about him… oh my god that look’s hard, and he looks so proud about nailing it! He sure worked extra hard to do it! If he, who hasn’t been blessed with a natural elegance, who looks more clumsy, who doesn’t have the perfect body can dance in such a marvellous way, I know I can try too!”. Next day, I was happy to be in class even if I was screwing up sometimes, I knew that I didn’t need to have a dancer body or awesome extension to be likeable or onjoyable to watch. I only needed practice effort and to really enjoy it, what Gene always seemed to be doing.

    That’s why they’re both special to me. Fred made me wanna dance for the first time, he mad me ambitious about art, elegance, technique and men, and he made me dream too, because he was my fantasy! Gene made me believe I could really do it and that it wasn’t impossible for a regular person like me. He made me be more realistic and less of an idealist, but in a very positive way, because now I can achive my goals with confidence, because somehow he became my reflection… or I became his! I can see a lot of things of myself in him, the way our body moves, the funny and not so elegant way we naturally move… he made me love these things I used to be embarrased about before.

    I’ve always thought that if they were models Fred would be more editorial (difficult to understand for the masses, wit a natural elegant beauty about him), and Gene would be more commercial (adored by the masses, not like a god but more like the guy next door).

    • What high praise you sing for both guys. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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  • Wai-Jing

    I’m totally biased in Mr. Astaire’s favour, so I can’t resist offering another few strings for his bow.

    His talent for singing was in fact accentuated by his ability as a musician and song-writer himself. He could play piano in what he termed a ‘knock-out left-hand style’ which fascinated Gershwin himself. He and Gershwin attended a course on composing together, though Astaire professed ‘given his success, he apparently learned more from it than I did.’ Fred did, in fact, write and perform a song called ‘I’m Building Up to An Awful Letdown’, which made it into the Top 40 Hit Parade.

    Of course, Astaire’s greatest accomplishment was his chivalry and gentleness. He was humble to a fault and refused to admit that he was any good – he once asked a friend ‘why doesn’t anyone tell me that I can’t dance?!’ The friend concluded that only Fred Astaire would ask such a question; which is why he was Fred Astaire.

    The clincher for me is that Gene Kelly was the one who insulted Debbie Reynolds and sent her fleeing under a piano in tears, while it was Fred who coaxed her out with promises to work on her dancing with her. If that isn’t a show of superiority, I don’t know what is.

    • Jennifer Welsh

      Hello Wai-Jing! Thanks for reading my article and for your thoughtful comment. As I hope you have elucidated from reading the essay, I am not particularly biased in favor of either man, though I admit I was a fan of Gene Kelly’s first. If one can believe all that has been spoken and written about Gene over the years, it must be acknowledged that he was not always the most angelic of men. This I would never attempt to deny. And I love Fred, and I think all in all he probably was much easier to work with, but I have heard a few things about him over the years that aren’t entirely flattering. It all depends on what you read and who you believe.

      Either way, in my essay, I purposely chose to avoid getting into any sort of discussion on their personalities or even their artistic temperaments. Since we weren’t there to experience working with them firsthand, all we have is conjecture and hearsay. I chose instead to focus on what I know for myself, and that consists entirely of my experience with them strictly as performers.

      As far as Debbie Reynolds’ comment goes… eh. I trust her as a source about as much as I can dance like Fred and Gene. Which is to say very, very little. She’s likeable enough as an actress and performer, but I have heard so many conflicting accounts of her experience while filming SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and so many stories that seem exaggerated or even apocryphal, that I just don’t put too much stock in any of her stories. Maybe there is a kernel of truth to some of what she says, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.

      But a resounding YES to everything you say about Fred’s musical talent. I flat-out adore the scene in FOLLOW THE FLEET where he plays “I”m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” on the piano. I’m off to check out that song you mention – I had no idea Fred had composed a Top 40 tune.

      Thanks again for reading the essay and for taking the time to comment!

      • Jennifer Welsh

        Just one more quick note to say that it would appear that Fred Astaire did not compose the song you mention. I found a book called “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” written by Will Friedwald, and in it he asserts that it was written by a pianist at RKO named Hal Borne, who was apparently Fred’s rehearsal pianist. For some reason, Borne chose to give credit to Astaire. Maybe there’s a story there!

        • Marc

          I remember Fred admitting on Michael Parkinson’s show that he was a frustrated songwriter and he even treated the audience to one of his own compositions: a love letter to LA entitled ‘City of the Angels…’ but the less said about that particular ditty, the better.

          Hal Borne was featured in the wonderful BBC series on the history of RKO in the late 80s. From what I recall he performed the same role at RKO that Roger Edens performed at MGM: musical arrangement. Hermes Pan said that when Irving Berlin, a dreadful singer by all accounts, first played his own songs nobody was convinced of their merit until Hal Borne interpreted them. No mention was made of the song with the dreadful title that you’re discussing here, though.

  • Pierre

    It might not settle the question of who was the greatest because “my attentive eyes” were more on Gene Kelly in their common number, “The Babbit and the Bromide”, but Donald O’Connor held an equal share of my attention in “Moses Supposes”.

  • Jenny

    As many have already stated, it’s difficult to compare two dancers as talented yet different as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly– burgers and sushi are both delicious, but hardly interchangeable. Should Kelly have danced with Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance? Would Astaire have done it better in American in Paris? Of course not.

    Something that hasn’t been mentioned explicitly yet with all these Gene-as-earthy and Fred-as-classy comments is that Gene is SEXY! There’s an entire tumblr dedicated to Kelly’s butt ( http://genekellysbutt.tumblr.com/ ) and where Kelly is always outfitted in tight clothes that show off his assets (ahem) and short sleeves that flash his muscular arms, Astaire wears loose, almost billowy clothing to hide the fact that the man probably weighed all of 130 pounds and looked like a plucked chicken underneath. A quick review of the Wikipedia article on Kelly reveals that he was very concerned with projecting a powerful, masculine sensibility in his dancing and disdained the fact that dance was seen as a female art, and that as a result male dancers tended to appear effeminate. Thus, I wonder if a preference for Kelly over Astaire has something to do with a preference for how a man should look when he dances: Do some find Kelly appealing because he moves like a man “should” and satisfies our desire for gender conventions? And do some find Astaire appealing because he breaks with those conventions, moving just as gorgeously (if not moreso!) than his female dance partners?

    I myself am an Astaire man– he’s just so damn charming and beautiful to watch, and he captivates me even dancing all alone– but I could never imagine making out with him. If I wanted Astaire to make love to me, I’d just ask him to sing to me and give me a spin around the dance floor. If I wanted Kelly to make love to me… well, I wouldn’t write about it on a public blog 😉

    • Jennifer Welsh

      Hi Jenny! Thanks for reading my essay and for stopping by and commenting. Yes, Gene Kelly is sexy. I didn’t specifically mention it in the essay, as I attempted to keep the tone more professional and scholarly, but I don’t think there’s any denying it. Even if someone doesn’t personally find him sexually attractive, it’s rather obvious that he often moved in a way designed to evoke a sexual response.

      If I’m being honest, I’ll say I initially found Kelly appealing because he is sexy and capitalizes on his masculinity. I initially found Astaire appealing because he is also a male dancer in cinema. It was as simple as that – seeing Kelly dance made me want to see more, and Astaire was an obvious place to start. But then, the more I watched him, the more I was charmed by him and his own rhythmic sense of movement. Additionally, I don’t know that I’d agree that Astaire breaks with any conventions in this regard. I think he “moves like a man,” too – which in and of itself is a loaded term – he just moves like a more genteel, urbane man, with less overt physicality and less “hey, baby, come check out my hip gyrations and pelvic thrusts.” (That’s grossly oversimplifying Kelly, of course, for the sake of argument.)

      I think Kelly was probably just a more overtly physical (and sexual) person and that comes out in his dancing. He may have had a desire to project dance as a masculine enterprise, but I think it would have come out that way regardless, because you can’t effectively express your inner artist in any way other than what is already there inside of you.

      I suppose it goes back to the famous Cary Grant vs. Marlon Brando comparison. Is there anyone in all of cinema more urbane than Grant, or more earthy than Brando? Or there’s always Jeanine Basinger’s famous comment (is it famous? It certainly should be), which seems to shore up nicely with what you’ve said: “You give your heart to Fred Astaire but save your body for Gene Kelly.”

  • Monte Durbin

    What a great essay and following blogs concerning the comparisons of these two iconic figures! Their contribution to dance in film will never be equaled though, a number of performers have been influenced by both and have tried over the years.

    I noticed a couple of comments in regard to the Astaire and Kelly’s dance style and their sexual appeal to females in general. I would say it depends on the female and the style that appeals to them. Both dancers were quite convincing in their differing styles to seduce their partners through dance.

    I would like to recommend an ideal example of each artist that, I believe defines on screen those differing styles. The first example is Fred and Cyd’s “Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon. My second example would be Gene and Vera’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Words and Music”.

  • Alan

    I get considerable joy from watching both Fred and Gene, so I don’ t waste time and energy with the silly argument about who is best. They loved to watch each other practice their craft, and I do as well. It doesn’t matter who you think was best. Just enjoy their work. I miss them both, they bring much joy to my heart and my soul. R.I.P. I LOVE YOU BOTH !!!

  • Bill

    Jen, all I can say is “bravo” for such a well-written, well-thought-out piece. Both men were extremely talented, and a simple joy to watch. In my youth, I had to have surgery twice, and both times I measured my recuperation abilities by trying to dance like Astaire. I didn’t know much about Kelly back then, but I agree whole-heartedly with your assessment of them. Thanks to you for such a great piece!

  • Wow! Finally I got a website from where I know how to genuinely get valuable information regarding my study and knowledge.

  • Marieno

    Ah, the famous debat, like the Beatles vs The Stones: the never ending debat!

    Both men have two very different styles and personnality, so it is just a matter of taste…

    So, this just my opinion:

    First, when most of people want to opposite Astaire and Kelly, it’s élégance against athleticism…but IMO it’s a cliché: Astaire had to be very strong to do what he did and i had always found Kelly very élégant and graceful in his own way.
    I am not a dance expert but if Astaire was a wonderful dancer, he was less versatile than Kelly who could tap, do ballet, jazz, spanish style…Astaire danced like Astaire (which is not bad at all), Kelly danced all these different dances but in his own strong distinctive kelly-esque style.
    But my main “problem” with Astaire is, although he is a terrific dancer, wonderful to watch, he doesn’t touch me very much: maybe because he is too airy, too gentleman, too “above us poor mortals”. Maybe it comes from his screen personnality and his physical appearance: i don’t judge his beauty or lack of beauty but i find him a little too smooth and blank, and let’s say it: he is not very charismatic!
    Which leads me to my other “problem” with Astaire: i can’t believe in the characters he plays, especially in his late 40’s-50’s movies: how can you believe that young girls like A.Hepburn or L.Caron will fall for him?!? I know it’s just musical movies where everything is possible but i find it difficult to believe and sometimes a little painful to watch…even with Cyd Charisse in the great Band Wagon or with J.Garland, it is not very convincing.
    Well, when it comes de Gene Kelly, it’s not very difficult to believe that a girl, even one or two decades his junior can fall for him: he is the epithome of masculinity, sexiness and charisma.
    In a comment above, someone said that Fred Astaire breaks the convention of the man representation, i don’t agree: in those times, male dancers where generally stuck in the image of those gentlemen not too virile. It’s Gene Kelly who broke this convention with his sweat shirts, loafers, his blue collar masculine style; as S.Donen said: “Kelly was the only dancer with balls”. I’m sure many male dancers are always grateful to Kelly to have broke this cliché of the dancer. But Kelly also brought sex or more generally sexuality in dance (where Astaire was a little asexual): “suggestive” choreography (in the strong limits of the censorship), tight outfit… his body is on display; it is very striking in the ‘Nina’ number in The Pirate: he begins to chase all the women around but during the number it’s him who becomes the subject of the sexual attraction (or exibition), not for the above mentionned ladies, but for the movie audience (women, men gay or straight!)
    I also think that Kelly brings much more feelings than Astaire in his dancing (and in his acting); his dancing is the extension of his character feelings. He acts his dancing. And it is the same thing for the singing: Kelly was not a great singer but when he sang, his very distinctive voice with its flaws gave a great sincerity to his characters. Kelly seems much more concerned than Astaire (some people will say too concerned) by the characters he is playing.

    Now, you know where go my tastes but Gene Kelly was very aware, and he said it very often, that Astaire or himself were certainly not the best dancers of their time, only the most famous because they were in movies; for Kelly, many ballet dancers were far better but just known by a small audience, so, it can help to put the Astaire/kelly debat in perspective…

    • That kind of thkiinng shows you’re an expert

  • Brent Butler

    Jennifer hit upon an observation that I’ve always had about Gene Kelly … his absolute control for any dance you watch. But I don’t think it’s just about control. I truly believe that Kelly choreographed every movement, every position, right down to the placement of his fingers. It went beyond his dances. If you’ll watch him move in regular scenes, you’ll notice a level of planning and precision in his movements that you’ll never see from another actor.

    I’ve always thought this made Gene Kelly the best dancer I’ve ever seen. Better than Fred Astaire. But on Astaire’s side of the ledger, he was a much more entertaining ballroom dancer, and I believe achieved a precision in his ballroom numbers that he did not strive for in his solo dances. I certainly don’t miss an opportunity to see either of them dance.

    Gene’s double exposure dance in “Cover Girl” proves just how close to perfection his performance met his plan. The two performances are essentially identical.

    On a last note, regarding Astaire’s ballroom dancing prowess:
    I’ve always been amused by Ginger Roger’s observation that she had to do every step Astaire did, but backwards … and in heels. LOL

  • Erika

    I love both of these men very much, but I’ve always been a Fred girl at heart. It’s partly because I discovered Fred first, but there’s also another reason. I grew up always wanting to be a drummer, but my mom never let me have lessons, and then I discovered tap dance, first from the great Shirley Temple/Bojangles numbers (I was a little girl after all), and discovered it gave me the same thrill as a drum solo. People always talk a lot about Fred Astaire’s elegance first and foremost, but what about his rhythmic abilities? The man was a living syncopated metronome! Not only when he danced, but when he sang, when he walked, when he played the piano, and when he played…..aha! The drums! (and harp, and trumpet…the guy was talented!). The first time I saw him, was the beginning of the movie “Holiday Inn” when he walks up to the Salvation Army Santa bell ringer, takes the bell and does a little jazzed up jingle, then goes up to the snow covered marquee and emphatically clears it away to reveal his face and name. Right then I could see that this was no ordinary man. He doesn’t just dance when he dances, he dances ALL THE TIME. He lived dance, he breathed in dance, he exhaled rhythm. I know Gene Kelly expanded dance and put a lot of care into his choreography and technical influence, and that’s wonderful, but I like that Fred only cared about being a song and dance man. I like that he knew that’s what he could do, and that’s what he loved, and he did it with every fiber of his being. He wasn’t looking for glory, he just did the very best he could, and then tried harder yet. He was simple and he was charming and he was effortless partially because he was a finely tuned, highly practiced, instrument…. a percussive instrument. The influence his drum-playing ability had a more obvious effect on him in his drum/dance numbers like from “Easter Parade” and “Damsel In Distress”, but it also shines on brightly through in numbers such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNaSZmKL65I. I think one of the reasons Mr. Astaire doesn’t have the same clean precise dance style as Mr. Kelly, is because he was concerned just as strongly with the sound coming out of his feet as he was with the way he moved (at least in the tap numbers). I don’t think Gene cared nearly as much for his foot output as he was what his entire body was doing, and that’s more appealing to some people I’m sure. As for me, I love that I can enjoy listening to a recording of Fred’s tap dances, almost as much as I enjoy watching them, whereas I certainly can’t do that so much with Gene. And again, that’s just me and my own personal taste. There are many other reasons why Fred is just more my style, but I just thought I’d lend this part to the conversation because nobody had brought it up yet 🙂 Oh and I do think he has the benefit of a better song catalog as well. As this blog very impressively pointed out, he got a head start on musicals and developed great relationships with some really great song writers, and I just like the music in his movies much more than a lot of Gene’s (with a couple of big exceptions of course).

    All that being said, Gene Kelly makes me smile so much when I watch him, and I don’t think I could ever have as joyful an experience as I’ve had whenever I watch “Singing In The Rain”. Save for a couple of moments, that movie is nearly perfect, and his soggy dance number doesn’t have one wrong step or movement in the entire performance, from the first note to the way he tips his hat to the policeman and strides happily away without his umbrella at the end. I get goosebumps every. single. time. and always will. There’s nothing sexier than Gene with Cyd in that green flapper dress, and I think nobody was better with Judy Garland, even including Fred (and I love Easter Parade a lot).

  • sdf

    Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking the time and actual effort to produce a very good article… but what can I say… I
    hesitate a lot and don’t seem to get anything done.

  • mpa

    A marvelous essay, accidentally discovered after watching “DuBarry Was a Lady” for the nth time & while distracting myself to keep from attempting once again to analyze how that film was such a trainwreck, given all the talent involved.

    My western Pennsylvania roots won’t let me be fair about any Kelly/Astaire comparison, but your marvelously conceived & executed essay frees me from that burden with its grace and exceedingly fair treatment.

    Thanks.

  • Really beneficial, look forward to coming back again

  • Seth

    Excellent analysis. I admire good writing as much as I do good dancing, and I love this line:

    “It’s as though God appointed His favorite angel as Fred’s celestial puppeteer.”

  • Sweet Sue

    Kelly was a superb athlete and he could act.
    The equally sublime dancer, Fred Astaire, could not act and had all the sex appeal of a praying mantis, that is none.
    OTOH, Kelly is the sexual stuff which dreams are made of.

  • Sweet Sue

    I wonder if the critic who said Gene was no good at comedy ever saw “The Pirate” or “Singin’ In The Rain” for that matter.
    Gene was a superb comedic actor with fabulous timing. I just have to say “Joe, get me a tarantula” and I’m laughing for a half an hour.
    Gene could act; Fred could not.
    They were both good singers but I prefer Gene’s.
    Of course, they were both marvelous dancers but Gene was also handsome and gifted with sex appeal; Fred was not.

  • Pablo Armelles

    Hello everyone

    I need help identifying a song that is danced by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.

    The information I have is:

    It was a TV Show: Pontiac Star Parade, 21 november 1959

    The show was also known as “The Gene Kelly Show”

    In the minute 5:45 They dance a medley of their most famous films

    I need to know the songs (or movies) of the medley

    The music I need to identify starts at 5:45.

    This is the video link:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xkKhUj3C9M&t=345s

    Can someone help me please ?

    Thank you very much