Gene Kelly and Me (and Underrated Musicals)

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Essays / Analyses.

With a new interest in modern musicals like Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Burlesque, Hairspray, Rock of Ages (right), Nine, Mamma Mia!, and the forthcoming Les Miserablés, it seems as though audiences are being reawakened by Hollywood’s finest predecessors. There was a time in cinematic history, namely throughout the 1930s and 1940s, in which some of the most successful motion pictures were those that featured a winning melody and an endearing lyric.

Critics might sneer at the thought of a musical. “Too fanciful,” they scoff. “Not realistic,” they say. And they have a point. Have you ever been caught spontaneously bursting out in triumph, singing flawlessly on-key, and breaking into synchronized dance in the company of strangers whilst trying on jeans at the Gap? (Well, perhaps you have…but you understand what I’m getting at.)

Of course musicals aren’t realistic. That’s the point!

The reason for their insurmountable victory in the ’30s and ’40s was the fact that they provided a delightful sense of escapism from the horrors that were taking effect outside of the silver screen. For about an hour and a half, audiences could be whisked away in an enchanting reverie filled with the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek.

I started watching musicals when I was fourteen. Well, I’d definitely seen a musical or two prior to that time, but I hadn’t looked on with the same reverence.

I really started to watch musicals when I was fourteen (perhaps I just needed to escape from being an awkward teenager?). Whatever the reason, I’m sure my parents were relieved that I was fixated on the yesteryear of Hollywood and not drugs, or whatever fourteen year-olds were doing at the time.

I also was a dancer, and very serious about it. Of course, when you’re that young, the only way to dream is to dream big. I studied meticulously under the influence of, what I considered to be virtuosos of the dance: everyone from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Eleanor Powell to Ann Reinking. But no one ever came close in my book to Gene Kelly, whom I stumbled upon while flipping through the channels and finally settling on Singin’ in the Rain (1952). While the other girls my age were crushing on Orlando Bloom, I only had eyes for Gene Kelly.

I become a habitué of musical sages such as Astaire, Garland, Merman, and Fossé. However, none of those people captivated me so much as Gene Kelly. I admired his unwavering work ethic and fiery Irish frenzy, especially when explaining that dancers are, in fact, athletes. Strong, energetic, and strapping (the guy was ripped!), powerhouse Kelly truly made dancing “a man’s game.”

As most who visit this site already know, Kelly incorporated innovation into his craft by creating the illusion that any layman could imitate the same suave softshoe; he often said that in terms of style, he represented the Proletariat.

I have come to identify such true “Kelly shtick” in perhaps one of his lesser-known musicals, Summer Stock. There’s actually nothing especially remarkable about the movie; in fact, Kelly and Judy Garland play roles much too juvenile for them. Kelly is a thirty-something year old still trying to make the big time. He’s in charge of a summer stock that’s without a location for its upcoming revue. His snotty fiancé-to-be, played by Gloria Dehaven, offers her spinster sister’s barn which will provide adequate space. Dehaven’s sister is portrayed by Garland (in my opinion, Kelly’s best on-screen match) who discovers that her true calling may lie in the stage, and not in agriculture. It’s also determined through a series of songs and shenanigans that Garland would make a much better fiancé for Kelly (surprise, surprise).

The musical is not without merit. There are two precious gems in Summer Stock (1952). One is a number at the end in which Judy Garland is sporting virtually nothing but a black fedora and blazer, showing off her amazing legs, and singing a(nother) song she would forever be remembered for: “Get Happy.” The other is a dance solo performed by Kelly that, I believe, outshines even his beloved “Singin’ in the Rain.” Case in point…

Cut to scene. After romancing his co-star in a barn, Kelly’s character, in high spirits, is left alone to dream of his ladylove. To the tune of “You, Wonderful You” (which Garland sang earlier in the film), Kelly conveys his emotions through the medium he knows best: dance. He performs a series of twirls intricate enough to divide his sole dance partner, a dated newspaper, into fours.

His tapping is the signature Kelly style: crisp and close to the ground while maintaining that athleticism he is still noted for today. He dons typical Kelly garb: simple polo shirt, loose pants (always too short) revealing a pair of white socks, and loafers. He is dashing, especially when he flashes that winning Irish smile. Oh, why can’t they make them like they used to?

Almost ten years later, I still am a musical enthusiast and still in love with Gene Kelly.  I don’t enjoy musicals for the same reason WWII audiences enjoyed them or for the same reasons my fourteen-year-old self enjoyed them — rather, I see my own life artistically represented in them. They are, after all, stories of having loved and lost and loved again, of having overcome trial and tribulation, and of reaching a point of self-discovery.


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