The World’s His Stage: Gene Kelly at The National Media Museum (UK)

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Gene Kelly: National Media Museum.

Whilst flicking through Twitter one evening, I spotted a tweet from @GeneKellyFans promoting a course at the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK. to celebrate the centenary of Gene Kelly’s birth. Long story short, I immediately cleared my Wednesday nights for the next seven weeks and signed up.

I must confess to both a personal and academic interest here as I start a part-time PhD later this year, researching fantasy dream ballets in Hollywood film musicals. With that in mind, I thought this course would be a fitting warm-up.

I’ve also been lucky enough to visit film archives in Los Angeles and New York whilst studying for my Master’s degree (researching Arthur Freed’s musicals unit focusing on Gene Kelly films). But of course, like many others, I’m a life-long Kelly fan. I grew up watching his films and being spellbound by his extraordinary dance talent, confident and charming persona, and, let’s be honest, his rather handsome features on display in musicals, dramatic roles, and documentaries. But I digress…

The course — Gene Kelly: Star, Choreographer, Director — was led by Keith Withall, a freelance teacher/writer on film and regular at the National Media Museum, and was managed by the Museum’s Film Education Officer, Jen Skinner. It was essentially a mixture of screenings (e.g., The Pirate [1948], Brigadoon [1954], Les Demoiselles de Rochefort [1967]) and discussion focusing on Kelly’s place in the classic MGM musicals, role as dancer and choreographer, star persona, and contribution to the film musical genre.

I joined a group of about 10 locals of all ages. Most were regulars at the Museum and had taken Keith’s courses before, so they were well-informed, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, unafraid to share their views (positive or negative). Notably, some participants weren’t Kelly fans and had not seen most of his films; they, in turn, gave us long-time fans a fresh perspective as well as an opportunity for nurturing them in this endeavor. Via this series, I’ll attempt to outline some of our discussions and experiences.

Gene Kelly 101

Gene Kelly was billed to us as the “greatest innovator in the Hollywood musical,” which was evident in a montage from That’s Entertainment III (1994). But first, we needed to understand the context in which Kelly arrived in Hollywood. So Keith introduced us to a brief history of the movie musical across the different studios with clips of

  • Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in Warner Brothers’ 42nd Street (1933),
  • Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) at MGM,
  • Fred and Ginger in Swing Time (1936), and
  • Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland in Babes in Arms (1939) at MGM.

Following that were first of many lively discussions about film and dance styles, techniques, stars, and directors; pre- and post-Hays Code influences; the classic romance and backstage narratives; the influence and appropriation of black culture through tap and jazz; and the use of the Great American Songbook. We also explored how the different studios approached musicals, e.g., Warner Brothers’ snappy dialogue and focus on mass movement, MGM’s stars and interest in the central romantic couple, and RKO’s escapism and stylised set design.

Then, we returned to Gene…

The year 1942 marked the onscreen arrival of Gene Kelly in the black-and-white musical For Me and My Gal, co starring Judy Garland (right). The film showcases Kelly’s Pal Joey persona (his turn in the Broadway production of Pal Joey earned him a ticket to Hollywood) — cocky, confident, charismatic, and lots of smiling/grinning. Arguably, this character defined his Hollywood persona.

We then moved on to the alter ego sequence from Cover Girl (1944), which introduces recurring tropes visible throughout Kelly’s musical career:

  • dancing “outdoors” (although technically, most of the “exteriors” were made in a studio),
  • use of movement and levels, both camera and action, and a
  • hybrid mixture of dance styles.

In addition, Cover Girl brings in the Kelly sidekick or buddy, the use of props, and signature solo dances. And we learned that Gene Kelly doesn’t quite fit the traditional musical narrative, as he has no regular romantic partner throughout his films.

Please tune in next for our discussion on The Pirate

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