Gene Kelly’s Style, Influence, and Techniques at the National Media Museum (UK)

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Gene Kelly: National Media Museum.

Helen continues her discussion of the Gene Kelly course at the National Media Museum

Now focusing on Kelly as a dancer and choreographer, our class at the National Media Museum explored the star’s style, influence and recurring motifs, and the development of his techniques both in front of and behind the camera. In particular, we examined how his wartime experiences in a film unit sparked his interest in the technical aspect of filmmaking and how he used and adapted this knowledge. Additionally, we looked at how Kelly’s experience of working with gifted directors like Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli changed the way dance numbers were choreographed and filmed for the screen.

Anchors Aweigh (1945) demonstrates the achievements of Kelly, Donen, and the animation team in developing new techniques to show shadows as well as Kelly and Jerry the Mouse (right) moving behind each other in the dream sequence. What is striking here (and elsewhere in the Kelly canon), in comparison to earlier musicals, is the difference in mobility of the camera and how the camera travels with Kelly as he dances up and down (stairs, pavements, buildings etc), side to side (often in ‘exterior’ locations) and along wide-open settings (usually streets).

Another recurring feature is Kelly’s ability to make props dynamic, animating the everyday (this is also visible in Fred Astaire’s later MGM musicals too, no doubt influenced by this significant change). As one of the class stated, “The world’s his stage.”

But it was the focus on creating integrated film musicals, pioneered by producer Arthur Freed and Minnelli, that Kelly was particularly interested in developing.  The creation of an integrated narrative was one of his lasting achievements whereby the dancing and singing helped to drive the story rather than interrupt the flow of the film.

In discussing the look and feel of MGM musicals, and especially the lush colours in dream sequences, Keith (our instructor) drew our attention to Technicolor’s influence in the representations of colour and colour coding. For instance, Natalie Kalmus, Technicolor’s colour coordinator on most of the MGM films, had very fixed ideas as to which colours represented different emotions. Thus, colour was a major influence on a film’s design, particularly the dream sequences.  A classic (non-Kelly) example is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s dream ballet (or rather nightmare) in Oklahoma! (1955).

Kelly’s and Vera Ellen’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” number from Words and Music (1948) sparked a discussion around female representation in film musicals. In the 1950s female representation was changing and in the musicals, women could be the centre of male attention rather than merely one-half a dancing couple (Eleanor Powell was always the exception!). See, for example, Jane Russell dancing with men in a gym in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (right) and Cyd Charisse dancing with boxers in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).

The famous scene of Kelly dancing with a newspaper and squeaky floorboard in Summer Stock (1950) prompted chat about the star’s proletarian, working class, Irish persona and desire to develop an “everyman” dance style, very much of the street.  However, as we learned, his naturally cocky character often needs to be softened by other characters to help to humanise him, whether that’s Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) and On the Town (1949), or children in An American in Paris (1951) and Anchors Aweigh.

By this point in the course, the class was sharing articles, book references and general Kelly facts and figures, adding to the meticulous preparation, planning, research and excellent handouts by Keith.

More in the next installment…

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