Utopia (and A Tad of Misery) in the Gene Kelly Film at the National Media Museum (UK)

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Gene Kelly: National Media Museum.

Helen continues her discussion of the Gene Kelly course at the National Media Museum… [Entire series here.]

An introduction to Richard Dyer’s five categories of non-representational elements that suggest the feelings of a utopia kicked off our session on Kelly’s persona. Dyer’s five categories — Energy, Abundance, Intensity, Transparency and Community — were discussed in the context of Kelly’s films.

For example, in terms of Brigadoon, the village offers a community who appear to enjoy abundance despite an apparent lack of labour or much cultivation. The community is marked by transparency, the sense of which is that of honesty and openness. The visiting New Yorkers bring energy to the dream world, and the intensity arrives in the several romances of the plot.

Dyer’s categories are mainly apparent, not so much in the dialogue or action, as in the settings and the dancing. There is usually a need for Kelly’s character to undergo some kind of conversion within his films to be able to “achieve the transparency necessary for his union with the heroine.” As in Anchors Aweigh, Kelly’s vulnerable side is brought out by both Kathryn Grayson’s and Dean Stockwell’s characters of the aunt and young nephew. His brash, ambitious, and sexually confident persona has to succumb to a more gentle romantic vulnerability.

As discussed in my first post of this series, certainly within Kelly’s choreography, there are noticeable tropes/motifs that recur again and again throughout his films: particular dance steps, the use of ballet to evoke emotion, bricolage (the use of his surroundings and props), dancing/’teaching’ children, dancing with his hands in his pockets, certain formations of multiple dancers, etc. etc. But it his innovative use of the camera to film dance that was just as important as his choreography; in fact it was a collaborative process between camera and choreography, and for this in particular, he benefitted from the partnership with director Stanley Donen, himself a former Broadway dancer.

The Musical (and Drama) Turn Sour

In It’s Always Fair Weather the plot is the US dream turned sour and the struggle to resolve the alienation between the 3 wartime buddies, ten years on. Even more cynicism is present in this film and the resolution is forced through via the power of television, despite the negative portrayal of the genre. Keith argues here that the “utopian world that Dyer posits in the Hollywood musical appears to be declining alongside the decline of the genre itself in the 1950s.”

Such drama! (Marjorie Morningstar)

Similarly, touching on Kelly’s dramatic roles in the 1950s, a number of his characters showed a darker more cynical side whether in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), starring with Natalie Wood, where there is no conversion moment and he is therefore unable to consummate the relationship. See also his the wise-cracking big city reporter dispatched to Tennessee to cover the trial of the century in Inherit the Wind (1960).

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

The final screening of our course was Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), Jacques Demy’s homage/pastiche to the great Hollywood Musical. I was especially excited to see this film as I, and in fact all of the class, had never seen it before.  As with Brigadoonit split opinion with approximately a third of the class really enjoying it, another third hating it, and the rest a little indifferent.

Gettin’ down in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

I personally enjoyed Demoiselles, having recently seen Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) also directed by Demy, starring Catherine Deneuve, and another homage to Hollywood Musicals. I confess that I was a little apprehensive as I had forced myself to watch it through to the end. Though it was disappointing that Kelly’s singing voice was dubbed in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, as were the rest of the cast too, his performance lit up the screen, gave the film gravitas and it was generally felt that he was underused. I also liked the quirky nature of the Gemini twins – real-life sisters Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac, especially as a Gemini twin myself!

French film star Danielle Darrieux playing the twins’ mother gives a warm-hearted engaging performance, as does her beau Michel Piccoli in what is a thinly plotted film focused on the coincidental search for love for three couples. As with the French chanteuse style, the rather unforgettable music and lyrics help to drive the narrative.

Demy’s approach to the mise-en-scene (use of pastel colours and stylised settings), filming of the dance sequences with a moving camera, joyful choreography, and lyrical romanticism echo the past glories of the heyday of MGM musicals. Kelly’s persona is much more relaxed, even a post-Pal Joey persona, with recognition of his illustrious past but transformed by love at first sight and the need to find his soulmate. Categorised as a “nouvelle vague” musical by one of the class, the film has clear references to films such as An American in Paris, though some felt it was too saccharine and a pale imitation of a Hollywood musical.

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