Wrapping Up: Gene Kelly Course at the National Media Museum (UK)

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

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

In the last session of our course we looked at Gene Kelly’s later career and legacy, beginning with his labour of love Invitation to the Dance (1956). Made in Europe but still in the MGM style, the experimental film tells three stories through dance, no dialogue. A clip of the “Sinbad the Sailor” animated sequence (right) once again demonstrated Kelly’s innovation in choreography and technical expertise. As an example of a film that was years in the making, discussion centred on Kelly’s desire to control all elements of the production as well as on the “camp qualities” and “homoerotic elements” present in his other musicals.

Looking at some of Kelly’s dancing partners and other female dancers he appeared with, our class decided that Kelly made better use of Cyd Charisse than possibly any of his other dancing co-stars, though his partnership with Judy Garland was perhaps the most successful. A clip of Charisse in the “You Knock Me Out” number from 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather (below) showed her incredible ability and sex appeal, and in fact she and Kelly do not even dance together in the film. A discussion also centred round the male dominance of women in dance, perhaps not just a sign of the times, but also potentially inherited from the traditions of ballroom and ballet.


We also discussed Gene Kelly’s physical appeal to female spectators — i.e., they envision him as athletic, sexy, handsome, and/or an idealised partner — and whether this aspect of the female gaze relates to a female solo dancing star such as Eleanor Powell. Does that explain why Powell was often dressed in androgynous costumes or stylised male tuxedos, some wondered. Discussion continued about the appeal of stars such as Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, and Barbara Stanwyck for female audiences — strong independent women, often literally wearing the trousers. In the 1930s, film audiences were predominantly women creating the term “women’s pictures,’ whereas the musicals were seen more as family entertainment.   

There was further discussion around issues of race and representation in musicals and in film generally. The film industry was mostly segregated from 1910-1950. Examples included stars such as Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge who broke through into Hollywood, but their film careers were still very restricted, e.g. Island in the sun (1957) with the controversial dual mixed race relationships storyline. Mainstream Hollywood attempted to target black audiences occasionally in the 1950s with films such as Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) but this was not really followed through. Though it was acknowledged that it was much easier for women to break out in Hollywood than black artists.

Following on from what could be described as his screen swan song in musicals, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Kelly both starred in and directed films and musicals.  A clip of the opening scene in Hello Dolly! (1969) demonstrated Kelly’s mastery of the moving camera, surely influenced by his work with Donen and Minnelli years before, as well as his ability to capture the energy and verve of the set piece production number.  The film also comprises some remarkable large-scale dance numbers filmed from multiple angles and heights. And Kelly did get to work with some of his former colleagues from MGM on this 20th Century Fox production. On a sadder note, it’s well documented that Hello Dolly! was a difficult film for Kelly to direct due to conflicts with his leading lady Barbra Streisand and a very different studio system.

Kelly returned to a very different Hollywood and MGM after he finished An Invitation to the Dance. Studio head Louis B. Mayer, a great friend and supporter of producer Arthur Freed, had been replaced by Dore Shary with head of parent company Loew’s’ Nicholas Schenck desperately trying to reduce costs. In addition, Arthur Freed, MGM’s most successful producer of musicals, was not as visible at the studio by 1955 since he was focusing on both his award-winning Orchid collection and role as President for the Screen Producers Guild. More significantly though, the public’s appetite for film musicals and moviegoing in general began to wane. Other factors affecting studios and the star system: television kept a large chunk of audiences at home; major production factories (in which Kelly worked) began to shift to an independent package system; and the Paramount Case of 1948 forced an end to vertical integration (the practice of companies owning production, distribution and exhibition of films).

An inevitable comparison to Fred Astaire followed. As a group, we felt that Kelly was more of a personality who danced; he embodied central emotions.  He was egotistical and emotional, yet could be vulnerable and romantic, very expressive and often erotic and sexy.  One of his main legacies was definitely the integrated musical, his ability to really dance out the lyrics of a song. Astaire, on the other hand, was seen as less complex, more genteel, a man about town with a more routine style of dance.

From the late 1950s through the 1990s, Kelly worked behind the camera as well as either starred in or delivered cameo performances in both film and television drama and documentaries (That’s Entertainment, North and South, That’s Dancing!). We finished with Kelly’s “Singin in the Rain” number, which brought a smile to everyone’s face. And as a cheeky finale, Keith argued that Kelly’s legacy could still be seen in John Travolta’s male-on-display performance in Saturday Night Fever (1977).

I thoroughly enjoyed the course and highly recommend future ones at the museum if anyone lives nearby.  I must say a huge thanks to Keith Withall, Jen Skinner at National Media Museum, the rest of the course participants, and of course to Gene Kelly Fans for the original tip off.


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