For years, all that passed across our TV screen was a series of grins. Harpo, Chico, Groucho, wide-eyed and cheesy, and, over and over again, Gene Kelly. There must have been other videos, programmes even, but all I remember are these movies my brothers and I gazed at as if we knew all about classics (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris) though for all we cared they could have been made the day before. We would rerun ‘Moses Supposes’ (Kelly and Donald O’Connor spinning and pinning down their elocution teacher in a tap dance of schoolboy naughtiness), ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (flu-defying splashes in puddles), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Kelly teaching French kids how to dance like aeroplanes and ‘chu-chu trains’), an instrumental in It’s Always Fair Weather (three soldiers crashing rhythmically around the streets with enormous trash-can lids on their shoes). It was an endless party, a crazy magic show set to music, and every so often Gene Kelly’s raised eyebrow, sidelong smile would open up his face like an upside-down wink.
Eugene Curran Kelly died on 2 February this year. He had been teaching children to dance since his Irish-American father lost his job in 1929. Brought up at the star-spangled address of Mellon Street, East Liberty, in Pennsylvania, Gene and his four brothers and sisters formed a dance group called The Five Kellys. Together or individually, they did local vaudeville acts, though, he later said to his biographer Clive Hirshhorn, ‘if someone had left us a grocery store, we would probably have all become grocers. That’s how desperate things had become.’ Gene taught dance until, according to a local woman, ‘practically every child in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood wanted to attend his classes.’ Gene Kelly’s Studio of the Dance was set up in Johnstown, and every year it staged revues with names like Gene Kelly’s Kiddie’s Vodvil. Much later, in 1945, Kelly choreographed and starred in Anchors Aweigh, which became famous for his dance with Jerry Mouse; in it he also becomes the idol of a little boy who wants to join the Navy, and he dances around a fountain with a young girl made up to look Mexican. This dance was particularly hard to rehearse because Stanley Donen (then Kelly’s assistant, later his co-director) had to teach the child the steps. After some gruelling rehearsals, Donen was so desperate he said he ‘loathed’ her, at which point (Donen remembers) Kelly took him aside and said: ‘Stanley, but the secret is to make her believe you love her.’ Two years later, Kelly starred with children again, in Living in a Big Way. In 1951, he taught the kids how to dance in Paris. So that by the time he came to make Singin’ in the Rain (1952), he had perfected a childlike quality in his own performance. In order to express his good mood in the title number, he ‘thought of the fun children have splashing about in rain puddles and decided to become a kid again during the number. Having decided that, the rest of the choreography was simple.’