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.’

The carefreeness, the idea that all the world’s a song, is, I think, what is most appealing about Gene Kelly’s musicals. The characters don’t have to be dancers, or be ‘putting on a show’ as in the Garland/Rooney films: they just live as if on the brink of singing, they move as if about to break into dance, and dance as if it could be walking. I like to think this is what the young Truffaut had in mind when he slid across the floor of a Paris apartment to swoon at scriptwriters Betty Comden and Adolf Green: ‘You wrote Singin’ in the Rain – my favourite movie!’ Or that it is why Godard intended Une Femme est une femme with its bright colours and reasonless singing as a tribute to Kelly. And why their friend Jacques Demy topped it all by actually starring Gene Kelly in his tribute to Gene Kelly, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. If they admired him it means that there is always room for frivolity, and I warm to the idea that the French New Wave (now associated with what is archetypally arty and intense) actually thought the whole thing was a bowl of technicolour cherries.

However, two things suggest that the cohesion of musical numbers and spoken sections did not depend on the glowing unreality of these movies, but rather its opposite, on the movies’ closeness to life. One clue is something Stanley Donen said in Stephen Silverman’s new biography of him, Dancing on the Ceiling. ‘The three greatest examples of screen choreography,’ Donen remarked, ‘aren’t in musicals at all but in Charlie Chaplin movies: his dancing with the globe, his shaving the customer to the rhythm of the “Hungarian Rhapsody”, and his bouncing the dinner rolls on the ends of his forks.’ The other is a comment Gene Kelly made about the parties he and his first wife Betsy Blair used to have at their house on North Rodeo: ‘It was a musical house, a fun house.’ The word ‘fun’ made me think of a funfair, and I realised that the house he was describing wasn’t just ‘musical’ in the sense of ‘we are a musical family’ but actually like a musical. Everybody who came (Judy Garland, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Sinatra, Comden and Green, Vincente Minnelli, Rita Hayworth) was in musicals, and they would sing and dance and make up new routines right there next to the cold cuts. (André Previn said everyone working in the Freed Unit was so close their films became like ‘very expensive home movies’.) What both Donen and Kelly seem to be saying is that life and the movies weren’t so far apart, especially when you sang all the time at home and you saw choreography as anything connected with how you moved. Kelly illustrates this perfectly in a scene in An American in Paris in which he wakes up in his tiny studio, opens the door for his breakfast, scratches his back and stretches, hoists his bed up on a pulley, takes a table and chair out of a cupboard, then coffee and a bowl, and flips the door shut with his foot as he turns to open the window. All in a single movement. Minnelli, the film’s director, had advised him to play the whole scene as if underwater. As someone who had always been seduced by the high-colour other-worldliness of Kelly’s films, I asked Betsy Blair if she had recognised her husband as she knew him when she watched those movies. ‘Oh absolutely,’ she replied, ‘the old Irish charm was there on screen and off.’

There was something else she remembers seeing. She told Clive Hirschhorn that a couple of years after Singin’ in the Rain was released, and at a point when their marriage ‘was becoming pretty shaky’, Blair saw the film again. At the end of the Broadway ballet, a smiling Kelly holds out his arms and floats above his fellow performers, in ever-increasing close-up with neon lights glaring behind him. His face, as Blair remembers, ‘came sailing out of the screen, and I wondered how I could ever escape him – he was up there, 32 times larger than life.’ His blown-up ubiquity made her own position very hard, but her comments also shed light on the way his image is received even by audiences not involved with him personally. Looking at that close-up now, that impeccably slicked hair and impossibly white grin, held for much longer than it takes to say ‘cheese’, I can see a glimpse of what David Thomson calls Kelly’s ‘harsh, calculating cheerfulness’. It is a picture of an all-American confidence, one that was not just Kelly’s but belonged to his audience and to his time. (Johnny Green recalls his Freed Unit colleagues as ‘the laughingest bunch of people in Hollywood’. Hysteria is never far off.) The confidence isn’t quite real, but more self-kidding, slippery. Yet the picture (Kelly’s smile) is not a picture of it slipping, but of the grip it’s held in, the fist so tight it’s shaking. This, I suppose, is what people mean when they say they always thought Gene Kelly’s smile was fake. It’s not fake (all too real, all too necessary, I’d say) but it can be manic, anxious.

By the time It’s Always Fair Weather was made in 1955, the golden age of musicals was over. Comden and Green wrote a script that was incredibly bleak, and Kelly simply said afterwards: ‘We blew it.’ The film tells the story of three soldiers back from the war who promise to meet up in ten years’ time. They do, they don’t get on, they get depressed. When they finally decide they like each other again it feels as if the compulsory happy ending is dragging the rest of the film along by its hair. Liking each other, it seems, is mainly about liking oneself. As Kelly’s character, Ted, says: ‘I met up with myself for the first time in ten years.’ Working towards that tight-gripping smile, in a sort of rerun of his famous ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ performance, he does a virtuoso song-and-dance number called ‘I Like Myself’ (‘Can it be I like myself? ... feeling so unlike myself/Always used to dislike myself’) in which he zips and taps through the streets of New York – on roller skates. Dressed in a dark suit and trilby similar to his ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ outfit, Kelly opens the song with the same eyebrow and shoulder shrug that came at the beginning of the previous film’s number. He dances on and off the sidewalk again, glides across a busy street. But even the sound is more grating. Instead of the soft slosh of rain we hear the tinny scraping of metal wheels on tarmac. And in this film the streets are full of people, all watching him. This is no longer a silly, childlike solo, it’s an adrenalin-pumped, lastditch performance to a confidence-confirming crowd. He dances at people, tack-tacking his roller skates for several seconds while looking them straight in the eye. Traffic stops. The masses gather round. He holds out his arms, looks up into the crane shot and smiles. He likes himself.

In fact, though, it wasn’t just the time in his and Hollywood’s life that made him that way. Liking himself had been a problem before. As early as 1944 Kelly danced a number which is a precursor to those in Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather. In Cover Girl, on another dark night, in another dark suit, Kelly walks down another (empty) street and talks to himself. He’s angry, jealous, mumbling as he stares at the ground. He walks past shop windows (as in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ but very grey) and in one of them his reflection (or ‘alter ego’ as the dance came to be known) starts talking to him. He turns, walks away towards the camera. ‘Hey! Danny!’ the reflection calls. ‘You can’t turn away from yourself!’ It jumps out of the window, ghostly and milkily transparent, and pulls him with its fingers from behind, as if hypnotising the crown of his head. The music starts – ‘Long Ago and Far Away’ in a minor key and they do an eerie, sorcerer’s apprentice-like dance up and down the side-walk, up and down steps and scaffolding, chasing each other, stepping in time, until the alter ego jumps back into the window and Kelly, as if released from some magical force, picks up a trash can and throws it at his own reflection. The smash leaves a jagged hole where his face used to be.

If we see these three numbers (from Cover Girl, Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather) not as a chronological sequence but as a set (different dosages of the same inter-changeable ingredients), we might find this is where the image of Gene Kelly still lives. Because the overriding sense when watching them is of a single complex personality rather than a split one, of a man whose smile contains more than one possibility, and who will turn whichever outcome into exhilarating performance. For all the serious ballet Kelly was fond of creating, it was his athletic, space-embracing tap dancing, his hoofing-turned-smooth which brought him to life (to ‘larger than life’). In It’s Always Fair Weather the Cyd Charisse character asks Ted what his pals thought he would turn out to be. ‘Oh, nothing much,’ he says, one foot shuffling in circles on the floor, ‘just a great man.’ This is exactly what Kelly’s screen persona turned out to be – a great man who wore his greatness with a shrug, who made an exhibition of his virtuosity, played unashamedly to the child in every member of the crowd, and then, smiling, said it was nothing much. Whatever darkness one encounters, the excitement of the dance sucks one in; it contains the anxiety, has the energy to whip it up, whirl it out and become strengthened by it. What we see, even in the most childlike Kelly wheeze, is always composed of more than one thing.

The year after Singin’ in the Rain was released, Gene, Betsy Blair and their daughter came to England for the Coronation. There were crowds of people around Hyde Park and as the Kellys crossed the corner it began to rain. Gene was spotted and suddenly all the people waiting for the new Queen started singing ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. ‘It was the biggest thrill of my life,’ Kelly later told Clive Hirschhorn. ‘He grabbed Kerry and me by the hand,’ Blair told me, ‘and ran. He loved it. But he also wanted to get out of there.’

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