On the Town (1949, MGM)
An American in Paris (1951, MGM)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, MGM)
(Originally published in the Boston Phoenix, circa 1990)
Gene Kelly was a great dancer because his dancing seemed to be an overflow of his superb vitality–a natural extension of his personality. In all his movies, the transitions to dance are incredibly smooth, because even when he’s not dancing he’s thinking about dancing — his athletic body is flexed and limber — and he’s ready to roll.
In ON THE TOWN (1949, MGM), Kelly played one of three sailors on leave from their ship for 24 hours in New York. (“New York, New York, It’s a wonderful town!”) Frank Sinatra wants to see the sights of the big city, but Kelly wants to meet “a real-life New York glamor girl.” He sees a poster of Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), Miss Turnstiles for the month of June, chosen by the subway system as a typical New York girl. The three sailors search for her, assisted by a wise-cracking lady taxi driver and a sexy anthropologist (played by Ann Miller, who almost steals the show dancing with a totem pole in the Dinosaur Room of the Museum of Anthropological History.) After many adventures–including a scene where Kelly, hiding from the police, dances in a blond wig, flowing veils and gold-rimmed purple harem pants–he finds the girl of his dreams, and she turns out to be just as innocent as he is. Their great romantic dance number is a dream sequence; she’s dressed for ballet in a black leotard and toe shoes and he is in sailor-suit white. They dance together against a red circle of light. He lifts her up–he swirls her to the ground–their shadows kiss.
In AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951, MGM), Gene Kelly played an American artist in love with a Parisian girl, played by Leslie Caron. Here, the romance builds slowly, then explodes.The theme of their love is the Gershwin song, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and you hear echoes of the melody long before Kelly actually sings it. It’s in the air–it’s on the breeze;–it’s being played in a crowded dance hall, and on the radio in a small cafe. When Kelly finally sings the song to Caron in the moonlight on the banks of the Seine, she melts into the dance. He leads, and she follows him as if in a dream, floating like a flower in his strong arms.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952, MGM) is Kelly’s masterpiece. It’s a wonderful movie, funny and romantic, with lots of great dance numbers. But underneath all the fun is a really good story about illusion and reality and finding your own voice. Here, Kelly played Don Lockwood, a silent movie star who started out as a vaudeville hoofer. It’s 1927, the year of the talking pictures, and his leading lady is Lina Lamont, a pretty blond with an ugly voice that reflects her selfishness and stupidity. Don meets Kathy, a pretty blond with a pretty voice that reflects her great personality. (Played by Debbie Reynolds; she also has great legs.) Kathy tells him that he’s not really an actor. “Acting means great parts, wonderful lines, speaking those glorious words. Shakespeare, Ibsen. You’re nothing but a shadow on film.” She, however, is a serious actress. But in the next scene, she jumps out of a cake wearing a pink bathing suit at the producer’s party!
He follows her, and they fall in love. Their first dance together takes place on an empty movie set, with 500,000 kilowatts of electric light mimicking stardust and a giant fan creating the sensation of a moonlight breeze.
After a chaste goodnight kiss, Kelly dances alone in the streets in the rain, in a silvery early morning light. He dances with his umbrella; he dances with a streetlamp; he dances in the rain; he dances with the rain. “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the great dance numbers of all time, simply sublime.
In the end, Lina is unmasked and Kathy sings in her own voice. But Don has also found his voice–he’s returned to his roots as a dancer. He stops being a shadow on film and goes back to what he does with so much strength and grace and joy – dancing.
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com