Eighteen years ago last week, the world lost one of Hollywood's greatest entertainers: Gene Kelly. Arguably, most of the public today knows Kelly best because of his iconic performance in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but here are a few other facts about the legendary song-and-dance man you may not know.
1. He Perfected Cine-Dance
Gene Kelly refused to choreograph his musical numbers like his predecessor Busby Berkeley, who generally filled his films’ frames with visual spectacles and geometric patterns requiring little movement from actors. Rather, Kelly wanted to make the camera movements serve the choreography, to create something one could not on a theatrical stage.
As a result, Gene Kelly adopted the term cine-dance (cinema + dance), which he defined as “any dancing choreographed specifically and particularly to be filmed or televised.” This meant, then, that for every number involving dance, Kelly (and his assistants) had to devise not only the dance choreography, the staging of dances and the dancers’ physical movements, but also the film choreography, the coordination of camera movements in relation to the musical number.
Kelly’s cine-dance is evident in Singin’ in the Rain. For example, when Kelly’s character closes his umbrella, not caring if he gets wet, the camera closes in on him. The same thing happens when he sings, “Come on with the rain / I’ve a smile on my face.” Here, he opens his arms wide, inviting both the rain and the camera to move in toward him. But most noticeably, when the music climaxes and Kelly steps out into the street twirling with faster and wider movements, the camera also cranes wider and upward, fusing camera and dance. If this doesn’t do it for you, turn on any season of Dancing with the Stars or Strictly Come Dancing to see the influence of Kelly’s cine-dance.
2. He Tamed Technology
Gene Kelly also broke new ground with his use of special effects. For example, in Cover Girl (1944), Kelly's character picks a fight with himself after worrying that his fiancée is falling out of love with him. This internal struggle leads to a tricky solo dance called the "alter-ego number," in which two Gene Kellys simultaneously dance alongside and against each other onscreen. Created with Kelly’s co-choreographer Stanley Donen—and no CGI—the alter ego number made Kelly a star and secured him a contract at MGM.
Kelly also made cinema history when he danced alongside Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945). In the film musical, Kelly’s character sits before a roomful of school children and reads them a story. But the viewer experiences the tale through a mixture of live action and animation. This memorable segment of Anchors Aweigh only lasts four minutes but took months to complete. There were 10,000 painted frames to synchronize with Kelly's movements. Kelly was filmed first, and then Jerry was animated frame by frame before the two figures were joined onscreen. The technique was repeated years later in Kelly's experimental dance film, Invitation to the Dance (1956).
Finally, Kelly invented "the Ubangi" (now called a “camera offset”), a mechanism to get low-angle shots that were virtually impossible because of the large size of Technicolor cameras. According to Kelly’s biographer, the mechanism was “a long lip that projected from the camera, heavily reinforced with iron grids underneath, and with a mirror on it, only a couple of inches off the floor, so that the camera could shoot down into the mirror which, in turn, could be adjusted to reflect the exact angle [Kelly] wanted.” Kelly invented the device for his satirical fantasy film The Pirate (1948).
Each of these technical innovations derives from Kelly's desire to do something onscreen that could not be done onstage and that had never been done before.
3. He took the Musical On Location
In keeping with Kelly’s need to advance cinema and the musical specifically, the star wanted to shoot one of his films, On the Town (1949), outside the studio—and outside Hollywood, in fact. This was generally unheard of in the 1940s, especially for a big-budget MGM musical, all of which were filmed on soundstages, backlots, or nearby. Consequently, to get his wish to travel to and shoot in Manhattan, Kelly had to put up a fight with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who could not visualize the effect that Kelly (and his co-director Stanley Donen) were after. He thought the idea was indulgent and a waste of money. "Why not just do it on the backlot—like everyone else?" Mayer asked.
Ultimately, Mayer gave Kelly, Donen, and the rest of the unit five days in NYC, two of which were apparently spoiled by bad weather. The crew shot where and when they could. "We had to 'steal' and 'cheat' every shot, and somehow keep our cameras hidden from the passers-by who would only delay us further and crowd around if they knew a picture was being made," Kelly once said.
Numerous scholars and critics consider On the Town the first film musical shot on location. While this is not completely true, it is the first big-budget color musical from MGM’s Freed Unit (the production unit of which Kelly was a part) to be shot on location, and it prompted other directors to do the same. It was highly successful, earning over three times its budget on first release.
4. He's Making a Comeback Today
Even though Kelly has been dead 18 years now and his most admired films are over six decades old, his presence in the 21st century is alive and well.
In the past eight years, the deceased Hollywood song-and-dance man has made appearances in Family Guy, a Funny or Die sketch, and at least four television commercials, two for Volkswagen alone. In addition, The Simpsons, Glee, Saturday Night Live, Britain's Got Talent, Usher, Jaime Cullum, and Mint Royale have recently paid homage to Gene Kelly and Singin' in the Rain.
Furthermore, over the past decade, several Kelly-related fansites, tumblelogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, video mash-ups, and message boards have appeared online, all of which continue to be extremely active. And this makes sense, considering the legacy that Kelly left behind.