Singin’ in the rain with Gene
Barbra Paskin once danced in a downpour with Gene Kelly. On the centenary of his birth, she now speaks to his widow about Frank Sinatra, being married to the world’s best dancer – and why his favourite co-star was, er, Jerry the Mouse…
It was late morning and Gene Kelly and I were walking, ambling really, along Pimlico Road. I don’t remember the year. Gene was on the loose at the time. En route to see his daughter in Ireland, he’d been grounded in London for a few days by an Aer Lingus strike.
We’d met a few months earlier in Hollywood when I’d interviewed him for a book I was writing about actors and now he’d rung me and suggested lunch.
So there we were, strolling down the road towards a little trattoria, when it began spitting with rain, a pattern that fast gave way to a downpour that whipped my umbrella inside out. Barely out of my teens and normally rather inhibited and wellbehaved, something irrepressible suddenly washed over me. On a whim I grabbed Gene’s hand and began singing and skipping across the road in front of a London bus that screeched to a halt. I can’t imagine what the passengers thought, watching the two of us as we splashed about in the deluge, our melodic voices drowned by the sound of heavy rain. But I’ll never forget that day when I achieved the rare status of having gone singing in the rain with Gene Kelly.
Kelly died in 1996 but his films have continued to entertain audiences ever since. An artist ahead of his time, he revolutionised the world of dance on screen with his stunning choreography and created some of the most iconic dance numbers in American cinema, from Singin’ In The Rain to An American In Paris. And this year is the centenary of his birth.
As an actor, dancer, director and choreographer, he was brilliant. As a visionary, he brought to film a new way of capturing dance; as a pioneer, many were his technical innovations, not the least of which was his combining live action with animation, and dancing with himself in double exposure. He also was the first to film in colour outdoors in low light, something that even Technicolor, who created the film stock, had not considered possible.
In 1990, six years before his death, Gene Kelly married 31-year-old Patricia Ward. They had met in 1985 when she was writing a documentary about the Smithsonian that Kelly was narrating. She’d never heard of him and he didn’t enlighten her but their mutual love of words and poetry drew them together. A few months after Kelly returned to Los Angeles, Patricia flew to the West Coast to work on his memoirs. Five years later, the memoirs still unfinished, they were married. Patricia was 46 years his junior, but ‘Gene was so young at heart I never really noticed’.
Today, while continuing to work on his memoirs, Patricia travels the country to keep Gene’s legacy alive. Dedicated to making sure new generations know about her husband’s work, she frequently speaks at schools and shows clips from Gene’s films. ‘What’s great is the children think Gene Kelly is hot and cool, and they don’t see him as dated,’ she told me a few days ago.
Gene’s life as a dancer began very early. One of five children, he was eight when his mother enrolled him in dance classes in Pittsburgh, along with his siblings. Known as The Five Kellys, the children were soon performing dance routines at amateur vaudeville nights and charity events, an amusement that came to an abrupt end when Gene decided he preferred more macho sports to dance. He was a born athlete and gymnast and was on the hockey, football and baseball teams at school. At 15, though, he decided to return to dance.
‘I was getting interested in girls and found dancing to be very valuable socially,’ he told me. When he was 19, his mother took over a local dance school and Gene taught classes while also attending college. With his growing reputation, the studio was renamed The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance. He was 20.
With his brother Fred, Gene choreographed local shows and in 1938 he took off for New York where he won his first dancing role on Broadway as a chorus boy in Leave It To Me! The following year he choreographed his first Broadway musical and eventually landed the lead role in the original Broadway production of Pal Joey.
With its success, Hollywood inevitably came beckoning and in 1941, at 29, Gene signed with MGM. He was cast as Judy Garland’s romantic lead in his first movie, For Me And My Gal. She showed him the ropes and although he’d intended returning to the stage, he was overcome by a desire to master the ‘one-eyed monster’, as he called the camera, which reduced dance to two plain dimensions. From then on, he always choreographed his own dances. He was determined to bring dance more vividly alive on screen.
With the film Cover Girl (1944) he did just that. In that film (for which MGM loaned him out to Columbia), he danced with his own reflection in the innovative ‘Alter Ego’ double exposure scene. He went a few dance steps further with Anchors Aweigh (1945), the first of three with the man who would become his close friend, Frank Sinatra. In a groundbreaking sequence that saw him nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Gene combined animation with live action and danced with Jerry the Mouse, his favourite co-star – ‘he turned up on time, knew his lines and worked his little tail off’.
‘People remember him up on the screen but forget he was behind the camera,’ mused Patricia Kelly. ‘That is what he wanted to be remembered for. One of our last conversations we had, he asked me if he had left a mark. He never took anything like that for granted. I think that shows his humility.
‘He wanted to be known for the breadth of the man that he was and I’m hopeful that what I’m writing can show that. I always say he was more interesting, with more dimensions than he allowed people to see.’
Gene’s athleticism held him in good stead as a choreographer. Among his most memorable dance scenes were those in Singin’ In The Rain, which he also directed. No surprise that it’s the most popular movie musical of all time. It was movie enchantment at its best. Even though Gene was running a temperature of 103 when he shot the scene.
One of the ways Gene enhanced the look of dance on film was by filming the full figures of dancers, rather than focusing only on their feet or arms. Nowhere was this better utilised than in the exquisite balletic sequences in the classic masterpiece An American In Paris.
Gene embodied a new persona of the American male dancer. Until his emergence, Fred Astaire reigned supreme. Gene was in sharp contrast to Astaire’s debonair elegance. Gene’s style was carefree, casual, the man in the street. Even his clothes were casual and he often danced in rolledup shirtsleeves and trainers. As he once explained: ‘I wanted to develop a truly American style. The only dancer in the movies at that time with any success was Fred Astaire, but he did very small, elegant steps in a top hat, white tie and tails. I was too big physically for that kind of dancing, and I looked better in a sweatshirt and loafers anyway. It wasn’t elegant, but it was me.’
Aside from the numerous films in which he appeared, there were those he directed – The Cheyenne Social Club, Gigot and the Barbra Streisand-starrer Hello, Dolly!
‘One of the notions that always aggravated Gene was this idea that he was a perfectionist,’ recalled Patricia. ‘People would say he was difficult to work with. He told me Barbra was in the same boat and she got the same rap as he did. In directing Hello, Dolly! he said it was actually Walter Matthau who was the difficult one.
‘The problem with that film was that neither one of them wanted to be there. Barbra didn’t think she was right for the picture and Walter didn’t want her to be there; he thought she was stealing his scenes by flicking her scarf’s feathers in his face.
‘I remember she was working on The Prince Of Tides and she called to commiserate with him. She was starting to get frustrated because she couldn’t as a woman director get people to pay attention and wasn’t getting the response she deserved. So he felt quite sympatico with her.’
It came as no surprise when Patricia told me that Gene was the epitome of romance. ‘I have all these little Valentines that he would craft. He loved birthdays and Valentines and he’d make them and leave them all around the house. He’d wake me up in the middle of the night just to go outside and look at the full moon.’
The performer had many attributes that went far beyond his entertaining talents. He spoke a couple of languages – was fluent in French and had learned a lot of street Italian growing up in Pittsburgh; he also knew a lot of Yiddush from teaching dance at a Pittsburgh synagogue. He loved poetry. And he was a devout etymologist. Although mostly known for his musicals and light roles, Gene did occasionally take on a dramatic performance.
‘When we watched Inherit The Wind together he was truly proud of that. I think he wanted to do more straight acting but he got pigeonholed as a song and dance man so a lot of people didn’t think of him for dramatic roles.’
Patricia has spent the last couple of years wading through mountains of archives so that she can finish Gene’s memoirs. For the five years the couple worked on the book, she recorded their conversations daily. Now she has started a blog that she calls Notes On A Napkin – patriciawardkelly.wordpress.com – ‘because many of our most intimate conversations were over a drink. We’d go to the Peninsula hotel bar on Saturday nights and listen to the piano music, which he loved to do and then he’d start to reminisce. So I’d be writing frantically on cocktail napkins because my job was to record his life.’
The other day she came across the transcript of a conversation they’d had late one night about Frank Sinatra. ‘I went back into my diary and realised that was the night we went to dinner with Frank and Barbara [Sinatra’s wife] at La Dolce Vita in Beverly Hills, and Barbara walked out and left Frank there. She said to me “just see that Frank gets home”. So I had Frank crying on my shoulder about how much he loved Gene until we went home. Gene and Frank were closer than brothers.’
An attractive, vivacious blonde, Patricia’s love for Gene remains constant. ‘People always ask if I’ve remarried. But I think they made one and they broke the mould with Gene. He’s a pretty hard act to follow. I miss his brightness, I miss his brain and the wit and the conversations, the questions not asked. And I’ll see something beautiful and want to share it.
‘And yet what’s really wonderful,’ Patricia said softly, ‘is that he’s very much alive. He’s still an inspiration to so many people.’
© Barbra Paskin, 2012
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