New Again: Gene Kelly

In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview’s past that resonates with the present. 

During July and August, New Yorkers of all ages can revisit the heartwarming melodies of golden-era Gene Kelly musicals from the ’40s and ’50s at Lincoln Center’s Family Film series: from For Me and My Gal to Brigadoon, On the Town, The Pirate, The Three Musketeers and, of course, Singin’ in the Rain. We decided to do some revisiting, too; in this case, Gene Kelly’s February 1985 interview conducted by Margy Rochlin, where Kelly discusses Prince, the romance of musicals, and—speaking of romance—the ladies. —Lauren Lieb

Legends: Native Dancer
by Margy Rochlin

In the late 1930s, dancer Gene Kelly left his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and came to New York in the hopes of success on the Broadway stage. In a world then ruled by the aristocratically graceful moves of Fred Astaire, Kelly hoped to offer something that was strikingly differentan athletic square-shouldered style of dance that would appeal to the everyman.

In 1940, with the assistance of choreographer Robert Alton, he introduced his concept in Pal Joey. But it wasn’t until after he appeared in Busby Berkeley’s For Me and My Gal, in 1942, that the age-old debate began. Who is the best dancer in American film: Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire? George Balanchine may have favored the latter, but Kelly won mass appeal by making an indelible imprint on the medium.

Never settling on just one aspect of filmic contribution, he also choreographed such movies as Cover Girl, Anchors Aweigh, The Pirate, An American in Paris, and no downpour will ever be the same after his puddle-splashing dance in Singin’ in the Rain. Kelly reinvented the choreographic methods of dance in film over and over again. He created his famous “alter ego” dance for Cover Girl, where he and his reflection in a mirror did separate routines. He pioneered the idea of shooting a musical on location in On the Town and danced with animated characters in Anchors Aweigh.

In the last decade Kelly has continued to make his contribution. He has collaborated with the likes of Twyla Tharp and served as special advisor at Francis Ford Coppola’s now-defunct Zoetrope Studios. Following a brief tap dance and roller-skating segment in the ill-fated Xanadu, though, Kelly announced his retirement from dancing on-screen.

Last month Gene Kelly was honored as the 13th recipient of the prestigious American Film Institute’s annual Life Achievement Award. He is also currently featured in MGM/UA’s dance compilation film That’s Dancin’, on which he served as executive producer.

For this interview we met at Kelly’s Beverly Hills home, where he greeted me at the front door with a sprightly soft-shoe routine and a quick song warbled in his unforgettable tenor. At 72, Gene Kelly still generates the charisma that won him so many hearts in his heyday.

MARGY ROCHLIN: When you are out in public, do women ever ask you to dance with them?

GENE KELLY: Sure, all the time. The only thing is that ordinarily when I do dance with them they think I am suddenly going to throw them over a table or twist them all around. All I want to do is one-two, one-two-three—a simple fox trot. But they’re shaking with anticipation at the thought that I’m about to whip them around and then toss them on the roof.

ROCHLIN: That sounds like a very pressure-filled situation.

KELLY: The only time I feel pressured is when some woman’s husband comes over and says, “Will you go ask my wife to dance? She’s a great dancer and would just love to dance with you.” Okay, so I go ask his wife to dance and he goes around and tells all of his friends. Suddenly there’s a crowd of people standing around us and they expect that they’re about to see Fred and Ginger. Here the woman and I have just met, and these people think that it’s showtime. That is the only time I think it is really embarrassing.

ROCHLIN: The last film you ever danced in was Xanadu. Was there anything that happened in that film that made you choose to retire?

KELLY: No, I had already decided about a year and a half before I did Xanadu that I was through with dancing. In fact, I wasn’t going to dance in Xanadu, but several journalists told me that Olivia Newton-John kept saying how sad she was that she wouldn’t get the chance to dance with me. So I finally said, “All right, throw in a number.” But I’m through with dancing.

ROCHLIN: What prompted your decision?

KELLY: I had been asked to open a nightclub in Atlantic City. They offered me a ridiculous amount of money. They literally overpaid me. So I did one show a night. Then they asked me back by popular demand. So I went back. Then I said, “To hell with this.” I was only doing it for the money, and I was doing easy routines. It’s just too much work to get up every day and practice. And like an athlete, it’s an everyday job. You have to stay in shape—unless you just want to loaf through a couple of hoofing routines. But that just didn’t satisfy me.

ROCHLIN: You’ve always said that your style of dance was created to appeal to the common man. I’ve also read that you were attempting to masculinize the art form.

KELLY: Well, it fit into my scheme of things for many reasons. At the time it was true that male dancers were looked down upon, and it was true that a lot of the male dancers were effeminate. But what I was really trying to do was develop something that would be American. At the time the quickest way to establish yourself as an American was to throw a little bit of tap into your dance—even when it wasn’t called for. But what also helped me was the fact that I was dancing in roles that I had played. If I played a tough kid on the street I couldn’t go out there and get into fifth position. I had to dance like a tough kid on the street. See, I never played a rich man, I never played a prince. And to play a sailor or longshoreman you had to make your dance more eclectic and varied, but still keep it indigenous to your nationality, upbringing, and background. In the 1930s there was this tendency in Hollywood to portray everyone as rich. Even if they were doing a poor man’s dance, they were all so nicely clothed, gowned, coiffured. That’s why I decided to wear white socks, loafers, T-shirts, and blue jeans. I had a sociopolitical context in front of me: I was a child of the Depression who danced in a way that would represent the common man.

ROCHLIN: It’s interesting to see how quickly break-dancing was absorbed by professional dancers. Do you think that this blurs the distinction between dance you might see on the street and dance on the stage?

KELLY: Well, first of all, break-dancing has been done for years, though not all of it put together the way it is now. But, actually, the distinctions have been blurring since the 1950s.

ROCHLIN: What did you think of Flashdance?

KELLY: I don’t even want to discuss Flashdance. I’m no critic, but that’s an interesting phenomenon, that picture.

ROCHLIN: Are you referring to the use of dance doubles?

KELLY: That’s what I don’t want to discuss. I don’t understand the whole concept of doubles. They used to do that in the early sound films in Hollywood, but I thought we had gotten rid of that. Now not only do you have doubles, but as in Flashdance, you have triples, quadruples. From my point of view it is bad for the art. But obviously the public doesn’t seem to care. They like it— and they’re stuck with it.

ROCHLIN: How can moviegoers gauge a dancer’s talent?

KELLY: In film, a dancer should always be shot from head to toe, because that way you can see the whole body and that is the art of dancing. Nowadays they shoot the nose. Left nostril. Right nostril. Hand. Foot. Bust. Derrière. The film prevents you from determining who is a good dancer and who is not. When they do let them sustain on screen from head to toe, though, then you know they must think the person is a good dancer.

ROCHLIN: Given how you feel about dance doubles, what do you predict the future of dance in film will be?

KELLY: The future of dance will always be tied up with the public’s acceptance of the star. If they accept the star, then they’ll accept the dance. America now has more and better dancers than they have ever had in the history of the country, but that won’t account for the public wants to see. And we all know that demographics show you that most moviegoers are youth-oriented. For a ridiculous analogy, let’s take Purple Rain. If you were to put Purple Rain and The Sound of Music on the desk of a producer, he or she would know that the majority of moviegoers would rather listen to Prince. Since they are in the business of making money, no one can blame them. But if it ever came to the decision of making a film like that I’d say, “No.” They are very easy films to make, though. In Purple Rain there is nothing complex about the way that they dance. Or sing. It would be a bit boring for an adult to make that film. It just wouldn’t test their métier.

ROCHLIN: Besides the lack of complexity, what did you think about Purple Rain?

KELLY: I enjoyed the film. I was amused by all the gimmicks used to titillate teenagers. There is a certain amount of pornography that exists throughout Purple Rain, but the appeal is obvious. You can really pick that picture apart and see where “A” fits into “B” and so on. It was very wisely done.

ROCHLIN: What do you miss seeing the most in contemporary musicals?

KELLY: I miss the romance. I keep saying this over and over again, but dance follows music. And if the accent today is percussion and rhythm and loudness, then that is the way the dance numbers will be. But it is pretty hard on romance with seven guitars, three drums, and no melody instruments in the band. I love rhythmic dancing—I’m not derogating it at all. It’s just that sometimes you want to whisper, “I adore you.” And for that you need strings and woodwinds. That’s what it boils down to. But a couple of weeks ago I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov do Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite on PBS. I have no numbers to prove it, but I bet that kids who saw that loved it. I think you will see younger dancers, who certainly have the artistic sense and capabilities, start going back to romantic numbers.

ROCHLIN: Would you like to work with Twyla Tharp again?

KELLY: I think Twyla has a lot to say. The great thing about Twyla is that she continues to explore. This past year she’s been playing around with classic dance. She’s not just doing her own thing. I think that’s why Baryshnikov likes to work with her. I recently told Twyla that if it were 20 years ago, I could have fit right in with a lot of the things she is doing. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything she has done. I don’t agree with everything George Balanchine did. But Twyla’s still experimenting, probing new ground. I remember in the early 1930s, Balanchine would do anything. He and Sir Frederick Ashton tossed the whole ballet and all of our music aside and were doing fresh, way-out things.

ROCHLIN: Do you invent a specific system for choreographing a dance?

KELLY: When I would create a dance, I wouldn’t have the luxury that ballet people do when they take a piece of music and impose a dance upon it. What we did in motion pictures was have a song and within that song try to elaborate. My usual method was to do what a writer does: get a plot. Say, here’s this fellow in a particular situation and how he would react. Mentally, I write myself a little story. Of course, sometimes you have a song that says, “Do that.” My best example is Singin’ in the Rain. Arthur Freed had insisted that the song should be in the picture, but he was very anxious about it. It had been in four other motion pictures and no one had ever even paid attention to it. So I told him, “Well, Arthur, it’s gonna be raining, and I’m gonna be singin’.” He sort of looked at me blankly and I told him, “Just don’t worry about it.” It was a setup I couldn’t escape: I was happy in love and playing in the puddles and the song would say the rest.

ROCHLIN: Do you feel like some of these time-tested ideas are not honored anymore?

KELLY: I’m afraid so. I think that there’s just not enough concentration on the little parts of the story.

ROCHLIN: Who was your biggest influence?

KELLY: It was Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. I couldn’t believe his grace, his moves, his athleticism. But I wasn’t one of those kids who went to the ballet one day and said, “Oh! I must be a dancer.” That never happened to me. I studied dancing from the time I was a kid, but I was pushed into it by my mother. My brothers and I had to fight our way to and from dancing school.

ROCHLIN: What inspired you to continue dancing?

KELLY: Girls. Mainly girls. It gave me a chance to put my arm around their waists without getting my face slapped.


New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.