Gene Kelly‘s wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, appeared at Lincoln Center in New York on July 20 and 21, 2012 for two special evenings to pay tribute to her late husband. This was part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s centennial celebration of the film icon’s work as a dancer, choreographer, actor, singer, and filmmaker.
Gene Kelly would have turned 100 years old on August 23 of this year. Many of his films have been shown as part of this celebration – a rare opportunity to see them on a large screen.
I was lucky enough to attend both of Patricia’s touching presentations, during which she gave us so many gems that I have written my account in two parts. There was much more that I couldn’t include, so if you ever have the chance to hear her speak, don’t miss it.
Patricia was 46 years his junior, but “Gene was so young at heart I never really noticed,” she said. Her love for him was clear as she talked about him, and she got choked up at times.
How did they meet? She describes her 1985 self as “an extremely nerdy Herman Melville scholar” who was hired to write a documentary about the Smithsonian, and it just so happened that Gene Kelly was doing the narration.
She laughs about it now, but she had no idea who he was. She didn’t even know if this “Gene Kelly” was a man or a woman. This was shocking to me. Patricia and I are about the same age, but I have no recollection of not knowing about Gene Kelly. Of course, I started dance training at age four, and my parents were huge fans of movie musicals. I was just lucky to have that exposure, I guess. But Patricia’s lack of knowledge was lucky in its own way because she says it allowed her to fall in love with the real man before falling in love with the man on screen.
During the week they worked together on the documentary, they discovered a mutual love of etymology, so they played word games and recited poetry to one another. When their work on the documentary ended, they exchanged phone numbers, and he surprised her with a passionate kiss. Patricia still didn’t know that Gene was famous … until someone suggested she visit a video store.
Six months later, he called to ask her to do some writing work for him. Eventually, he asked her to write his memoir, and five years into working together on that project, they were married. That memoir is still in process.
But the question remains – did she ever dance with him? Yes, but never in public. The problem was that whenever Gene was out and about, everyone wanted to dance with him. So, both he and Fred Astaire would pretend to have a “bum leg” as a way of declining such invitations.
Patricia was not a dancer and was concerned she might be called upon to dance at some point, so choreographer Kenny Ortega arranged a private teacher for her (after she decided the Arthur Murray Studio’s promise that “You, too, can dance like Fred Astaire” wasn’t appropriate). She got her opportunity to dance with her husband on a particular New Year’s Eve in the privacy of their home.
During the last ten years of his life, Patricia amassed a huge amount of research about her husband and says that most of what you read about him is inaccurate, including an unauthorized biography. Gene’s annotated version of that book includes notes like “B.S.,” “B.S.S.S.,” “No,” “Never,” “Didn’t Happen,” and “No Way.”
You may also be surprised to learn that Gene was more interested in being remembered as a creator than a performer. “He wanted to be known for changing the look of dance on film,” Patricia said. And he did just that. It started with the 1944 movie, Cover Girl, in which Gene dances with his alter ego in an unprecedented double exposure. The technician and director both said it was impossible, but Gene figured out how to do it.
This was long before computers, so creating the scene was incredibly difficult. Patricia read some of Gene’s description of the shooting: “We’d block out one-half of the film, one side, and I’d do one take. Then, I’d do the other take, hitting the marks on the opposite side, and the camera would move, synchronized with the playback. But since we had no computerized cameras, it had to be counted out – 1, 2, 3, go; 1, 2, 3, stop – like that for the camera to pan. We did a rhythm and rehearsed the numbers with it. Otherwise, the image would float up and down, which is why everyone said it couldn’t be done. This had never been done before – panning a dolly in double exposure. But I knew it could be done because of the music control. All the camera operator had to do was stay with the music.”
Patricia then pointed out that staying with the music was hardly an easy task for the camera operator. First of all, he was under a black hood with no viewfinder. “The camera operator didn’t know music, so Gene’s assistants would stand behind him and count out the beats. And they’d start to move this dolly that was on tracks. The Technicolor camera without the big sound box weighed 500 pounds, and to move it took four beats to get it going and four beats to make it stop. And it had to stop when Gene hit his mark right at the same time. And his face had to be in the same place and his arms and everything else,” she said.
For the alter ego portions, they draped the entire set in black velvet, and Gene said it was very disorienting, like a pilot trying to fly a plane upside down. It took them three weeks to work out the scene, followed by two days of shooting.
Gene had always thought he would go back to Broadway, but Cover Girl was a turning point in his life. He decided he wanted to lick what he called the “one-eyed monster” – the camera – because it reduced dance to two dimensions. He spent the rest of his career trying to find ways to make his dance numbers as dimensional on screen as possible. Gene had been loaned to Columbia Pictures for Cover Girl (studios back then owned their actors like athletes), but after his amazing work in the film, MGM never loaned him out again.
Read Part 2 for more insider stories told by Patricia Ward Kelly.