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Gene Kelly’s Wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, Tells Insider Stories at Lincoln Center – Part 2

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Gene Kelly Hello Dolly

Gene Kelly with Barbra Streisand on the set of Hello, Dolly! Gene directed this 1969 film, which also starred Walter Matthau. Streisand was insecure because she felt she was too young for the role. Matthau didn’t want to be there at all and worried that Streisand was trying to upstage him. Gene had to referee arguments between the two stars. | 20th Century Fox

This is the second installment of my coverage of Patricia Ward Kelly‘s tributes to her late husband, Gene Kelly, for the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on July 20 and 21, 2012. (Read the first installment.) As the Sole Trustee of The Gene Kelly Image Trust, Patricia is 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 kids think Gene Kelly is hot and cool, and they don’t see him as dated,” she said.

Gene Kelly with Jerry the Mouse

Gene Kelly with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh | MGM

Patricia is also committed to informing people about Gene’s innovations as a filmmaker and cinematographer. In part 1, I talked about his groundbreaking double exposure scene in Cover Girl. Another innovation was combining live action with animation, which he did in Anchors Aweigh and Invitation to the Dance.

Director Stanley Donen came up with the idea, and the first scene was with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh. Again, many people thought it couldn’t be done, but Gene knew it could work if they tied the mouse’s movements to the musical beats. He choreographed in his head, so he could visualize the mouse beside him. It took two days to shoot the scene and months to complete the animation. Gene worked with the animators, who had to create 24 drawings for every second of footage. The scene that follows is from Invitation to the Dance.

On the Town was one of Gene’s favorite films. He co-directed it with Stanley Donen, and it was trailblazing for two reasons: (1) It was the first movie musical that was shot on location, and (2) it was the first time Technicolor film was used in low light. While the first innovation was deliberate, the second was by chance. They were trying to use a ship in the final scene before it left its dock in New York. They felt the light was too low, but Gene decided to take the chance. The camera operators shot it under protest, and it ended up showing everyone what Technicolor film could do.

I couldn’t find video of that scene, but the following is the film’s opening, which was shot all over New York. They moved from one location to the other by hiding the very popular Frank Sinatra in a taxi, trying to avoid attracting a horde of fans. Incidentally, Patricia said Gene and Frank were “closer than brothers.”

Gene was adamant that the dancers’ full bodies be in the shots, and he felt that light and color could add dimension to filmed dance numbers. Of course, the way the dancers moved through space in relation to the camera was also important.

“The more you could extend the sense of kinetic energy, the more you moved at that camera, the higher you jumped … the more you gave a sense of roundness to the figures,” he told Patricia. You can see how the use of light and color, as well as choreography, created dimension in the fountain scene with Leslie Caron in An American in Paris. Gene directed this portion of the film, which took seven weeks of rehearsals, four weeks of shooting, and ten days of editing. He never used more than one camera so that the editors did not have multiple camera angles from which to make their choices. As a result, they had to follow the way he envisioned the scene.

The scarf dance number with Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain was another inventive and complex scene to shoot. Three airplane motors/fans were used to “choreograph” the scarf. Gene planned it out in detail, and the scarf had to hit its marks. He figured out where to direct the fan in order to get the scarf into its vertical position, for example. The result is a scene that was considered so sexy, it wasn’t shown in some countries.

Gene danced on roller skates in It’s Always Fair Weather, a lesser known scene that is perhaps the most remarkable of his career. I say that as a tap dancer who can’t imagine hoofing it on skates! According to Patricia, these were dime store roller skates, and he performed the number with no gimmicks or tricks. Of course, Gene’s skill was largely due to his extensive training as a ballet dancer, athlete, gymnast, and acrobat who could even walk a tightrope.

Patricia also cleared up the ridiculous rumor that Gene did not dub his own taps. Tap sounds were recorded after scenes were shot, but Gene always dubbed his own. He dubbed Debbie Reynolds‘ taps for Singin’ in the Rain as well. Oh, and there was no milk in the puddles during Singin’ in the Rain. I wonder where that rumor got started.

Gene Kelly in The Pirate

Gene Kelly in 1948’s The Pirate. Gene asked Cole Porter for a clown song for this film, and Porter wrote “Be a Clown” in one night. | MGM

Patricia stressed that Gene Kelly “was a much more interesting character than he allowed you to see.” He spoke French, Italian, Latin, and Yiddish. He was a well-read, educated, and cultured “brainiac” who was smart enough to skip a grade in high school and do The New York Times crossword in ink. He was as comfortable discussing metaphysics with playwright Samuel Beckett (yes, he actually did) as he was singing traditional Irish songs with President Kennedy at the White House (yes, he did that, too).

“Salons” held at his home drew the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Oscar Levant to the piano,  as Judy Garland or Lena Horne sang. Gene was self-deprecating and didn’t like watching himself on film or hearing himself sing. He felt he had a “little Irish whiskey tenor” voice. During the first evening at Lincoln Center, Patricia played a tape of Gene rehearsing the song, A Very Precious Love, from the film, Marjorie Morningstarin which he stopped himself and said, “Let’s do it again. I’m sorry. Carried away with my own publicity.”

Patricia Ward Kelly

Patricia Ward Kelly at Lincoln Center, July 20, 2012, sitting among some of the boxes of Gene Kelly memorabilia | Melanie Votaw Photo

Gene suffered a massive stroke in 1994, which caused him to lose the ability to move his entire left side. His mind remained sharp to the end, and it was 19 more months before he passed away at the age of 83. Patricia stressed that while it was, of course, sad, “he approached the end of his life with such grace and dignity.” He also died peacefully while awake, not in his sleep, as has been frequently reported.

In 1983, Gene’s home caught fire, and many of his personal belongings were destroyed. After his death in 1996, however, Patricia found a treasure trove of memorabilia that remained. “It took me years before I could even begin to open the boxes,” she said. Once she did, she found Valentine cards that he had given her. He was “the epitome of romance,” she said, and he couldn’t wait so began leaving cards and notes around the house for her at midnight on February 14, as well as on her birthday.

The boxes also contained items like the green hat he wore in Take Me Out to the Ball Game and sheet music for Singin’ in the Rain containing his handwritten choreography notes, singed on the edges from the fire. In one of her last conversations with her husband, Gene asked Patricia if he had made a mark. It’s amazing to me that he could ask such a silly question. Yes, he made an indelible mark on millions of people … like me. Thanks to Patricia Ward Kelly for keeping that legacy alive. And thanks for the joy, artistry, and courage, Mr. Kelly – you wonderful you.

Melanie Votaw

Melanie Votaw is a New York City-based freelance writer and the author of 15 non-fiction books. She’s a former actress/singer/dancer who started performing at age 4 and now loves to write about film, TV, and theater. Visit her Web site, Rule the Word, and follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Melanie Votaw has written posts on Reel Life With Jane.


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9 comments

  1. Wow, that roller skate number is astounding!

  2. Would you believe I have no recollection at all of the scarf dance?  I suppose I’ve seen the clip of the Singing in the Rain number so often that I just THINK I’ve seen the whole movie that many times.  Thank you. This is great stuff.

    •  @pen4hire Patricia would have to verify this, but I’ve read elsewhere that the scarf was 50 feet long and that shooting the scene cost a fifth of the film’s entire budget.

  3. verabadert

     @Jane Boursaw Musicals went through a few iterations, Jane.  First all the plots (such as they were) involved people in show business, and the numbers were numbers they staged for shows. Then Busby Berkely pretended like the musical numbers were on the stage, but took them to impossible technical heights that only movies could do.  Then shows came along where the music actually advanced the plot.
    So yes, there was a gradual movement away from the style of the stage as people discovered what is different about movie making.  If you have trouble with the artsy dance numbers, think about that period in the late 30s and early 40s when operatic singers were in vogue in popular movies!

    •  @verabadert  @Jane Boursaw Yes, I think the early movie musicals were more about the music and dance than the story, but I still think Gene had to fight for his ballets in them. Showboat was the first Broadway music that was a dramatic story with music.

      • verabadert

         @melanievotaw  @Jane Boursaw No question that Gene Kelly pushed the envelope. He was a genius.  And there were instances of a song that had meaning, but it took awhile before we get to something like Showboat. Meanwhile. an occasional song was there for meaning instead of just entertainment.

      •  @verabadert  @Jane Boursaw Yes, Showboat came along in 1927, but it didn’t really start a trend of dramatic musicals right away, especially in films. People wanted escapism when they went to the movies.

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