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The Marlon Brando Of Screen Dance, 100 Years On

Blessed with athleticism and skill, actor-dancer Gene Kelly always managed to look like a regular guy having a lot of fun dancing. (Getty Images)

In his final MGM musical, 1957's Les Girls, Gene Kelly dances with Mitzi Gaynor to the Cole Porter song "Why Am I So Gone (About That Gal)." About three minutes into the dance, Gaynor is sitting at a bar, and Kelly, after scooting across the floor on one knee — that's after skidding across a table on his bottom — leaps to the top of the bar on one foot, slides down the bar on his right side, then grounds himself again for the rest of the duet.

Pure Gene Kelly: Athletic, acrobatic, still astonishing. And this was five years after his — anybody's, really — most famous movie dance of all.

That dance, of course, was his rendition of "Singin' in the Rain." Splashing, puddling, dripping, grinning, Kelly had a fever of 103 when he shot that number. In that year, 1952, the Motion Picture Academy gave him an honorary award — his only Oscar — for "versatility."

No kidding. Kelly was a dancer, actor, singer, director and choreographer. And besides all that, he was hunky! Virile! Not to put too fine a point on it: sexy, with his athlete's body, his biceps and tight T-shirts.

"He was that living image for male dancers," says Edward Villella, founding artistic director of the Miami Ballet and America's best-known hunky, virile male ballet dancer. Villella was influenced by Kelly's movie dancing in the 1940s and '50s.

"It was at a time when the male was not viewed as some kind of dancing entity," Villella recalls. "We were so used to Westerns and frontier-type masculinities, so the idea of a guy dancing was very, very foreign to American popular culture."

Kelly was living proof that male dancers didn't have to be "effeminate" — shouldn't be stigmatized as "sissies," which regrettably was the prevailing opinion in those days. His first wife, Betsy Blair, said Kelly "democratized" dance in movies. He came across as a regular guy; he gave audiences the idea that they, too, could dance in the streets.

But it was never easy. In 1982, Kelly spoke about the hard work of dancing, which he identified as a form of masochism.

"You have to punish your body," Kelly told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington. "Your muscles have to be tough enough and hard enough so that you can pick up the girl, and at the same time your legs have to be strong enough so you can jump over the table without taking 40 steps."

All while making it look absolutely effortless — not to mention like oh so much fun.

"So entertaining. So exuberant. So excited and happy to be there" — that's how Arlene Croce, the New Yorker's dance critic for 25 years, describes Kelly's presence.

Croce, author of The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book, says Kelly, with his open, joyful, joyous style, got moviegoers smiling.

"I think he's basically a comic, and a comic dancer," Croce says. "I love him as a comedian. First of all, he has this wonderful grin — a big, face-filling grin. His timing is comic, and his voice is witty. He's funny. He's a funny guy ... and when he dances with kids, he's wonderful in that way."

One great example, among many: the "I Got Rhythm" number in An American in Paris. Kelly, in chinos, his sweatshirt sleeves pushed up, sings and dances surrounded by delighted French children.

That film, with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, won six Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1951. In addition to dancing, singing and acting in it, Kelly also did the choreography. He mixed elements of ballet, tap, soft shoe, shuffle — all performed in that hunky Kelly fashion.

"Kelly to me is a very weighty dancer," Croce says. "He really gets into the floor, and his body develops his rhythm in connection with actual tap dancing."

Fred Astaire, by contrast, was a weightless dancer, lighter than air. Kelly knew gravity intimately, and knew how to dance with it. He once said, "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando." But that's a case of apples and oranges — suave and sophisticated versus muscled Olympian.

I met him once. 1982. He'd just been honored by the Kennedy Center and was about to speak at the Press Club. He was busy charming admirers, before going out to speak. I was beside myself — which may explain why I asked if he wanted to dance down the hall with me.

"Oh, sure," he said, with a twinkle in his eye — and kept on walking.

He was 70 then, full of Irish charm and a spring in his walk, still. Self-assured. Distinguished. And that face-filling grin.

Kelly was 83 when he died in 1996, after two strokes. An unacceptable end for a person of his grace and speed. It's all still there, though. On this, his hundredth birthday, the best way to celebrate is to sit by a screen somewhere and watch him dance.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

'Why Am I So Gone (About That Gal)'
Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you ever catch really old movies on cable TV, you know that in the golden age of movie musicals, two male dancers dominated the screen: Fred Astaire, elegant in his top hat and tails; and Gene Kelly, earthy in loafers and T-shirts.

Today is the centennial of Gene Kelly's birth, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg lights 100 candles on Kelly's cake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In his last MGM musical, "Les Girls," 1957, Gene Kelly dances with Mitzi Gaynor to the Cole Porter song "Gone About that Gal." About three minutes into the scene, Mitzi is sitting at a bar and Kelly, after scooting across the floor on one knee - that's after skidding across a table on his bottom - Kelly leaps onto the top of the bar on one foot, slides down the bar on his right side then grounds himself again, for the rest of the duet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Wow. Pure Gene Kelly, athletic, acrobatic, still astonishing five years after his - or anybody's, really - most famous movie dance of all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGING IN THE RAIN")

GENE KELLY: (Singing) I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling, I'm happy again...

STAMBERG: Splashing, puddling, dripping, grinning, Gene Kelly had a fever of 103 when he shot this number. That year, 1952, the Motion Picture Academy gave him an honorary award, his only Oscar, for Versatility. Kelly was a dancer, actor, singer, director, choreographer and hunky, virile. Not to put too fine a point on it, sexy, with his athlete's body - the biceps, and tight T-shirts.

EDWARD VILLELLA: He was that living image for male dancers.

STAMBERG: Edward Villella, founding artistic director of the Miami Ballet and this country's best-known hunky, virile male ballet dancer. Villella was influenced by Gene Kelly's movie dancing in the 1940s and 50s.

VILLELLA: It was at a time when the male was not viewed as some kind of dancing entity. We were so used to Westerns and frontier kind of masculinities, so the idea of a guy dancing was very, very foreign to American popular culture.

STAMBERG: Gene Kelly was living proof that male dancers didn't have to be effeminate and shouldn't be stigmatized as sissies, which was the prevailing opinion in those days. His first wife, Betsy Blair, said Kelly democratized dance in movies. He came across as a regular guy; gave audiences the idea that they, too could dance in the streets.

But it was never easy. In 1982 Gene Kelly spoke about the hard work of dancing, a form of masochism, he called it.

KELLY: You have to punish your body. Your muscles have to be tough enough and hard enough where you can pick up the girl. And at the same time, your legs have to be strong enough so you can jump over the table - without taking 40 steps.

STAMBERG: And make it look absolutely effortless, and, as if he was having so much fun.

ARLENE CROCE: So entertaining, so exuberant, so excited and happy to be there.

STAMBERG: Arlene Croce, New Yorker magazine dance critic for 25 years. Croce says Gene Kelly - with his open, joyful, joyous style - got movie-goers smiling.

CROCE: I think he's basically a comic dancer. First of all, he has this wonderful grin, big face-filling grin. His timing is comic. And his voice is witty. He's a funny guy. And when he dances with kids, he's wonderful in that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" AND CHILDREN LAUGHING)

KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) Alors, maintenant. Un chanson American. An American song.

(As Jerry Mulligan) Dit moi.

STAMBERG: There's Kelly, in chinos, his sweatshirt sleeves pushed up, surrounded by French children in "An American in Paris."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I got.

KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) (Singing) Rhythm.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I got.

KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) (Singing) Music.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I got.

KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) (Singing) My gal, who could ask for anything more...

STAMBERG: Songs by George and Ira Gershwin, six Oscars including Best Picture in 1951. As a kid, I went to see it 10 times at Loews 107th Street in New York - yeah, we pronounced it Loews. Those were the days of double features, two movies for the price of one - for about 40 cents, then.

You know how much of how many Saturdays it took me to see it 10 times? But who could resist - Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and that 16-minute ballet to the classic Gershwin symphonic tone poem?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: In addition to dancing, singing, and acting in "An American in Paris," Gene Kelly also did the choreography. He mixed elements of ballet, tap, soft shoe, shuffle; all performed in that hunky Kelly fashion.

Again, Arlene Croce.

CROCE: Kelly to me is a very weighty dancer. He really gets into the floor and his body develops his rhythm, in connection with actual tap dancing.

STAMBERG: Fred Astaire was a weightless dancer, lighter than air. Gene Kelly knew gravity intimately, and knew how to dance with it. Kelly once said, If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando - apples and oranges, suave, sophisticated; versus muscled Olympian.

I met him once in 1982. He'd just been honored by the Kennedy Center and was about to speak at the National Press Club in Washington.

KELLY: There, it's on record.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is Susan Stamberg...

STAMBERG: He was busy charming admirers, before going out to speak. I was beside myself.

KELLY: How are you?

STAMBERG: I'll walk you down the hall. I certainly don't want to hold you up too much. But I'd love just about two minutes with you.

KELLY: Can we chat on our way.

STAMBERG: Yeah, come on. OK, you want to dance.

KELLY: Sure, I can hardly wait.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Dream on. Dream on. He was 70 then, full of Irish charm and a spring in his walk, still; self-assured, distinguished and that face-filling grin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY")

KELLY: (Singing) It's very clear our love is here to stay...

STAMBERG: Gene Kelly was 83 when died in 1996 after two strokes, unacceptable for a person of his grace and speed. It's all still there, though. On this, his 100th birthday, the best way to celebrate is to sit by a screen somewhere and watch him dance.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY")

KELLY: (Singing) ...may just be passing...

INSKEEP: A video of Gene Kelly dancing is at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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