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Passing Time With Gene Kelly

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In the interim, the Rodeo Drive house had almost completely burned down in a December 1983 fire that started from faulty lighting on the family’s Christmas tree. Kelly’s 1951 Oscar awarded to him for brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film, as well as an Emmy, dancing shoes and personal papers for a planned autobiography were lost.

The home itself had been completely rebuilt and seemed to us almost a carbon copy of the two-story colonial we had visited years before. But instead of those miles and miles of priceless paintings which had gone up in smoke, prints (Matisse limited editions and the like) that you see during closeout sales at middling art galleries, were hung here and there.

Dressed in chinos, a white Ralph Lauren polo shirt and wearing leather loafers, Kelly, then 83 years old, slowly made his way over to greet us. His steps were halting and measured due to “nursing a bum leg.” Shortly after our visit he was hospitalized in San Francisco with cellulitis (a potentially dangerous infection) in his leg. In July 1994 and in early 1995 he was hospitalized again as a result of mild strokes.

For an instant it was hard to reconcile Kelly's enduring movie image of explosive athleticism (to say nothing of how he looked during our previous visit) with the reality before us — that of a slightly enfeebled octogenarian.

“Ah, the college kids,” Kelly exclaimed. “Tom, you’ve changed; Dave, not so much.” To this day, Kelly’s quizzical statement has been an enduring “Rosebud” moment for us.

If the march of time had slowed Kelly's machine gun footwork to a slow shuffle, age had also sharpened his wit and deepened his memory.

“Historically speaking,” Kelly said, “I'm one of the last ones left who can correct inaccuracies about MGM musicals in show biz books these days.” As an example, he cited Hugh Fordin's World of Entertainment, a book about producer Arthur Freed and his creative unit at MGM. “I, along with Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland and dozens of others, was part of that unit in the 1940s and '50s,” Kelly said. "You'd think that when the author was compiling facts, he'd have wanted to consult me. He didn't, and there are several mistakes as a result.”

Kelly said history continued to be rewritten to the present day. The misinformation ranging from an erroneous birth date in a popular biography of his life, to a German journalist who reported that MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer “foisted” Debbie Reynolds on Kelly as his co-star in Singin' in the Rain.

“That is patently untrue,” Kelly said. “Mayer wasn't even at the studio in 1952 when we shot the picture.”

Sitting beside Kelly during our visit was his wife Patricia whom he had married in 1990. She had first met Kelly in 1985 at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. when he was the host/narrator and she the writer for a television special on the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville. During our conversation, Patricia mostly sat silently as we discussed a meeting we had the day before with George Sidney who directed Kelly in Anchors Aweigh in 1945.

We mentioned that the widowed Sidney had recently married Corinne Entratter the former wife of legendary Las Vegas casino boss, Jack Entratter.

“Is that right?” Kelly said. “I remember Corinne. She was a Copa showgirl and a real ‘wow!’”

Attractive and reserved when we met, Patricia has, since Kelly’s death, reinvented herself into a glamazon who barnstorms around the country as Creative Director and talking head of “Gene Kelly: The Legacy,” a corporation established to commemorate Kelly’s achievements and keep his memory alive.

The year before our meeting, That's Entertainment! III, another time capsule of classic MGM musical moments that began with the release in 1974 of the hugely successful That's Entertainment! had been released which starred Kelly, along with June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne and Mickey Rooney.

Kelly said that the best musical material from MGM’s glory days had already been used in the two prior That's Entertainment films. “But there are some historical oddities — like footage of vocal dubbing — that MGM would never have released to the public during its heyday,” he said.

On the Town, which Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen, was his all-time favorite musical, mainly because it was his directorial debut at MGM and the opening number, “New York, New York,” and some establishing shots were filmed on location in New York City. “That was no small achievement back in 1949, especially when you consider the studio had a standing New York set that looked more authentic than parts of the real city,” Kelly said.

In an issue of The New Yorker magazine (March 24, 1994) Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike, in a tribute to Kelly, cited On the Town as his favorite movie, too. However, he lamented the fact that Kelly rarely seemed to pair up with a female partner to good advantage, the way Fred Astaire did throughout his career.

“I thought Updike did a good job of summing me up,” Kelly told us, “but he should know that the roles I was given were way different from Fred's. The mode of dance in the 1940s and '50s was no longer ballroom like it was with the Fred and Ginger pictures in the 1930s.”

In spite of such comments, ample evidence exists to dispel the notion that Kelly's best dances were solo numbers. “My few quick turns with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl to those beautiful strains of ‘Long Ago and Far Away’ were akin to the kind of dancing Astaire did,” Kelly said.

Kelly admitted that, overall, movie musicals were largely icons of the past. Their decline was due perhaps to audiences that just can't bring themselves to suspend disbelief anymore when an off-camera orchestra begins to swell moments before a song number. However, others saw MTV, with its quick-cut camera work geared to short attention spans, as the modern-day spawn of old-time musical numbers. Kelly agreed with that premise.

“Film editors have become the choreographers today,” he said. “Everything is ‘bam!’ a tight shot of a shoulder, a leg, half a pirouette, an ass. In my day, editors were simply called ‘cutters’; now a whole musical can succeed or fail based on the editing.”

Up until suffering the strokes, Kelly traveled the college lecture circuit discussing his old movies to sellout crowds. “If they can meet my price, I'll give ‘em a spiel,” he said. The year before our last visit, Kelly lectured in Atlantic City and was surprised when his old friend and ‘other’ Brigadoon dancing partner, Van Johnson, showed up in the audience.

Future plans included finishing an autobiography and quashing the curious notion that he had departed the earth for more heavenly climes!

“The mix-up started with those GAP print ads, ‘Gene Kelly Wore Khakis,’” he said. “Besides me, the first group of ads included Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and a few others. Along with the phrase being in the past tense, all the other personalities were famously dead, except Arthur and me. People leaped to the natural conclusion. You wouldn't believe the number of phone calls I got from friends trying to figure out whether I was still here or not.”

For two more years, Kelly was most definitely still here. He died in his sleep in 1996. But his musicals will always be around, emblematic as they are of a peculiar brand of sunny, “can-do” optimism that helped define the American Century.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at or
Gene Kelly, his kids, Tim and Bridget and their dogs.
Image provided by Reel to Real.
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