Passing Time With
Image provided by Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
March 21, 2016 — Hollywood isn't cherished for its long memory. In fact, it's often derided as incestuous and infested with a particular brand of shark that jealously devours those whose movies don't excel at the box office. However, even a town as insecure and unapologetically larcenous as Hollywood can sometimes reach a meaningful consensus about real art.
That happens to be the case concerning the legacy of song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. He was venerated everywhere in the film capital as a true original — no small achievement in a place with more than its fair share of poseurs and mere technicians. When Fred Astaire died in 1987, Kelly stood alone as the reigning high priest of a joyous and uniquely American art form — the movie musical.
It was the summer of 1978 when we first met Kelly. As newly minted high school graduates, we had put in three hard months vending beer at Minnesota Twins baseball games to come up with the airfare to get us to Los Angeles. After nearly two years of persistent correspondence, Kelly had finally green-lighted a “brief visit” to his home at 725 N. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
To say we are fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, and in particular Kelly's huge contribution, would be a gross understatement. Our consuming passion for that era inspired us to found a film society that brought the musicals of Kelly, Astaire, Garland and others to shut-ins at Twin City-area nursing homes. Full disclosure: under cover of that humanitarian guise, we were able to indulge our obsession by viewing obscure, forgotten musicals that didn't even make it on TV's late, late show.
On the appointed day, dressed in suits and ties, we walked through Beverly Hills (we weren’t legal to drive in L.A.) enroute to Kelly’s house. As we turned north on Rodeo Drive from Santa Monica Blvd., a police car cruised up to us and the officers inside called us over.
“What are you guys doing?” one of them asked.
“We’re walking over to Gene Kelly’s house, we have a meeting with him,” Dave said. “Why do you ask?”
The officer, a bit embarrassed, told us that they never saw anyone walking in Beverly Hills, much less dressed in business attire and that we looked suspicious. We all had a good laugh at that one.
For almost half a century Kelly had lived in the same French Colonial house with red window shutters on Rodeo Drive in the Beverly Hills flatlands just south of Sunset Boulevard. When we arrived, a bit footsore, an assistant answered the door and we were led into Kelly’s expansive living room.
Any incidental knowledge we had that Kelly was a Francophile was underscored by just taking a 360-degree look around that room. The dark paneled walls were awash in paintings, many of them French Expressionist. The pictures were hung — just as in the galleries at the Louvre — side by side in a long row with the frames nearly touching each other. The cumulative effect from a few feet away was a continuous banner of riotous color.
On the opposite side of the room was a small bar with, just behind it, an oversized Belle Epoque dance hall poster by French painter and lithographer Jules Cheret. Adjacent to the bar were sliding glass doors that looked out onto the backyard swimming pool.
Kelly appeared to us from his favorite room, the library, with an almost syncopated bounce in his step. We had seen it dozens of times before in his movies; whether gliding alone down a backlot “rue” at MGM as An American in Paris, or with two buddies in New York City out for a day On the Town. It was a jaunty, confident and athletic stride even at the age of 66.
(Left) Promotional photograph of actor Gene Kelly. (Center) Gene Kelly, his kids, Tim and Bridget and their dogs. (Right) Gene Kelly at home in Los Angeles.
(Left) Image in the public domain. (Center) Image provided by Reel to Real. (Right) Image by Allan warren and used under a Creative Commons License.
Kelly said that he had just been reading a bit about economics (he majored in the subject at the University of Pittsburgh). He then told us that he and his two children, Tim and Bridget, had been over at neighbor Harry Warren's house using the tennis court, as they often did, for a few quick sets. In 1950, Warren, a three-time Academy Award-winning songwriter, had written the score for Summer Stock starring Kelly and Judy Garland in their last film together. They made three including Kelly’s debut film, For Me and My Gal in 1942.
“Wonderful, wonderful Judy, she was the greatest,” Kelly said. For a moment, he seemed lost in a kind of reverie as he remembered. “She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was such a hard worker. We did a number in Summer Stock in a barn called ‘The Portland Fancy.’ She was terrific, picked up the steps so quickly. And it wasn't an easy dance to do. Really, I never worked with a trained dancer who was so quick to learn steps as Judy was. You would run through a combination twice — and some were difficult — and she would have it down pat.”
We took a seat on Kelly’s couch underneath the skein of paintings. Right above our heads was a figure study done in dark brushstrokes that Tom thought he recognized as the work of Fauvist Georges Rouault.
“Is that a Rouault?” Tom rather timidly broached, pointing upward. “Yep,” was Kelly’s terse reply which signified to us that there would be no further discussion about the paintings which were everywhere.
We asked him about Singin' in the Rain, perhaps his most enduring film and a benchmark by which all other musicals are measured. The movie is a treasure trove of great numbers, but the "Moses Supposes" dance with Kelly and Donald O'Connor tapping out a rhythmic Morse Code like a couple of pneumatic drills, never fails to electrify audiences.
"Donald and I rehearsed that dance for days, but most critics dismiss it as a zany Marx Brothers romp," Kelly said. "They remember the clowning around with the vocal coach that precedes the number, but not the dance itself."
Kelly told us that he didn't own any prints of his movies. “MGM had a strict policy; they never gave out any films, even to the movies' stars,” he said.
As he walked us to the door, Kelly gave us the thumbs-up signal, which he said he had also given to Barbra Streisand when he directed her in Hello Dolly. It was his message to her at the end of each camera take that she was on cue.
Every Christmas thereafter, without fail, we would receive a greeting card, some picturing the Kelly clan posed in their backyard along with whatever family pet was within grabbing distance when the shot was taken. For our part, we kept Gene supplied with copies of our various entertainment articles when they were published.
After 16 years of sending these missives to each other, we returned to Kelly's home on Oscar night, 1994.
What a difference a decade and a half had made.
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