Oral History: Gene Kelly, Dancing for the Common Man

by Jack Tewksbury April 3, 2019
Actor, adncer, director Gene Kelly, Golen Globe nominee, Cecil B. deMille recipient

Gene Kelly in 1981, with his Cecil B. deMille award.

hfpa archives

For over 40 years the HFPA has recorded famous and celebrated actresses, actors and filmmakers. The world's largest collection of its kind - over 10,000  items- is now in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Margaret Herrick Library.

In this excerpt from our archives, Gene Kelly -genius dancer, choreographer, actor, director and producer, multi-nominee and Cecil B. deMille recipient - explains how and why he transformed the musical - and American dance.

"My politics are left. I wanted a Revolution.  We were very serious about the American musical. It was an indigenous art form, which we cared about, but it wasn’t taken very seriously here in Hollywood. I hope I invented a new style of choreography. 

In the movies I’d watch before coming out here, everybody was all dressed up, the floors were shiny, everybody was rich. I had hoped to develop a new style, which I called the American style. I wanted to dance for the Common Man. Well, you can’t do that dressed up in suits, so I had on T-shirts and pants. 

I also wanted to frame the whole body,  something you couldn’t do with a suit, so it evolved to show off the dancer. Most of my stuff was done outdoors because the camera there was always ahead of the dancer. And the only way you could get a three-dimensional force into a dance number was to push the actor or for the actor to run into camera. Movies were two-dimensional. The thing I had to learn about the camera was how to make a decent cut, and not stop over here,  which is what had been done for centuries. Busby Berkeley used the camera all around in interesting ways,  he made the camera dance,  and it was marvelous. But the funny thing  was – he wasn’t  even interested in dance.”