Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
He personified the masculine in dance, and once Hollywood realized that, the sky was his limit (ironically also the title of a mediocre Astaire musical which prompted his early retirement just as Kelly was finding his feet). It was Kelly, however, a great admirer of Astaire, who coaxed him out of retirement to join him in a dance routine in Ziegfeld Follies, and when Kelly broke his ankle which threatened the shut down of Easter Parade, it was he who convinced Fred to take over the role, and as a result Astaire’s career was reborn.
Gene was always a man of high principles. Maybe because he knew what it was like to wait patiently for things to come his way. In fact, he was 30 when he finally achieved stardom on Broadway playing Pal Joey in that landmark Rodgers and Hart musical, which prompted David O. Selznick to sign him to a seven-year contract. MGM had also wanted him, but when they insisted on a screen test he turned them down. Selznick made no such demand but after loaning him to MGM for a Judy Garland musical, producer Arthur Freed convinced the studio to take over Selznick’s contract and thus began a 15-year association that lasted longer than that of any other MGM star of the forties. Growing up in a working-class environment gave him a social conscience. A staunch liberal and loyal Democrat he stood up to McCarthyism when his then-wife, card-carrying liberal Betsy Blair, was about to lose her role in the Oscar-winning film Marty because of her “communist” sympathies. Kelly gave MGM an ultimatum: either Louis B Mayer intervenes or he walks. She played the role.
Another time he quit the Catholic church when after a visit to Mexico he felt the church hadn’t done enough to alleviate poverty there. Previously he had criticized the church for supporting Spain’s Franco.
But of course, it was his balletic genius that made him a screen immortal. Although yearning for a career in dance, he spent the better part of first 30 years running a dance studio with his brother Fred in Pittsburgh, Penn. When he set his sights on Broadway it was mainly as a choreographer. His first big break was playing the dancer in William Saroyan’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Time of Your Life, which led to the title role in Pal Joey and overnight stardom. Many screen offers followed, but true to his principles he remained with the show two years.
His first screen appearance in For Me and My Gal in which he vied with George Murphy for Judy Garland’s affection convinced Freed and moviegoers he was the real thing. Columbia wanted him to co-star with Rita Hayworth, their biggest property, and in exchange for the rights to Best Foot Forward (which they owned) he was loaned to the studio, and Cover Girl not only became the studios biggest hit, it made Kelly a star.
From then on, MGM took over, and he was given his first signature role in Anchors Aweigh for which he was Oscar-nominated for best actor, a rare feat for a musical performer, something Astaire had never achieved. His famous dance with Tom and Jerry was the highlight of the film. and audiences worldwide were in awe.
Meanwhile, Gene had asked for and had proven himself in nonsinging or dancing roles, among them a small part in Spencer Tracy’s The Cross of Lorraine and a costarring role on loan to Universal for Deana Durbin’s Christmas Holiday. After his Oscar nomination, MGM rewarded him with one of his best films, The Pirate, again opposite Judy Garland, which featured Cole Porter’s best original movie score. Even though the film is considered a classic today, it was not embraced by postwar audiences and ended up one of MGM’s few losing musicals.
Not that Freed lost faith in Kelly. In fact, he was groomed to co-star again with Judy in Easter Parade when he sprained his ankle.
Not content to have him sit idly by, MGM cast him in another non-singing dancing role in The Three Musketeers opposite the studio’s top female star, Lana Turner. Even though the film was a run of the mill MGM swashbuckler it was a box office smash, and Kelly was acclaimed the screen’s best D’Artagnan. His comeback dancing role, a guest shot in Words and Music, in which he and Vera-Ellen scorched the screen for ten minutes in the ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” sealed his reputation. Audiences the world over were bowled over. They had never seen anything like it.
Gene was now ready to direct, and with his producer’s blessing, he made the landmark musical On the Town. Working with his assistant Stanley Donen now as co-director, he was allowed six days to shoot the film on the streets of New York, something that had never been done before.
The film was an instant classic, acclaimed by critics all over the world. It was also a box office hit. Viewed today it suffers from too much interference from producer Freed, who jettisoned most of Leonard Bernstein’s songs, substituting a treacly score by Roger Edens. But in retrospect maybe Freed was right. Bernstein’s songs take two or three listenings to appreciate. Edens contribution is more audience-friendly.
Suddenly Gene was the studio’s top property so what to do as a follow-up?
At that very moment, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes had crossed the Atlantic, and Gene was awestruck. He had never seen anything like it. It was exactly the movie he always wanted to make.
And make it he did! Although working a different screenwriter, this time the estimable Alan Jay Lerner who would later gain immortality with My Fair Lady, his masterwork An American in Paris was conceived.
Actually, it was his neighborly friendship with Ira Gershwin that inspired the project, which went on to win both the Golden Globe and the Oscar as best picture and made a star of then-unknown Leslie Caron. The combination of Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, and George Gershwin created one of the screen’s greatest musicals. Only to be topped the following year when Kelly teamed again with Stanley Donen on what critics consider the greatest musical all time, in fact, in the 1952 Sight and Sound poll of international critics and directors Singin’ In The Rain was named the fourth greatest film of all time.
Although Kelly continued to experiment with dance on film, everything after that was downhill. A sequel of sorts to On the Town, It’s Always Fair Weather satisfied neither critics nor audiences, although it holds up very well today. Invitation to the Dance in which he both danced and directed was a respectable failure, and his last musical Les Girls with a forgettable Cole Porter score, though winning the Golden Globe as best musical was a box-office dud.
After that, he found employment as a nonsinging dancing actor, his most famous role-playing H.L. Menken in support of Tracy and March in Inherit the Wind. MGM’s That's Entertainment in 1974 gave audiences the opportunity to rediscover musicals. Gene was a willing participant, co-narrating the series, which was a box office bonanza.
Now getting on in years he decided to put his talent to work as a director, less effectively with Xanadu but brilliantly with Walter Matthau in A Guide for the Married Man and Hello Dolly! which was nominated for both a Golden Globe and the Oscar as best picture. Because of all the hoopla that attended both its making and initial release Hello Dolly! was savaged by the critics but today it’s viewed as a major achievement featuring one of Barbara Streisand’s best performances. Two other films he directed The Tunnel of love and The Cheyenne Social Club are nothing to sneeze at either.
After a series of strokes, he died at age 83 closely guarded by his third wife, who refused Betsy Blair when she wanted to visit him in his final days. Gene Kelly was voted the 15th greatest screen legend of all time by the American Film Institute.
On-screen he will live forever.