Gene Kelly Had Rhythm

Jun. 7, 2017
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Just by being on hand, Gene Kelly could inject heart and soul into even the most mediocre movies. But fortunately for his legacy, he’s remembered for starring in a pair of the most beloved musicals from Hollywood’s golden age, An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, isn’t the first biography of the dancer-actor but mines some unused sources for additional tidbits. The authors, Cynthia and Sara Brideson, are unabashed fans. “Gene was arguably the most winning screen personality of the twentieth century,” they write. And yes, there will be no end to arguments over the word most, even if they make their case that Kelly’s likable screen persona was a close sibling to the actual person who wore the dancing shoes.

While much of He’s Got Rhythm is devoted to the details of childhood and adult life, the authors also summarize his contributions as an artist. Unique at the time in Hollywood (and perhaps in American culture), Kelly “altered the notion that dancing was only for women or effete males.” Hard to imagine Fred Astaire at the ballpark with a hotdog in his hands, but Kelly would have looked entirely at home hurling abuse at the umpire. He was a sophisticate who wore his worldliness with the casual ease of a rumpled sports shirt.

Kelly melded “athletic prowess with his balletic training”—his moves owed more to the rhythms of contemporary Harlem than to 19th century St. Petersburg. As a choreographer, he endowed his characters with “a dimension of introspection” lacked by other Hollywood hoofers. Like Astaire, he brought joy to his work—but he anchored his dances in a place closer to reality.

He’s Got Rhythm is the latest title from the University Press of Kentucky’s Screen Classics Series.

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