Register Tuesday | June 19 | 2018

Gene Kelly, My Sore Eyes Look to You

An Expatriate American Considers an American Dancer and Icon

My daughter is a huge Gene Kelly fan. Well, as much as any three-year-old can be. Like so many parents today, I have resorted to the electronic babysitter: about a year ago, with a deadline looming and a restless toddler, I desperately scanned our movie collection and plopped my well-worn copy of Singin' in the Rain into the VCR. It was love at first sight. Since then, Vivienne has moved on to An American in Paris and On the Town. Ask her what she wants to do after she gets home from daycare and her answer inevitably is, "I want Gene Kelly, please." And which of the three movies to choose is a matter of serious deliberation.

Although I have also been a Kelly fan since my training pants' days, curiously, I had never bothered to learn much about the private life of my favourite dancing American. Somehow, no matter what character Kelly played (be it a sailor or an ex-GI), it seemed like his onscreen persona and his real self had to be one and the same. As a performer, Kelly held little mystique. His appeal was just fabulous straight-out dancing imbued with enough wit to keep you interested and wanting more. That's all anyone, aged three or thirty, wants sometimes, is it not?

Watching Kelly now, as an American living in Canada, I realize that his appeal is tied into my wishful nationalistic thinking. Kelly usually portrayed the kind of American I want to believe all my fellow citizens are at the core: sweetly naive, inventive and essentially open-hearted. This image of the American innocent is an old one, but like all stereotypes, it nonetheless contains a kernel of truth. Still, we (Americans in particular) fervently hope that behind the national icon is a person who shares our values. All these years, I've been avoiding learning about the man who filled those tap shoes lest I be disappointed.

It turns out that Kelly, off-screen, was politically liberal (some even say a downright leftist)-my kind of guy. What a relief. The Hollywood home he shared with his first wife, Betsy Blair, was known as a hotbed of liberalism. In 1947, Kelly mediated a strike between the Carpenters' Union and the Hollywood studios. Along with Humphrey Bogart, John Huston and others, he later took a stand against McCarthyism. Kelly apparently meant it when he said, "I didn't want to move or act like a rich man. I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets." And therein, I think, lies his appeal-not just to liberals like myself, but to millions of Americans, regardless of their political beliefs. The Kelly persona is a little like that of the best camp counsellor you ever had: an ordinary guy with some extraordinary tricks up his sleeve. In the "I Got Rhythm" number in An American in Paris, children watch Kelly with what seems to be real, not feigned, delight as he seamlessly impersonates in quick succession a train, a soldier, Napoleon, a cowboy, Charlie Chaplin and an airplane.

It came as no surprise, then, that my daughter found Kelly to be "'s wonderful" indeed. After all, for lack of knowing any bona fide lullabies, I have since her infancy been singing to her some of Kelly's most memorably performed songs, especially the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to Stay." And truth be told, like other parents, I have hoped that she would love what I did as a child, indeed encouraged her to do so. Every time she launches into the chorus of Bernstein's "Wonderful Town" (from one of the best films ever to celebrate New York City), I can't help enthusiastically joining her in song.

The Kelly persona is a little like that of the best camp counsellor you ever had: an ordinary guy with some extraordinary tricks up his sleeve.

And so, when this past November, Belgium's Opéra Royal de Wallonie came through Montreal with a production of Chantons sous la pluie/Singin' in the Rain, I couldn't resist going. How, I wondered, would Europeans capture that quintessential cinematic piece of Americana? As it turned out, the show was an all-around charmer, but also a potent reminder that some things are best left alone. Watching the Belgians' earnest performance (speaking en français and singing in English), I realized that even Americans today couldn't remake this American classic. (Indeed, the Belgian production was based on a moderately successful adaptation that ran on Broadway from 1985 to 1986.) No, only the movie version-with Kelly sending up Hollywood stardom and sidekick Donald O'Connor mugging his way through "Make 'em Laugh"-will do.

Gene Kelly was born in 1912. After running a dance school, earning a degree in economics and appearing in some Broadway shows, he made his Hollywood debut in 1942's For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. Not until 1949 with On the Town, which he co-directed with Stanley Donen, did Kelly really hit his stride. Shortly after, he pushed the movie musical genre to an all-time high with his two greatest movies, An American in Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain (1952). By the mid-fifties, however, the genre was falling out of favour with the public; producer Arthur Freed's unit at MGM, which had helped Kelly achieve his cinematic visions, was shut down. By 1960, Kelly's career as a performer was essentially over, but not before he had managed to carve an indelible image of American optimism through exuberant song and dance.

Who can forget the "all get out" hoofing (an American art if there ever was one) of "Moses Supposes" in Singin' in the Rain? Or the stance Kelly struck in all of his musicals: the widely planted feet, outstretched arms, shining eyes fixed above the horizon, gleaming smile spread across his face? Sure, a common enough image, but has any other dancer so completely filled the movie screen?

Yes, there was Fred Astaire, and, yes, he too was a genius of American dance and song. But on a discouraging day, I'll take Kelly's heart-on-the-sleeve approach over Astaire's sophisticated refinement. Astaire, with his lighter-than-air technique. was tailor-made for tuxes and for the black and white of the silver screen. Kelly (thirteen years Astaire's junior), with his broad grin and the grounded earthiness of his more athletic dancing, was born for the vibrant hues of Technicolor. No wonder my daughter delights to Kelly moving through the surreally colourful landscape of the American in Paris ballet. Teletubbies has nothing on it.

If image contests are today's political currency, I would suggest (in my most hopeful mood) that my dancing man in jeans is a far better ambassador of the American spirit than the guy who shares Kelly's penchant for denim and plays the role of a rancher down in Crawford, Texas.

At the same time, the childlike joy I share with her when watching Kelly's best work is bittersweet, especially during these depressing political years for left-leaning, expatriate Americans like myself. Kelly cheerfully rendering "I Got Rhythm" partly in French reminds me that-my trials at acquiring French in my new hometown of Montreal aside-learning a second language and experiencing another culture (and another way of looking at America) are fun adventures and worthwhile endeavours. (As Kelly says to his French love, Leslie Caron, about Paris, "It's too real, too beautiful to let you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way.") How contrary this is to the current anti-French sentiment in the US since the lead-up to the Iraq war.

Mostly, though, what I think when watching Kelly now is that my daughter, while born in Canada, is an American too. I like to think that via Kelly's musicals I am passing on some of my cultural heritage. I hope that she will grow up to feel that, under the pseudo-cowboy, "one nation for itself," money-is-all philosophy currently in favour-thanks, in part, to the Bushies-her fellow Americans really do have that "hey kids, let's put on a show" attitude that Kelly demonstrated like no other. Not just "can do" but co-operative. And while his good-hearted, innocent American persona was perhaps more myth than reality, it sure is preferable to the prevalent American images the world sees today.

When we elect icons to represent our national character, we are, on some level, no more emotionally mature than Vivienne. If image contests are today's political currency, I would suggest (in my most hopeful mood) that my dancing man in jeans is a far better ambassador of the American spirit than the guy who shares Kelly's penchant for denim and plays the role of a rancher down in Crawford, Texas-when he's not performing the biggest role of them all on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.