I’m a lifelong devotee of movie musicals, with a particular fondness for those of the 1930s, so I’ve always been a worshipper at the altar of Fred Astaire.
Over the last decade or so, though, I’ve gotten more into the MGM films of the 1950s, which are all about Gene Kelly. I was resistant to his charm for many, many years, being uncomfortable with the always cocky, often caddish persona that he projects.
A way-more-knowledgeable friend finally convinced me that maybe I should regard that screen persona as being about the characters Kelly was asked to portray. Huh. What a concept.
I still prefer Astaire overall; I prefer his elegance to Kelly’s muscularity. (Astaire makes it look easy, and Kelly always makes it look hard.)
But when that muscularity, and in-your-face masculinity, works for the role, the result can be magic.
I’m particularly fond of On the Town (1949), one of the series of postwar films costarring Kelly and Frank Sinatra, still in his naive kid persona. This also has the delightful Jules Munshin for comic relief, and the mind-blowing Ann Miller, plus Vera Ellen. Here’s a movie with some amazing dancing, choreographed by Kelly and staged by one of his favorite collaborators, Stanley Donen. It was also one of the first musicals filmed partially on location, at Kelly’s insistence — the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center all get cameos.
Less well known, but in some ways more interesting, is a kind-of sequel, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), which looks at a trio of buddies from the service ten years later. It’s somewhat darker than the usual ’50s musical — the guys have not all made great choices — but the dancing is phenomenal, with Kelly on roller skates in one number, and the reunited pals dancing with trash can lids on their feet in another. Dan Dailey, the song-and-dance man, plays one of the pals, and Michael Kidd, who had done the brilliant choreography for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the year before, plays the other.
So, whether it’s Singin’ in the Rain or another classic, tonight why don’t you pop in a movie and raise a glass to one of America’s greatest film dancers?