The Marlon Brando Of Screen Dance, 100 Years On Dancer-actor Gene Kelly would have been 100 this year, and his legacy of unparalleled athleticism and joyous, comic performance still looms large in popular culture. His versatility and his physical beauty were both part of his appeal.
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The Marlon Brando Of Screen Dance, 100 Years On

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The Marlon Brando Of Screen Dance, 100 Years On

The Marlon Brando Of Screen Dance, 100 Years On

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If you ever catch really old movies on cable TV, you know that in the golden age of movie musicals, two male dancers dominated the screen: Fred Astaire, elegant in his top hat and tails; and Gene Kelly, earthy in loafers and T-shirts.

Today is the centennial of Gene Kelly's birth, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg lights 100 candles on Kelly's cake.


SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In his last MGM musical, "Les Girls," 1957, Gene Kelly dances with Mitzi Gaynor to the Cole Porter song "Gone About that Gal." About three minutes into the scene, Mitzi is sitting at a bar and Kelly, after scooting across the floor on one knee - that's after skidding across a table on his bottom - Kelly leaps onto the top of the bar on one foot, slides down the bar on his right side then grounds himself again, for the rest of the duet.


STAMBERG: Wow. Pure Gene Kelly, athletic, acrobatic, still astonishing five years after his - or anybody's, really - most famous movie dance of all.


GENE KELLY: (Singing) I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling, I'm happy again...

STAMBERG: Splashing, puddling, dripping, grinning, Gene Kelly had a fever of 103 when he shot this number. That year, 1952, the Motion Picture Academy gave him an honorary award, his only Oscar, for Versatility. Kelly was a dancer, actor, singer, director, choreographer and hunky, virile. Not to put too fine a point on it, sexy, with his athlete's body - the biceps, and tight T-shirts.

EDWARD VILLELLA: He was that living image for male dancers.

STAMBERG: Edward Villella, founding artistic director of the Miami Ballet and this country's best-known hunky, virile male ballet dancer. Villella was influenced by Gene Kelly's movie dancing in the 1940s and 50s.

VILLELLA: It was at a time when the male was not viewed as some kind of dancing entity. We were so used to Westerns and frontier kind of masculinities, so the idea of a guy dancing was very, very foreign to American popular culture.

STAMBERG: Gene Kelly was living proof that male dancers didn't have to be effeminate and shouldn't be stigmatized as sissies, which was the prevailing opinion in those days. His first wife, Betsy Blair, said Kelly democratized dance in movies. He came across as a regular guy; gave audiences the idea that they, too could dance in the streets.

But it was never easy. In 1982 Gene Kelly spoke about the hard work of dancing, a form of masochism, he called it.

KELLY: You have to punish your body. Your muscles have to be tough enough and hard enough where you can pick up the girl. And at the same time, your legs have to be strong enough so you can jump over the table - without taking 40 steps.

STAMBERG: And make it look absolutely effortless, and, as if he was having so much fun.

ARLENE CROCE: So entertaining, so exuberant, so excited and happy to be there.

STAMBERG: Arlene Croce, New Yorker magazine dance critic for 25 years. Croce says Gene Kelly - with his open, joyful, joyous style - got movie-goers smiling.

CROCE: I think he's basically a comic dancer. First of all, he has this wonderful grin, big face-filling grin. His timing is comic. And his voice is witty. He's a funny guy. And when he dances with kids, he's wonderful in that way.


KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) Alors, maintenant. Un chanson American. An American song.

(As Jerry Mulligan) Dit moi.

STAMBERG: There's Kelly, in chinos, his sweatshirt sleeves pushed up, surrounded by French children in "An American in Paris."



KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) (Singing) Rhythm.


KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) (Singing) Music.


KELLY: (As Jerry Mulligan) (Singing) My gal, who could ask for anything more...

STAMBERG: Songs by George and Ira Gershwin, six Oscars including Best Picture in 1951. As a kid, I went to see it 10 times at Loews 107th Street in New York - yeah, we pronounced it Loews. Those were the days of double features, two movies for the price of one - for about 40 cents, then.

You know how much of how many Saturdays it took me to see it 10 times? But who could resist - Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and that 16-minute ballet to the classic Gershwin symphonic tone poem?


STAMBERG: In addition to dancing, singing, and acting in "An American in Paris," Gene Kelly also did the choreography. He mixed elements of ballet, tap, soft shoe, shuffle; all performed in that hunky Kelly fashion.

Again, Arlene Croce.

CROCE: Kelly to me is a very weighty dancer. He really gets into the floor and his body develops his rhythm, in connection with actual tap dancing.

STAMBERG: Fred Astaire was a weightless dancer, lighter than air. Gene Kelly knew gravity intimately, and knew how to dance with it. Kelly once said, If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando - apples and oranges, suave, sophisticated; versus muscled Olympian.

I met him once in 1982. He'd just been honored by the Kennedy Center and was about to speak at the National Press Club in Washington.

KELLY: There, it's on record.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is Susan Stamberg...

STAMBERG: He was busy charming admirers, before going out to speak. I was beside myself.

KELLY: How are you?

STAMBERG: I'll walk you down the hall. I certainly don't want to hold you up too much. But I'd love just about two minutes with you.

KELLY: Can we chat on our way.

STAMBERG: Yeah, come on. OK, you want to dance.

KELLY: Sure, I can hardly wait.


STAMBERG: Dream on. Dream on. He was 70 then, full of Irish charm and a spring in his walk, still; self-assured, distinguished and that face-filling grin.


KELLY: (Singing) It's very clear our love is here to stay...

STAMBERG: Gene Kelly was 83 when died in 1996 after two strokes, unacceptable for a person of his grace and speed. It's all still there, though. On this, his 100th birthday, the best way to celebrate is to sit by a screen somewhere and watch him dance.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


KELLY: (Singing) ...may just be passing...

INSKEEP: A video of Gene Kelly dancing is at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.

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