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Glasgow Film Festival: Why I love Gene Kelly

Miles Fielder makes a song and dance about the charismatic movie star

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Glasgow Film Festival: Why I love Gene Kelly

For a film lover who hates musicals (this writer), the GFF’s Gene Kelly retrospective ought to be a hard sell. Telling stories through song and dance, Kelly’s forte (the latter of which endeavours earned him a special Oscar in 1951), is anathema to this critic: when the music starts, the storytelling stops, the film grinds to a halt. Why sing dialogue when it can simply be spoken? Why dance action when it can just be acted out? All that fussing about, clip-clopping left and right to mime, let’s say, being torn between two lovers, or warbling multiple verses and choruses when all that needs be said is, ‘My heart is broken.’

Yes, of course, the point of the singing and the dancing is to exaggerate the drama and heighten the emotion. And aside from that, musicals are the epitome of glamorous art for glamorous art’s sake. And yet, so many musicals seem, well, naff. It would be hard to think of a more perfect example of naff-ness, in the sense of tasteless stupidity, than Meryl Streep bouncing on a bed while belting out an Abba hit in Mamma Mia!, not only the nadir of musicals, but the nadir of cinema full stop.

All that said, Gene Kelly’s different. To contrast the ridiculous with the sublime, let’s cut from trampolining Streep to the balletic Kelly cavorting from stoop to gutter, railing to lamppost and tossing away his brolly to announce, ‘I’m, singing in the rain’. Singin’ in the Rain is widely regarded to be the best musical ever made, and Kelly’s soggy song and dance is probably the best-known number in the history of musicals.

In spite of the simple set-up, the sequence is very complicated in terms of choreography (Kelly’s own) and cinematography (co-director Stanley Donen’s), and legend has it Kelly nailed it first time. But it’s so well staged and performed with such aplomb it’s impossible, even for a musicals-hating curmudgeon, not to succumb to the sheer joy and absolute charm of the sequence. Furthermore, all this singing and dancing is elevated beyond being simply show-stopping (putting the storytelling on hold, bringing the film to a halt) art for art’s sake to become one with meaning. That meaning, spelled out in the title, is the importance of keeping one’s chin up in the face of adversity. It’s what the original, Depression-era Hollywood musicals were made to facilitate by dint of being the ultimate in escapis. Having meaning – being about something – is, according to the consensus, the reason why Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical of all.

And it wasn’t a fluke for Kelly. He got that Oscar the year before Singin’ in the Rain was released in 1952. He got it for his contribution to and innovation of the movie musical. He got it for the gloriously elaborate and convoluted set pieces he co-conceived with Vincente Minnelli in An American in Paris in 1951, and he got it for his other films, among them The Pirate, Words and Music and On the Town. So it is OK for someone who, generally speaking, hates musicals to love Gene Kelly, because he made them like they don’t anymore, and because he made them like no else ever did.

YouTube: Singing In The Rain - Singing In The Rain (Gene Kelly) [HD Widescreen]

Singin' in the Rain

  • 5 stars
  • 1950
  • US
  • 102 min
  • U
  • Directed by: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
  • Written by: Betty Comden, Adolph Green
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Millard Mitchell

Hollywood undergoes the transition from the silent era to the talkies and reputations rise and fall. Absolutely wonderful musical entertainment, with the slickest of snappy dialogue, enduringly catchy numbers, a cast of genuine charisma, and an engaging picture of the industry in transition into the bargain. Quite splendid.

Brigadoon

  • 2 stars
  • 1954
  • US
  • 108 min
  • U
  • Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
  • Written by: Alan Jay Lerner
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse

Two yanks on vacation in Scotland discover a sleepy village that comes alive once every hundred years. Rather flat and uninvolving Minnelli musical, especially in comparison with his other 50s work, with the unconvincing (and unintentionally hilarious) Scots background the main problem.

An American In Paris

  • 1951
  • US
  • 113 min
  • U
  • Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
  • Written by: Alan Jay Lerner
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, Nina Foch

Splendid – if sometimes garish – romantic musical, with Kelly on top form as a would-be artist kicking up a storm in 'la belle cité'.

On the Town

  • 1949
  • US
  • 98 min
  • U
  • Directed by: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett

Three guys go out into the 'wonderful town' of New York, New York to see the sights, live the nightlife and wow the women. More cinematic and dance-orientated than other musicals, it's as big and brash as they come.

The Pirate

  • 1948
  • US
  • 102 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
  • Written by: S N Behrman (play), Frances Goodrich (screenplay), Albert Hackett (screenplay)
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Judy Garland

A wandering player (Kelly) passes himself off to a bored girl (Garland) as a famous pirate, and thereby sets up another colourful MGM musical, which is admittedly not one of the best, despite the Cole Porter songs.

Anchors Aweigh

  • 1945
  • USA
  • 140 min
  • U
  • Directed by: George Sidney
  • Written by: Natalie Marcin, Isobel Lennart
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson

Forget the slender plot and savour the joyous energy and dazzling dance numbers in one of Gene Kelly's best-loved musicals. The first of three films Kelly made with Frank Sinatra, Anchors Aweigh set a new benchmark for MGM musicals as it follows the romantic trials and tribulations of two sailors on shore leave in…

Gene Kelly Ceilidh + Brigadoon

  • 1954
  • USA
  • 108 min
  • U
  • Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
  • Written by: Alan Jay Lerner
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse

It is impossible to watch a Gene Kelly film without wanting to make your own humble attempts at poetry in motion. We can't promise any poetry but there will be energetic fun for all in this unique evening that forms part of our special centenary tribute to Gene Kelly. Join us for a wee dram followed by a screening of the…

Hello, Dolly!

  • 1969
  • USA
  • 139 min
  • U
  • Directed by: Gene Kelly
  • Written by: Ernest Lehman
  • Cast: Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Louis Armstrong

Harshly reviewed in the era of Easy Rider and M A S H, *Hello, Dolly! just keeps improving with age and now looks like the last of the great old school Hollywood musicals. Gene Kelly proves himself a masterful director expertly juggling the pressures of a hefty studio budget, the expectations built by a legendary Broadway…

Les Girls

  • 1957
  • US
  • 109 min
  • U
  • Directed by: George Cukor
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Taina Elg

A dancer writes a tell-all book about her days with the troupe Barry Nichols and Les Girls, prompting one of her fellow chorus line kickers to sue her for libel. Sparkly comedy musical starring the effervescent Kelly as the caddish Barry.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

  • 1949
  • USA
  • 89 min
  • U
  • Directed by: Busby Berkeley
  • Written by: Harry Tugend, George Wells, Harry Crane
  • Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams

A sprinkling of MGM magic and the genius of Gene Kelly could transform the corniest of plots into a thing of joy. Set in 1908, Take Me Out to the Ball Game reunites Kelly and Frank Sinatra as star players in an American League baseball team who also happen to have dreams of making it big in vaudeville. Swimming sensation…

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