Anniversary: Centennial birthday of Gene Kelly

Click the Blu-ray cover to visit its Amazon page.THURSDAY, AUGUST 23: “He would want to be remembered for changing the look of dance on film and creating a particular American style of dance,” says his widow Patricia Ward Kelly in a new interview with the Biography website. She was a main participant in the July series celebrating Kelly’s life, work and films hosted at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Kelly remains a very popular movie star. Not only is this his 100th birthday—it’s also the 60th anniversary of one of his most famous films: Singin in the Rain (now available in a new 60th Anniversary Blu-ray edition). Here’s a tip on that Blu-ray release: Amazon currently is selling it as a very low price; the 2-disc DVD version has been priced at more than $30, but the Blu-ray is listed by Amazon at around $12 this summer.


In an era of dance revival in shows like “Glee” and “Dancing With the Stars,” Kelly has experienced a major upswing in popularity; add this to digital meeting grounds like Facebook and Twitter, and the late star is shining brighter than he has in decades. (‘Like’ “Gene Kelly the Legacy” here.) Don’t forget, too, that Kelly broke ground in onscreen dance—not only with his style but in feats like film’s first double exposure (Cover Girl, 1944) and dancing with a cartoon character (Anchors Aweigh, 1945). Ever the comedian, Kelly often said his favorite dance partner was Jerry the mouse “because he showed up on time and worked his little tail off.”


Kelly, born in Pittsburgh in 1912, was raised Irish-Catholic with what today sounds like a stereotypically strong Irish-American mother. His parents dreamed of seeing him become an attorney and perhaps even the first Irish-Catholic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. That shaped Kelly’s educational goals, including his choice to major in economics at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1930s.

Biographer Alvin Yudkoff, in Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams, reports that Kelly later claimed that he was an agnostic. That apparently was a fairly private protest against his family’s faith, Yudkoff writes. The shift was partly due to the grinding poverty Kelly witnessed in some predominantly Catholic countries.

Ironically, Yudkoff reports, Kelly was married three times before he died in 1996 at age 83—but his strict Catholic upbringing made him stand out among Hollywood luminaries as someone who did not engage in casual sexual relationships. While morally strict himself in many ways, he also became known in the 1950s as a political liberal. That’s when he teamed up publicly with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and the director John Huston in presenting a united front against Joe McCarthy’s congressional hearings and blacklisting campaigns.

MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was famous for his ill temper and sole focus on MGM’s bottom line. He didn’t like Kelly’s activism one bit, but he also staunchly defended his star, saying “He couldn’t possibly be a Commie because he is a Catholic boy who loves his mother.”


Turner Classic Movies will be showing several of Gene Kelly’s movies on his centennial, including “An American in Paris,” “Cover Girl,” “Anchors Aweigh” and, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain.” (Check out the schedule here.) Says TCM’s daytime weekend host Ben Mankiewicz of Kelly’s stereotype-busting grace: “Gene Kelly spoke about how Americans are afraid to apply the word ‘graceful’ to men as if it would diminish their masculinity, but he, himself, was maybe the most graceful man we ever saw on screen.”

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