By Martin Gleeson
Gene Kelly’s father was an Irish Canadian from Ontario, and his mother was Harriet Catherine Curran, whose mother came from Derry. Gene was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1912.
Gene’s mother sent him to dance lessons when he was only eight years old, but when the neighbouring kids called his a ‘sissie’, he refused to go. He took up dancing lessons again when he was fifteen. Soon, everyone could see that he was an excellent dancer.
His family lost all their wealth in the 1929 crash, and while at college, he and his brother survived by winning talent competitions and performing in nightclubs.
Gene graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Economics in 1933. He then enrolled in the University Law School. Meanwhile, the family started a dance school. In 1932, it was renamed the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance. This was another way of supporting himself while he studied at University.
He was asked by a Jewish synagogue to teach dancing to their children, and to stage their annual festival as a fulltime job. He did that for seven years, and then he moved to New York.
Gene initially found it very difficult to secure work in New York. His first Broadway break came when he danced opposite Mary Martin in a Cole Porter musical, while she sang My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Then in 1940, he played the leading role in Rogers and Hart’s Pal Joey. He was now dancing and choreographing shows on Broadway with great success. And Hollywood was watching!
When Gene arrived in Hollywood in 1941, MGM were the largest film studio. He signed an MGM contract to star in just one film, and he was cast opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal.
This film was very successful and he was then given a role with Lucille Ball in Cole Porter’s Du Barry was a Lady.
In Thousand Cheers, made in 1943, Gene danced and did the choreography as well. From now on, Gene was not only a dancer, but a dance director and choreographer too.
At the end of 1944, Gene enlisted in the US Naval Air Service and was commissioned as a Lieutenant, second grade. He was stationed in Washington DC and was involved in writing and directing war documentaries.
Back in Hollywood
Returning to Hollywood, Gene then starred opposite Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh. The reviewers described him as “the most exciting dancer to appear in Hollywood movies”.
Gene appeared in two more films with Frank Sinatra. Gene’s career went well, but two films were to put him in a class of his own.
The 1951 film, An American in Paris, was probably the most admired and artistic of his films. With music by George Gershwin and his brother, Ira, Gene choreographed the great dance routines that have made this a classic production. It won six Academy awards.
Singin’ in the Rain
The following year, Gene starred with Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor in the musical, Singin’ in the Rain. This romantic comedy is about the changeover in Hollywood from silent to talking films.
The four-minute sequence of Gene with an umbrella, dancing in the street at night during a torrential shower, has gone down in history as one of the most popular pieces of cinematic art. Gene was suffering from a high temperature during the filming, but his dancing was perfect.
Until his retirement, Gene made film appearances, appeared in TV shows and performed live in Las Vegas.
While dancers like Fred Astaire usually appeared in dress suits and played upper-class parts, Gene preferred to portray the more everyday American male. His dancing style, often performed in a T-shirt and a pair of slacks, struck a chord with millions of ordinary people. And that was how Gene Kelly became a legendary Hollywood star.
Gene’s Irish Side
Gene had three children. He called them Kerry, Timothy and Bridget. How Irish is that?
Gene often came to Ireland. In 1973, Gene’s wife, the dancer Jeanne Coyne, had just died of leukemia and Gene wanted a quiet break. He and his three children stayed for a month in one of the thatched cottages in Puckane, near Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. He often visited the local pub, Kennedy’s bar. He would have two pints of Guinness and a small whiskey. He loved to listen to the stories told by the then proprietor, Paddy Kennedy.
A story is told that one evening, a customer in the bar told Gene that he looked very like the film star, Gene Kelly. Gene got up and did a dance for the man! Gene Kelly is still remembered in Puckane.