Gene Kelly, Creative Genius

A personal celebration of his life and work

On this page I will draw together all the information I have on Gene’s activities during the war. He did not serve overseas although he was on his way to the Far East when the war was abruptly ended by the dropping of the atomic bombs. He nevertheless did his duty, did as he was instructed by the Navy, entered via San Diego boot camp and worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. His entry into the service was deferred for a while because he was thought to be more useful in his capacity as movie star, his films helping to distract and uplift the general public in the grim days of the early war years. He also used his celebrity status to sell war bonds and to entertain injured servicemen.

I have included most of the content of the following articles, not only because they concern Gene and Betsy, but because they give a vivid insight into what millions of couples have had to endure during many wars. I found them very moving. My own parents were apart for several years, my father was a D-Day veteran and my mother did not know for a long time whether he was dead or alive. So these articles and this page are a dedication to all who served or serve, in whatever capacity, and a reminder to those of us who live in relatively peaceful times, that we have much to thank them for.

 

Modern Screen May 1945

If I Could Be With You

Betsy was in New York when Gene got the nod from his Uncle Sam.

She’d been expecting it right along. But, like so many things in life, it happened at the one moment when she wasn’t expecting it. Because everything had been arranged for Gene to go overseas and entertain the troops as soon as he’d finished Anchors Aweigh. That’s why she was in New York, seeing about a play…

…he phoned. She knew right away what it was, because he wouldn’t phone except about something important…Her main feeling was: Here I’ve wasted three weeks in New York, when I could have been with Gene…He met her at the airport. Neither of them said much. Gene hates what he calls slush. Besides, he’d been ready, willing and able for a long time. Betsy doesn’t suppose many men leap with joy exactly when their time comes – especially when they’re married and have children…almost the worst thing for Gene would be leaving Kerry…On the other hand he was infinitely better off than lots of fathers who’d never seen their children at all…

They didn’t have long days together before Gene left, because he was working like mad on the cartoon number of Anchors Aweigh. To get it done, he had to work nights and Sundays. Every evening Betsy’d go to the studio and have dinner with him. They liked it that way – doing the things they’d always done, not trying to cram the time with a lot of gay fun that wouldn’t have come natural anyway…

Gene passed his physical, asked for the Navy and got it. There were things to be arranged…the house was easy. Nothing easier than getting rid of a house in wartime…There were also the cars. One car ought to be sold right away, but which? Gene left it to her. She hated selling the honeymoon car…”But you gave me the other for our six-month anniversary-“…In the end, though it hurt to be sensible, she sold the honeymoon car. It was only a symbol after all. Whoever bought it couldn’t buy her memories with it -

The last day came…

The last night was like so many other nights – the warm friendliness of firelight and music and sitting around with the people they were closest to. Some left early. A few stayed on. At three, it seemed a brilliant idea to stay up all night. At six, Betsy said, “If I’m going to get Gene downtown by eight, maybe I’d better sleep for half an hour.” At six-thirty, Gene followed suit. Just forty winks…

Gene was on a cornbeef hash jag at the time, so Mamie fixed one more breakfast of hash and poached eggs and Betsy sat opposite, with Kerry between them…Then, in Mamie’s arms, she was yelling, “Bye, daddy,” and throwing kisses as they drove away. And then Betsy and Gene were saying goodbye – in the car, because there was no place you could park –

She’d heard that the worst moment was when you went home alone for the first time, and the house felt so empty. Herself, she can’t put a finger on any worst moment. All the moments were part of the one enveloping fact – that Gene was gone.

She was very good – didn’t cry for over a week – just started packing for New York….

Then one night, Saul Chaplin played “If I Could Be With You.” It meant nothing special to Betsy and Gene, it wasn’t their song or anything, but Gene sang it so well that the gang always used to make him sing it alone. So when Saul played it that night, Betsy cried…

One fine thing happened. Gene was sent to boot camp at San Diego…which meant that she and Gene were only three hours apart….after three weeks, boots get a 12-hour furlough.

She wished she had more to do. With Gene gone, even the marketing didn’t amount to much. She hated going to bed because she couldn’t sleep… Mornings, Mamie’d bring Kerry in, shrieking, “Mommy! Daddy!” Finding no daddy, she’d stand bewildered, then she’d remember. “Daddy Navy,” she’d squeal.

As a movie actor, Gene’s had plenty of pictures taken…But the one she adored was on the cover of a magazine. Crumpled and smeared with kisses, it’s seen its best days, but Kerry refused to have it moved from the table by her bed. She’d pat it, cuddle it, make sheep’s eyes at it. “Daddy loves Kerry,” she’d coo…

At last the three weeks were up. Gene expected to be off by noon, so Betsy took a train down the night before…He looked brown and fit and not a bit different, except for the funny haircut. Even the sailor suit didn’t seem strange, he’d worn one so long in Anchors Aweigh. First thing he wanted was a chocolate soda and some razor blades. Just walking down the street hand-in-hand with him was wonderful. They’d walked dozens of times hand in hand down dozens of streets, but that’s one thing separation does for you. Lifts the simplest everyday acts above the everyday level, brings their sweetness alive, makes you feel you’ll never again take them for granted…

He told her about camp. How much easier it was for him than lots of the kids who were younger and so darn homesick they couldn’t see straight. She’d heard they razzed movie actors. Was it true? No, Gene said. Only time they’d tried to rattle him was when he was doing his washing the first day, and he looked up, and there stood forty fellows watching him wash his clothes. So he went right on washing, and that was that. A few of them asked for autographs. Not for themselves. “Because I told my girl you were here and she wouldn’t believe me.” The best thing about camp was the sense of comradeship that bound you together, all the truer and stronger because it was never mentioned. One night a kid was playing the harmonica, and they asked Gene to dance, and he felt it had nothing to do with the movies. He was one of them, so they asked him – same as they’d have asked any fellow who knew how to dance…

Not till the Monday before Christmas did they know for sure that Gene would get home…They had a party that night and stayed home all day Sunday. Gene’s heart was broken because he had no presents for them. There just hadn’t been any time for shopping…But all the present she wanted that Christmas had arrived done up in a USN sailor suit…

Christmas Eve they made calls, and wound up singing carols at Saul Chaplin’s. And on Christmas Day Betsy had another present for them both – a present of time. She’d saved all her gas ration stamps to drive Gene down to the last train. That way he wouldn’t have to leave till 1 or 2 in the morning.

Stanley Donen went along, and it turned out to be an adventure. The top of the car was ripped, and before they’d gone far, it started drizzling. Well, Stanley’d brought some mending tape, just in case, and Betsy was supposed to hold it and keep it from twisting while the boys covered the rips. Only the stuff wouldn’t stick-

“Gene, my hands are freezing-“

“All right honey, let go-“

And with that, the whole top ripped off and went sailing down Vermont Avenue, and Betsy stood helpless with laughter while the boys tore after it – for all the world like a Mack Sennett comedy…

One week-end in January, she’d expected him home. He phoned – said he’d be in around dinnertime, but that wasn’t all. The naval base at Anacostia had put in a request for him. He’d be leaving for Washington at noon the next day.

There’s nothing to tell about it. They felt like any man and girl – like the millions of men and girls who love each other and have to say goodbye without knowing when they’ll see each other again…

She’s hoping to get to Washington while Gene’s still there. Meantime there’s one thing about his being in the Navy. She gets to wear his clothes – his mufflers and sweaters and shirts. Some of her friends disapprove. They don’t think she looks her smartest in them. But Betsy doesn’t care. When your husband’s away, you’re entitled to all the comfort you can get from the feel of his blue muffler round your neck.

 

The following certificates can be seen in the Gotlieb Archives, Boston:

Appointment by US Navy Training Center San Diego CA, to the US Naval Reserve as a Recruit Chief Petty Officer. January 9th 1945

 

Certificate on satisfactory completion of active service. 13th May 1946

 

Certificate for loyal services to the Hollywood Canteen.

 

Certificate for being part of the Presidential Citizen's Food Committee

 

March 22 1941 The Forge. Phoenixville PA.

Gene entertained at the hospital there.

 

'Thank You' letters. (Originals in the Gotlieb Archives, Boston):

From War Dept. December 15 1942

Thanks for appearing on the Mail Call program of November 18 1942

 

USO Camp Shows March 15 1944

Pleased with the fine reports on the show, concerned that they can get talent which can adequately follow the precedent set by Gene's show.

Still receiving compliments on the show.

 

Appeared England General Hospital March 24th

Percy Jones General Hospital. March 1944

 

Army Airforce Training Center.

Thanks for appearing on radio programme Soldiers With Wings at Santa Ana.

 

Thanks for attending Bond Rally Wednesday January 19th. Tour of Portland shipyards

 

Thanks for Theatrical Benefit, Foster Parents Plan for War Children.

 

Motion Picture. January 1943

…”We’d have married sooner, but I wasn’t sure of the draft. Then they passed the law exempting men over 28 from service, so we got married before we came to Hollywood. If the Army wants me now, I’ll be glad to go. I’m so thankful that I could be here when the baby came.”

 

Newspaper report. Portland Oregon. Friday January 21st 1944

Gene Kelly of the movies did a Sinatraesque swoon-croon song and dance number at the Victory Center bond rally Thursday before a giggling, squealing audience of girls. They all but mobbed the handsome young performer when he reached out to shake hands. Nobody actually swooned, for he wasn't Sinatra, but said he was wearing a Sinatra tie. He autographed bonds which sold like hotcakes. A detail of police was required to keep him from being crushed by the insistent throng...

Staff Sergeant Eleanor Darling. Wac, received her $25 war bond from Gene Kelly, Broadway and Hollywood star bond salesman, as her ticket for breakfast with him Thursday at the Benson hotel.

 

Los Angeles Times. April 18th 1944

The need for entertainment in military hospitals is far greater than it ever was in camps, so Gene Kelly reported to the Hollywood Victory Committee.

 

Newspaper cutting. source unknown

ACTOR-DANCER LUNCHES WITH WACS

Quite plainly enjoying the company and his lunch, Gene Kelly...was the guest of the WACs of the 20th Ferrying Group, Municipal Airport, today noon. With easy charm and wit, he captured immediately the interest and approval of the mess hall full of girls in uniform, and all had a wonderful time...Kelly gave a performance at Thayer Hospital this afternoon, and will appear again tonight.

 

Milwaukee Journal. May 7th 1944

While he waits to hear from Metro about his next picture, Kelly hopes to find time for an entertainment tour of army camps…Kelly expects to be drafted. “I’m young and healthy, so I should be called soon,” he says cheerfully. “Imagine sitting out the war in Hollywood.”

 

Evening Independent. May 9th 1944

Completing visits to 26 army and navy hospitals in 26 days, Gene Kelly has returned to Hollywood to prepare for his role in Anchors Aweigh…Kelly and a company of five performed a show of one hour and ten minutes in each hospital. Some of those visited were in Utica, NY; Boston; Valley Forge PA; Butler PA; Atlantic City NJ; Louisville KY; Clinton Iowa, and Memphis Tennessee.

 

Photoplay June 1944

This Spring Gene and I were separated for the first time in the two and a half years we have been married – except for the time I was in the hospital when Kerry was born. The first night after he left I read until four o’clock in the morning. If I pretended it were daytime there was, of course, nothing unusual about Gene’s being away.

When Gene and I said good-by at Grand Central Station and he walked down that dark alley to the trains to begin the three weeks’ tour of hospitals, I was very glad I had insisted upon getting up at dawn and having breakfast at the station with him. He had protested, “Stay in bed! You need your rest!” But his grin made it very evident that he was glad I had paid no attention to him.

“Don’t look for letters,” he warned me. “I don’t know if I’ll have time to write.” Gene would never say he’ll write every day or telephone at eight o’clock on Thursday morning. He’s more unpredictable than that – and more exciting. I wasn’t surprised, however, when he called me from Boston that same afternoon.

 

Modern Screen. August 1944

Gene Kelly isn’t the least bit worried or anxious about his comforts or fun in the future. He feels there’s a plenty big worry and all kinds of work to be done right now to get his world back on the tracks. If you merely mention the subject he’ll go on for hours about the actor’s function in wartime. He doesn’t think it has been clearly defined, and that as a result there’s a lot of fumbling the ball and checking signals with misdirected effort here and there. Gene is 1-A in the draft and was called up for a physical by his New York board when he was back there last. But he got a deferment to entertain the soldiers, and so he’s back off the GI roll for a few more months, anyway.

He’s just as frank and honest and as intelligent about that situation as he is about everything else. “In my honest opinion,” he’ll tell you, “I think actors are worth more, in most cases, as entertainers. But it just happens that a lot of them like me want to get in there with everybody else and shoot real bullets. There’s nothing wrong with my health. I’m young and I’m tough enough, and I want to get into a soldier suit.”

Well, that’s a new way to look at the draft, and incidentally, it’s as refreshing as a breeze in July.

 

Modern Screen. August 1944

Gene Kelly’s current ace enthusiasm is entertainment for service hospitals, which as anyone knows, are growing day by day as the war gets grimmer. Gene was up in Portland, Oregon, last year with Dinah Shore on a war bond rally when Dinah was called back to Hollywood, and he found himself with a few days on his hands and nothing to do. He got the idea of visiting a service hospital nearby and what he saw made him think. Then he volunteered for the USO-sponsored hospital tour that he just completed before going into Anchors Aweigh. That convinced him as follows: that those GI patients are the hero boys who need bucking up – that not only during the war but after it, for a long time. Ed Wynn and a bunch of other Broadway and radio entertainers discovered the same thing about the same time. So by now the ball is rolling to organize a regular actor circuit to handle that great and human need. Naturally, Kelly is right in the thick of that.

 

Screenland. September 1944

For two years now Gene Kelly had been begging the Hollywood Victory Committee and the U.S.O. to send him overseas to entertain the boys at the front. So when some weeks ago he received a wire telling him to report at their headquarters in New York he was a pretty excited fellow…But when the committee explained to him that it was a brand new project they had in mind for him, a home front project, Gene’s face fell almost down to his talented toes. “I was deeply disappointed at first,” he admits, “having set my heart on going overseas. But then I realised it was a terribly important and worthwhile job they had selected me for.”

Gene swung into his new job with all his energy, and Gene even on bad days has the energy of a Boulder Dam dynamo.

“The committee wanted me to organize a unit and go out on a planned itinerary of Army and Navy hospitals – some of them in out of the way places that had never been visited by Hollywood personalities,” he reports. “They intend making this hospital entertainment a post-war project, if possible…for the poor guys who are invalided, and who’ll think they’ve been forgotten.”

The committee picked five entertainers to go with Gene…juggler…pianist…singer…dancer…comedian.

“They were a swell bunch,” says Gene, “and wonderful entertainers. I built the show so that the boys in the hospitals could feel that they were seeing a regular Broadway revue. I sang with the girl singer and danced with the girl dancer, and I played in sketches, and m.cied the whole show.”…

The H.V.C. – U.S.O. knew exactly what they were doing when they asked Gene to organize the first hospital unit for them so that they could make a test case of it. It worked out so well that now other units are being formed. Hospital tours will be a definite part of post-war entertainment for the sick and wounded.

“We were actually out only three weeks,” says Gene, “but we covered enough territory for six weeks. They were all one-night stands…We usually played three shows in the hospital’s auditorium, for an average of 550 boys per show, and then we would play all the wards for the fellows who were unable to leave their cots. It was wonderful playing to those fellows. Their enthusiastic applause did my hammy heart good. After playing to the electricians in Hollywood for two years it was swell having a real audience, not that I don’t like electricians.

“The schedule we had practically knocked us out after the first five days, but we managed to keep going on nervous energy. However, towards the end of the trip we were staggering around like dilapidated zombies…most of the time we rode day coaches and did our sleeping, if any, sitting bolt upright bundled up in overcoats and newspapers to ward off drafts that swept in straight off the North Pole. Seems that we were always getting off trains at some strictly unconventional hour, such as 5 A.M. and seems that it was always raining….We would be revived with gallons of hot coffee. And then we’d start our shows.”

There was no publicity in connection with the tour. …Gene and the kids in the company wanted it that way. “The hour it would have taken us to give interviews to the local press in each town, we could use to much better advantage by giving a show to the wounded,” Gene explains.

“In the day coach going into Louisville,” he relates with a typical Kelly smile, “I heard two ladies across the aisle discussing me. ‘I think,’ said one of them, ‘I’ve seen that man in the movies. Wasn’t he in a picture with Judy Garland?’ ‘Now, listen, Nan,’ said the other one, ‘don’t be a fool. If he was a movie star would he be travelling on a day coach? Now I ask you. He’d have a private car, believe me.’ Her friend talked her right out of recognizing me,” laughed Gene.

“On the train from Cincinnati to Chicago we had a real touch of luxury – we had chair car reservations. I went to the diner for a bite to eat at noon and was put at a table with three soldiers. One of them recognized me, and after lunch asked me if I’d go up front to a coach where there were a hundred or more boys being sent to an embarkation port. I was kidding around with the boys, cracking a few jokes that were not too corny, I hoped – when suddenly it occurred to me that we ought to give them our regular show. I rushed back to the chair car to round up the gang and a few props. For a second I didn’t have the heart to wake them…But I explained about the kids in the front coach, and not one murmur of complaint out of the entire troupe. A swell bunch. I think that was one of our most successful shows. When the train would lurch around a curve we’d land in the laps of the boys. They’d yell with delight when it happened to one of the girls.”

When Gene returned to his wife and child… he looked pretty well shattered. “My wife decided I needed building up,” says Gene with a smile. “But when she saw me eat three weiner sandwiches and drink three beers for a midnight snack she said that anybody who could pack away all that wasn’t anywhere near a breakdown.”

 

Screen Album 1944

He played 26 army hospitals in as many days, and tutors weekly at Arthur Murray’s.

 

 Pittsburgh Post Gazette. November 9th 1944

For three weeks Gene Kelly has been dancing around on an MGM sound stage faster than he ever danced before. And not just to keep up with the music either.

Mr. Kelly has to finish his picture by November 10th, because after that all his hoofing will be done for some tough drill sergeant. And anybody knows an army recruit doesn’t have any time off to make movies.

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette. November 17th 1944

Gene Kelly, the movie star from Pittsburgh, will join his younger brother, Sergeant Fred Kelly, in khaki next Monday. Los Angeles will be the place of his induction, the actor’s papers having been transferred from New York, where he registered.

 

Los Angeles Times. November 21st 1944. Joyce Haber.

Gene Kelly got the works at the induction center yesterday. They took his blood pressure, they thumped his knees to check reflexes, they stuck a paddle in his mouth and looked at his tonsils.

Today he’s awaiting the examining doctor’s verdict. In fact, he would hear the results of his preliminary physical on Thursday, but even induction officers take Thanksgiving Day off for turkey.

So the MGM actor has no choice except to gnaw a drumstick and tap his toes until Friday.

“I’m asking for the Navy,” said the 30-year-old Kelly, who is married and the father of a 2-year-old daughter. “Now the question I; will the Navy ask for me?”

 

The Hoist. A newspaper written by and for men of the Navy. San Diego. December 8th 1944

Actor’s locks shorn for biggest role in world drama.

“Undoubtedly the most thorough haircut I've ever had. It's terrific! And to think I've been paying six-bits all these years.” Such was the reaction of ex-MGM star, Gene Kelly. AS Co. 604, to his first GI bob. One of our newer Center citizens, Kelly is currently hup-two-threeing on the Decatur grinder. Unlike many another recruit, the former cinema star has developed no aches and pains because of the physical training, as his dancing maneuvers on the screen put him in tip-top physical condition. Kelly is extremely anxious to attain a 4.0 mark as a Center bluejacket...

 “I'm in the Navy now, the branch of the service I wanted. Sure, I'm going back to Hollywood some day, but right now, the business of becoming a bluejacket is all I can handle. Hollywood, as far as I'm concerned, is in mothballs for the duration.”

Kelly arrived on board two weeks ago. He left behind a wife, a baby girl and a spectacular career which, after 15 years of plugging, had just reached its peak. He brought with him an infectious Irish disposition, a keen sense of humor and a sincere desire to 'make the grade' as a recruit in Uncle Sam's Navy.

 

New York Times December 17th 1944

Gene Kelly has never had much time for bar bells, Indian clubs or boxing gloves. The only athletic equipment he acknowledges are his dancing shoes. That’s why he startled the army doctors who commented on the ruggedness of his build when he was summoned for his pre-induction physical examination.

 

The making of Combat Fatigue Irritability:

The Williamsport Sun. Friday February 16th 1945

Precision timing is required of actors, directors and cameramen in shots such as the one made at Pennsylvania Railroad station. Kelly alights from a train 'home on leave' purportedly – actually he boarded the train at Muncy and rode into the city for this scene...

The movie set is on Second Avenue, chosen as a residential street in a typical American city. The avenue takes on a distinctly Hollywood atmosphere as tracks are set up for the 'dolly' – moving platform for camera – while actor Kelly stands alone, but the target of a long line of admiring glances. Some onlookers even gave up their lunch so that they could feast their eyes on Gene Kelly...

 

Newspaper article. 1945. Source unknown. This Is About Gene Kelly And That's All It's About. By John Maynard

Until a day or so ago, Kelly resided in a state of some disorder in a little house on Georgetown's Q Street, one he took over from Actor-Navyman Richard Carlson. When he returns from a pending junket to Astoria, he will move into an Anacostia apartment...Kelly lives with a dance director named Jack Ray and he's in the Navy too. Both men are assigned to the motion picture end of the Photographic Science Laboratory... They have had to change their home phone number once, when it somehow became bobbysock property...

The motion pictures he makes for the navy concern such subjects as battle fatigue, amputees and radar, and he is very proud and pleased at having a part in the work. His greatest thrill, he says, was a “well done” from Secretary Forrestal over a contribution he made. To learn about battle fatigue, he lived for weeks with veterans suffering from it...

The recent ruckus over his abrupt elevation to one-and-a-half stripes hurt him some. He didn't, and doesn't to this day, blame other enlisted men who might have been disgruntled, but he does remember that he started in the ranks and made it via boot camp in San Diego, and that no attacks were made on actors who were commissioned on the lot.

 

Photoplay 1945 

He had looked forward to going overseas to entertain the boys. He’s hoofed it a lot on the hospital circuits and has seen just what it means. It was his report to the Hollywood Victory Committee about the need for a regular hospital entertainment tour that helped push the organisation of such a unit.

The heaviest-hearted hoofing he’s ever done was a request for For Me And My Gal for a boy he knew was going to die the next day. That was one time Kelly had all he could do to keep from crying as he hoofed.

 

Photoplay. November 1945

Where’s Kelly? Well, right where Uncle Sam thought he belonged – in the United States Navy, working for the Naval Photographic Science Laboratory in Washington D.C. and clad in the blues of a lieutenant (j.g.)

He was, until recently, full of Navy plans – plans he’d been waiting a whole year to carry out. “At last, at last – I’m going overseas!” he said, pleased and proud. “For a year I’ve been bucking to go. I’m heading a combat photographic unit that’ll be taking pictures in actual combat – of demolition squads, bombs, guns, fighting. Then we’ll bring ‘em back to be used for training films. But anyway, it’s action on the fronts!”

However, everything happens to Kelly. The date of this speech was August 6, and the atomic bomb fell on August 7. This is one time the curtain went down before Kelly got on stage. But nobody can say he didn’t try. He tried everything to get overseas, and he definitely tried not to be an actor in the Navy. He tried with all his might to stay off radio shows and out of the spotlight but – everything happens to Kelly.

…Behind the scenes, his private life in wartime Washington, D.C., was as undignified as anyone else’s life there. It all goes under the heading of “Help! Find us a house!” – and it continues like this:

When his wife Betsy first came East to join Gene (once he had become an officer and felt able to have his family with him), she left behind her the usual wartime debris of a home: a closed house in California; a baby left with her mother in New Jersey; a car in storage…They moved briskly into the Hamilton Hotel; every morning Gene left for work and Betsy left to begin a day of house-hunting…Then would begin the second search of the day; the hunt for a meal! They found that the tale of restaurants with two-block-long queues of people waiting outside was not exaggerated either. By the time they had stood in line, finally eaten and staggered home again it was almost midnight…

The last straw in their exhausted hunt for a home came after two months…The telephone rang one midnight…”’Tis I!” shouted a cheerful voice at the other end. Gene almost dropped the telephone in his astonishment. “Stanley Donen!” he shouted back, delighted. “Where are you – California?”

…Stanley was right here in Washington and planning on visiting them, beginning now!

“We have a house guest. Too bad we haven’t a house,” he told Betsy feebly.

But once let in on their house-hunting problem, Stanley found himself a room and then dedicated his life to helping them out…One or two evenings a week they all ate well, because one of Gene’s more fortunate friends would invite them all over for dinner – Collier Young, or Hugh McMullen, or Commander Gene Markey, or Bob Taplinger, all of whom Gene had known in Hollywood. Finally Stanley wrested a house from Richard Carlson – though only for a few weeks. Once he saw Gene and Betsy settled on “P” Street, N.W., he disappeared back to Hollywood…

As Gene’s best friend since Broadway days…Stanley had been a familiar audience at all their various upsets.

Out in Hollywood, a year ago, he had witnessed Gene’s frantic struggles to get Anchors Aweigh finished before entering the Navy – with everything possible going wrong at the last minute. The three big dance numbers for the picture were still unfilmed only a few days before Gene was due to report to his Naval Training Station, and by the time those days were over, Gene had run so difficult an obstacle course of his own, that the Navy obstacle course looked like a mere trifle!

Gene danced steadily, day and night, those last hectic days – with the painters on strike, the Cartoon Dance Song unwritten until the night before the dance was shot and recorded, and finally with a blood clot in his hand. This last blow came with the Tango Dance number. The rose thrown to him gracefully by Kathryn Grayson had a lead wire for a stem and it caught him as thoroughly as he caught it.

But he simply had to go on ahead of the Navy. So while the exhausted cameraman shot around his swollen hand, Gene went on dancing – until he got a charley-horse in one leg. Then he still went on dancing, getting the numbers on film hour after hour throughout the days and nights before he had to report for duty. By the time he reached San Diego in uniform his hand was bandaged, he was limping badly and his voice had sunk to a mere whisper.

But, though Gene was almost a hospital case, one of the most successful musical comedies ever made was finished – and while Gene was beginning his new life, the picture was delighting audiences all over the world.

Once movie star Gene Kelly was Seaman 2nd Class Kelly, the world turned as upside down for the Kellys as it had for thousands of others all over America. Betsy realised this the minute Gene disappeared into training at San Diego in his bell-bottom trousers – And she began sitting by the telephone in their suddenly empty house in Beverley Hills waiting for Gene’s calls.

Weekends became what they have been to most of America – a hasty telephone call from Gene; “Betsy I’m getting weekend liberty. I’ll be riding up to town with some of the other guys.” Then Betsy would begin hurriedly phoning friends to come over that night – the Keenan Wynns, Maria Montez, the Richard Whorfs, the Hume Cronyns, the John Garfields, Ralph Blane, Stanley Donen…

At seven, Gene would arrive on foot, after a three-mile walk from the street corner where he’d been left by the carload of sailors – but not the same Gene she was used to. This was a skinny, weary Gene who could barely grin at her on his way upstairs to snatch a quick nap before dinner. You know the rest. The guests all came – but the host never did! He was upstairs sleeping the sleep of the dead…

Then Sunday would come. Sunday meant a rushed breakfast, with Gene’s watch on the table, a hasty romp with little Kerry – and then Betsy would drive him to some street corner and wave him goodbye as he disappeared in a carload of gobs, on the way back to San Diego…

But those weekend ducks into Hollywood ended for Gene with the end of his training at San Diego. Then he was sent East to be stationed at Anacostia. Betsy soon followed, and behind them, in Hollywood, the Kellys were missed by everyone – from acting friends, to the kids on the block who used to play softball with Gene every Sunday afternoon of their lives…

But of course no none in Hollywood counted on mercurial Gene and his sudden impulses. Late one Saturday night, Stanley Donen and Sol and Mrs. Chaplin were skimming along Sunset Boulevard, on their way to a late nightspot named Dave’s Blue Room.

Stanley spied a sailor standing on a corner of Sunset with his duffel bag in hand…”If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was the one-and-only Gene Kelly.”…

By this time the sailor had been left far behind…A few minutes later he came into the night club and his opening shout was, “Hi, gang!”…

He’d been given a five-day leave in Washington and had instantly hitched a plane ride to Hollywood. He could only stay for two hysterical days – during which time he stayed at Stanley’s house, went out on a fast visit to his studio and also managed to see his sick friend Keenan Wynn, just back from hospital after his motorcycle accident….his teeth were so thoroughly wired into place that he could hardly talk. How did Gene make him feel at home? – by talking the same stiff-lipped way Keenan talked, without opening his mouth either!

Those two wild days in Hollywood convinced everyone of one thing: Hollywood can’t do without Gene Kelly any more than can the public. And as soon as Gene’s world is right-side-up again (along with the worlds of all of us), everyone wants to forget the question, “Where’s Kelly?” – and be able to say, “Kelly’s there!”

 

Films produced by Gene's unit include:

 Combat Fatigue Irritability: March 1945. A film of encouragement for those servicemen who were suffering what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Gene directed and played the main role. This film can be seen on Youtube. Well worth a look.

Submarine Warfare. Now It Can Be Told.  Gene was narrator.

Treasury Salute no. 314. What’s the matter with Steve:  The difficulties faced by a soldier who served as a quartermaster and how never seeing combat doesn’t make life easier.

TS 315. The names on a list:  There is a story behind every name on the list of wounded GIs. This program looks at one of them.

US Treasury Dept. War Finance division. 1946. audiobook on LP. More information to follow.

Deseret News. April 13th 1945

Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, commander of the North pacific force, landed briefly at Lowry Field last night, and in the public relations office he was introduced to actor Gene Kelly. Kelly, on a five day pass from a photographic unit of the Anacostia Naval Station, Washington DC, was thumbing his way to his Hollywood home to visit his wife and child. The public relations officer said the meeting resulted in Kelly’s accompanying the admiral westward in a navy plane.

 

 Evening Independent. May 14th 1945

The army’s discharging plan may bring back to the screen such personnel as Jimmy Stewart, Van Heflin…most of the stars in other branches of the service – Tyrone Power…Douglas Fairbanks Jr….Gene Kelly…probably will remain in uniform, pending developments in the Pacific war.

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette. 25th May 1946

…Gene Kelly will be home late Monday night or early Tuesday morning to spend a couple of days with his family before heading out to the coast. Betsy and their daughter Kerry are already in Hollywood – they went by plane – fixing up the new house. Gene is going by automobile.

 

Movie Show. June 1946

In the Navy for the past two years. I’ve been writing and directing films, some documentary, some bond trailers – one, film on combat fatigue and psycho-neurosis. In order to get authentic material for this one I lived, for some weeks, in Swarthmore Convalescent Hospital, near Philadelphia, where many of the combat fatigue cases are treated. Imagine my poor wife’s consternation when she heard the rumor that I was at Swarthmore suffering from psycho-neurotic trouble, due to too many shells in my ears!. After my time in the Navy is over – although, when that will be I have, at this time of writing, and low in points, as I am – no idea. I’ll be glad to go back to Hollywood… Since we never bought a house, but rented one which, when I was in the Pacific, Betsy gave up in order to be with her parents in the East, I don’t know where in heck we’ll live when we do get together. But it won’t matter too much. We have gypsy in us, Betsy and Kerry and I, and roof, or open sky over my head, I’ll be very glad to get back to the land of dreams and sun and orange juice and make-believe again.

 

Movieland.  Summer 1946

Gene had a two-year service period, a lieutenant, junior grade, with the Navy Photographic Section. He catalogued and edited film made by combat crews, had a well-trained hand in the production of educational films for Navy personnel, War Bond drive subjects and public information films. His job was no more rugged than anyone else’s service assignment, and a lot less risky than most.

At the outset of his service he confesses having given free reign to his dramatic bent, and ranted about shooting Japs. But after the first nine-month stint in his particular naval niche, he realized that he had been properly pegged and was contributing the best way he could to the advancement of the war.

Boot camp was no picnic, but it was easier on him than a lot of Navy boots because he was used to the discipline of the dance and of acting (don’t think directors can’t give orders – they definitely can!).

“As a matter of fact,” he says, “boot camp freed me from all responsibility. I had only to do what I was told to do without any initiative on my part. It was almost like being in school again, and I feel it was really a mental refresher.”

The usual feeling of restlessness that fits most veterans like their first civilian suits had no chance to overcome quick-stepping Mr. Kelly. He plunged into work immediately upon his discharge, leaving no time for the usual readjustment worries.  “It was like taking a cold bath,” he explains. “After the first quick shock, the transition period had passed.”

In New York, where he was discharged from the Navy, he promptly reported to the nearest gymnasium to work off the 20 pounds he had gained in service – what he lovingly refers to as “the Tony Galento look.”

 

Toledo Blade. July 29th 1946. Howard C. Heyn.

Big production schedule ahead for Gene Kelly, dancing star, 18 pounds heavier, back and ready for work.

Gene Kelly, one of the most natural and unassuming guys who ever hit the screen, is back on the production line.

I saw the ex-navy man during his first day’s work in Life’s For The Loving, and it’s a pleasure to report that he’s in A-1 shape.

“I put on 18 pounds in the navy,” he said, “and I really feel fine.” His face is much fuller than it appeared in Anchors Aweigh, the film in which he worked 16-hour shifts and completed only the day before he left for boot camp.

Like any other veteran, Gene’s bustling around, getting back into the swing of civilian and cinematic life…MGM has mapped out an ambitious program for him and is impatiently nudging him into it. Unlike some returning actors, Gene’s position in pictures is unique, to the extent that he has less, rather than more competition than when he went into the service two years ago. Fred Astaire has retired and George Murphy has virtually turned in his dancing shoes, but Kelly has no such intentions. “How could I?” he asked, “when they’ve got so much set for me here. It looks like a production line ahead of me. I don’t know which picture I’ll do next, but I think it will be The Pirate with Judy Garland.”

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette. August 21st 1946

Gene Kelly, recently out of the navy, brought back the story of The Proteus, a submarine tender whose main armament comprised of four five-inch guns. A few days before the Japanese surrender, the Proteus prepared to enter Tokyo Bay at night. The radar man reported he had made a contact. The Proteus skipper ordered his signalman to send the challenging message: “Identify yourself or we will open fire.” Back came the reply from the target: “This is the USS New Jersey. Don’t scratch our paint please!”

 

Picturegoer 14th September 1946: on Gene joining the Navy
He permitted no Hollywood strings to be pulled..he joined as a seaman 3rd class and swotted his way up to Lieutenant. That he did it so swiftly may be put down to his alert mentality, and perhaps in a degree to the magic of his personality.

 

Seventeen Magazine. September 1946

Separated from the Navy last Spring (a couple of months after he could have gotten out), Gene said, “You can’t be away two years and not have a million ideas. But I’m like a fighter out of condition. I’d like to make a straight acting picture first, while I get tuned up.”

By now Kelly is undoubtedly in tune…he went on a strict diet to lose a few pounds the Navy added to the Kelly frame and he practiced all the time.

 

Toledo Blade. March 5th 1950. Hedda Hopper

When he reported for the Navy, and examining doctor said, “Man, you’re as solid as a  Sherman tank. How do you keep so fit?” “By making pictures,” the actor replied.  The doctor perhaps still thinks Gene was kidding. But he wasn’t.

 

Lois McClelland, Motion Picture magazine, 1950

In the Navy, Gene’s quarters always were jumping with people and good conversation, and everyone was welcome, from the bell-bottomest gob to the most bestriped captain.

 

Motion Picture February 1951

On Gene’s Navy service:

The bulk of Kelly’s hitch was service films dealing largely with battle fatigue. He worked his neck off on them and, one night while he was dining with friends at Washington’s Shoreham hotel, received by messenger a ‘well done’ from the late James Forrestal, then Secretary of the Navy. He has had no bigger career thrill before or since….One evening he was refused admittance to a swank restaurant, one that regarded ordinary sailors with horror and distrust. He was ready to leave gracefully, but his friends would have none of it. They identified Kelly to the headwaiter, who got very friendly indeed…Kelly thought that was funny too, but not so funny that he gave the headwaiter anything more than a dirty look for his trouble.

 

Motion Picture May 1954

Although he came out of the Navy a full lieutenant, he went in as a gob, via San Diego boot camp. As a gob he went one night to one of Washington’s posh supper clubs with other enlisted men. This particular club was highly rank-conscious and Kelly was being refused admission when some bright onlooker realised who he was and told the headwaiter, who promptly changed his mind about the whole thing. Normally, he would have been too late. Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged Kelly inside then – but the wistful faces of his mates, who’d never been in a place quite so splendid, could and did.

RICHARD DWENGER

 

According to Betsy Blair in her autobiography, Dick Dwenger was Gene’s closest male friend. He was a young struggling playwright and musician, living in New York at the same time that Gene was there. From Betsy’s description he seemed to be an amiable young man, intelligent, quiet, talented, and for some time he played a large role in Betsy’s ‘education’, along with Gene. They were an inseparable threesome, until Gene and Betsy became romantically involved with each other. She simply says that he was killed in the War and that Gene may have made a tribute to him in Cover Girl, in the Make Way For Tomorrow number, when the threesome dance and make mischief through the streets of New York late at night.

I have discovered some details of his life and death, because he has always intrigued me. I have included his story in the section on the war and Gene’s involvement because he and Gene were friends and it must have grieved Gene greatly to learn of his passing. We can only be thankful that Gene did not decide to join the Navy along with Richard, as friends so often enlisted and fought together.

 I am sad when I think of him because of all the unfulfilled promise. Maybe he could have been another Richard Rodgers or Stephen Sondheim. We will never know, but this is a small tribute to him and to all of the other lovely young men and women who surrendered their future so that we could have a tomorrow.

 

He was a citizen of Ridgewood, New Jersey, his name is inscribed on the war memorial there. He was married in June 1942 to Flower Hujer, a dancer with two Broadway credits.

Gene appeared in a production of one of his plays, The Royal Roost, in 1940, and great interest was shown in another of his works, Larry and Jean.

Gene obtained a job for him as rehearsal pianist, to help pay the rent.

He joined the Navy and was a yeoman 1st class aboard the destroyer USS Buck 420. He died when the ship was hit by a torpedo off Salerno on 9th October 1943. It was operating in support of the invasion and occupation of Italy. The ship sank, 97 crew members survived, 168 lost their lives, including Richard Dwenger.

His name is on the ‘lost at sea’ tablet at the Sicily-Rome American cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. The record there states that he was awarded the Purple Heart but I can find no record of that. He was listed as missing in November 1943 but not finally declared ‘killed in action’ until October 1944.

There are extant eyewitness accounts of the sinking of the Buck. They are distressing to read.

 

New York Times. July 27th 1940

The Royal Roost, by Richard Dwenger, with Gene Kelly in the cast, will play at the Stamford Connecticut Community Playhouse.

 

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette. September 4th 1940.

 ...In between, Gene found time last month to star in something called The Royal Roost at Stamford. The play has a good idea he thinks, but is better movie than play material.

 

 New York Times. June 19th 1942

Flower Hujer, solo dancer in By Jupiter, was married to Richard Dwenger, actor and playwright…

 

New York Times. November 4th 1943

The Navy announced 46 casualties not heretofore on casualty lists…Dwenger, Richard. Yeoman 1st class.

 

New York Times December 1944

A. Raymond Gallo is very much impressed by a script entitled Larry and Jean, which was written by the late Richard Dwenger, USN, whose ship went down…