...Helping me a lot...
This section is dedicated to those who helped Gene on his 'stairway to paradise'. He was always generous in acknowledging those who had been positive influences in his life and work. It looks set to be a long list, so let's start at the beginning.
JAMES & HARRIET KELLY
It may be obvious that any child is influenced by his or her parenting and environment, but James and Harriet Kelly seem to me to have been quite extraordinary parents. I am not writing a biography of Gene’s early life here, you can find excellent ones on Donna’s Genescene http://members.aol.com/humorone/gene.htm on www.imdb.com and in Hirschhorn. I simply want to emphasise how Gene’s character and ideals were moulded by those of his loving parents. Gene always speaks of his mother with great admiration, love and respect. He called her ‘ a formidable woman’, ‘a wonderful woman’, ‘my sainted mother’. Perhaps we should silently thank her every time we are thrilled, moved or mesmerised by Gene’s dancing; it was she who forced him and his siblings to take dance lessons. And she gave him his compact frame and dark good looks.
But she accomplished far more than that. It was from Harriet that Gene inherited his fierce work ethic, his belief that, with hard work, he could do anything and be anyone, and his Irish stubbornness and slugging persuasion methods, his benign ‘bossiness’, and the imagination to bring into being the things he envisioned. She so wanted her children to rise up the social ladder, to make something of themselves, and she gave them all the tools they needed to gain success, at great personal expense to herself in many ways. It was Harriet who had the energy and drive which Gene also inherited. She brought up five children in difficult times, with James working away for most of every week until he finally lost his job during the Depression. She did not concentrate on supplying only their physical needs, which goodness knows must have been hard enough, but she gave them the priceless gift of opening their minds to beauty, to literature, to things of the spirit and soul. She founded and organised 'The Five Kellys', all of her children being 'encouraged' to appear on stage, teaching them not only dancing and performing, but discipline, self-confidence, and the idea that hard work and enthusiasm would bring tangible rewards.
James seemed to be, from what I have read, a gentler soul, upright and gentlemanly. From him Gene got his irresistible charm, his great love of the outdoors, his ability in sports of the most dangerous kinds, his love of family life, and his protective and gentle, some would even say soft, attitude toward women. Gene said he was ‘a doll of a man’. One thing Gene did rebel against was James' sartorial elegance! James insisted on ‘proper’ dress at all times, even when relaxing at home. So perhaps he is responsible for another of Gene’s well-known traits, of being, in his own words, a ‘walking slum’, his love of comfort over couture. Betsy Blair describes James as “…an alert and quiet man…he was loving and gentle with wit in his blue eyes and the Irish gift of the gab…radiating warmth at the heart of the family.” Though from what I have recently learned about Gene's Kelly ancestors it would seem that he came from a long line of determined,intelligent and hard-working men and women who were eager to improve the lives of themselves and their families.
Gene was extremely fortunate in growing up in such a stable environment; well-taught, loved, nurtured, encouraged, protected, all of which positive features became basic facets of his own personality and ideals in life, and which he in turn passed on to his children.
From clipping, source unknown.
Gene stated that every year as far back as he could remember, his father acted as judge of elections at the polls.
New York Herald Tribune. February 2 1941
Gene's mother had been on the stage as a girl and after she was grown she played dramatic roles with a Pittsburgh stock company.
Modern Screen. June 1943.
Father Kelly’s buoyant and carefree, mother’s practical and smart. Gene’s crazy about both – a sentiment expressed with characteristic restraint. “I approve of my parents.”
Pilot #5 Pressbook
…He got his American quota from his mother in the way of Mother Goose stories. His father was a great story teller and a great guy. But his tall tales were all about old Irishmen whose remarkable exploits were the sort that are told at Irish wakes. They were so unreal there was no disputing them.
To his mother he attributes his initiative, imagination and ambition.
Everyone knows he’s no ‘mother’s boy’, but he has a lucky piece he carries with him into each new role. It is a small locket containing a faded photograph of his mother.
Colliers Magazine May 1945
“This [his teaching dance] began to look good, so we finally rented a room over an old store, put up some curtains and opened a school. It wouldn’t have amounted to a damn if it hadn’t been for Harry. She really ran it.”
Harry is his mother, and she seems to have been something of an elder J.P. Morgan where finances were concerned
...It didn’t take the depression to make a man out of him but it certainly rounded him out.
Toledo Blade. May 2nd 1952
Jean Hagen writes from the East that the personality hits of the Singin’ In The Rain premiere in Pittsburgh were Mr. And Mrs. James P. Kelly. “Everybody fell in love with Gene Kelly’s mom and dad,” states Jean.
Los Angeles Times. July 25th 1954. Hedda Hopper.
When I was a kid in Pittsburgh, my brother and I went to dancing school because my mother – a farseeing woman well ahead of her time and, incidentally, my Inspiration – sent us.
Dance Pauline Swanson 1954
Gene especially likes to have members of his own and Betsy’s family around him…To his small, wiry mother – “She has more energy than any of us” – he still turns for sympathy and counsel. He has done this ever since she urged him to give up a thriving business teaching dancing, and have a try at the big-time in New York. She realised he would hit New York as an unknown, but she also knew he would make it. And if he didn’t, he would always have the studio to come back to. She would keep it going in his absence. Gene’s father is the direct opposite of his mother. The elder Mr Kelly is an extremely gentle man, self-effacing, quiet, easy-going. “A doll man” is what his son says of him. “An angel.”
New York Times. July 13th 1956
Gene Kelly’s father died, Pittsburgh July 12th, in a Pittsburgh nursing home.
Los Angeles Times. November 29th 1956
…He’s off this weekend to visit his mother…
Gene, BBC interview 1974. On his mother: Being an Irish American lady she wanted us to rise to the top and have all the cultural advantages people in higher circles had. She was a lovely woman.
Womans Weekly 1976
My father, James Patrick Joseph Kelly, emigrated to Canada with his family during the potato famine around 1850, and my mother’s family name is Curran, and grandfather Curran came over from Ireland round about 1875
The Spokesman Review. 1983
My father was a traveling salesman – not trained for anything in particular, but a marvellous, big-hearted, lovely man. When he lost his job, he couldn’t make a living at anything else.
Gene. Magazine article possibly 1992 or 1993
I grew up with four brothers and sisters – we had a great childhood with lots of love. And we were a very orderly group. Not that we didn’t fight a lot; we certainly did not live in an aristocratic neighbourhood. A tightly knit family and Irish Catholic on both sides, we never thought of disobeying our parents…It was an old-fashioned bringing up. Their wonderful example has always been with me. Both my parents shared equally in influencing me. But my mother took great care to keep my brother and me dancing.
Gene’s younger brother Fred was instrumental in getting Gene in front of an audience as a young man, so Gene has much to thank him for – and so do we. Gene tells the story in the Edward Murrow TV interview in 1959, and in many other places, of how Fred as a young teenager besotted with showbusiness, was earning good money performing in speakeasies and clubs, escorted of course by the canny Harriet, who firmly believed that Fred would become the ‘famous’ one. Gene meanwhile was doing backbreaking work of tyre-rolling, working on building sites, digging ditches, for far less reward, in order to pay his way through college.
Fred taught Gene some tap dancing and they teamed up to appear on amateur nights and in rough clubs, dancing and doing acrobatic type stunts and vaudeville humour, thus gaining for Gene vital experience and confidence.
Fred of course became quite well known later on, independently of Gene. A bit of trivia which I like - being English and all – is that he taught my present Queen and her sister to dance, when they were children.
In turn of course, Gene helped Fred on many occasions. He recommended Fred to take over from him in his role in The Time Of Your Life, and had Fred work with him in a speciality act in Deep In My Heart.
Movieland. Summer 1946
His modesty is a little overwhelming. He deplores the fact that his brother, a successful dance director in his own right, is constantly referred to as Gene Kelly’s brother.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette. October 30th 1949
Fred…told me the problems of having a famous brother. “I’m the baby of the family, so no matter what I do, Gene or Jim, my other brother, have done it before. I replaced Gene in six road shows and a University of Pittsburgh Cap & Gown show. Every review read, ‘And Fred, like his brother Gene, did well.’ When I took over from him in The Time Of Your Life, the critics who came to see it a second time refused to believe Gene wasn’t still in it…I decided not to take over his role in Pal Joey when he went to Hollywood. He gets into all my notices. Do I get into his? No – MGM wouldn’t allow it!” Fred isn’t jealous of his big brother’s success. In fact, he is proud of him and of all the fabulous Kellys of Pittsburgh.
Saturday Evening Post. July 1950
Theater managers revived a bygone custom called ‘amateur nights’. Hoping to garner some of the prizes the theatres offered, Gene and Fred Kelly worked up a tap act on roller skates. They used the metal-wheeled ones on which they’d coursed Pittsburgh’s sidewalks, although any stage-wise skater could have told them that fiber wheels would have given them more traction and would have diminished the number of times they landed on their rear bumpers. Even without traction however, they did some pretty astonishing back-flips and nip-ups. It was in this hard-bumps school that Gene learned show business.
The Dallas Morning News. June 1974
Back in the early depression years in Pennsylvania, boxing was a ghetto kid’s dream, for fame and easy money. “But an uncle took my brother and me down to the gym and showed us guys who were punched out, talking out of the side of their head. That kept us dancing.”
Fred Kelly, quoted in Rusty E. Frank. Tap! 1994
We always got along great. It wasn’t always that way with brothers…We were never jealous of each other. Gene wasn’t jealous of me. I’ve never been jealous. I’ve always been very proud of him, and he of me. You know, we worked too hard to waste time on comparisons.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette. February 3rd 1996
“I’ve gone through 4 deaths in a year,” said Gene Kelly’s ‘baby brother’ Fred…Sister Louise’s husband Bill Bailey died last May in Pittsburgh, Fred’s wife Dorothy died last March, and sister J’s husband died last year. Brother James had already died a couple of years ago. And now Gene.
“I’m at that age when I hate to open the mail,” Fred said. "But Louise is well in Dotham and J is doing fine in Fort Lauderdale – “She swims, online roller skates, plays bridge, and she’s seven years older than me. But don’t call her, she’ll break up.”
Listed below are some of the dancers and choreographers whom Gene cites as being important for his training, and the formulation of his ideas and his style.
Going Strong, Pat York. A series of interviews with people over 75
Gene: I had several mentors, Berenice Holmes was one. She was a woman I studied ballet with for a couple of years in Chicago. The fellows who inspired me most when I was in the Broadway theatre were John Murray Anderson, from whom I learned so much, and Robert Alton, who not only taught me a great deal about choreography, but encouraged me to reach for my goal, while other people on Broadway thought I was a bit nutty. I worked with George Abbott as a performer in Pal Joey and later, as a choreographer as well as a stage director for Best Foot Forward. Abbott taught me a great deal about timing, and how to relate to actors. He is really a Dean in the school of theatre and I was fortunate to have been one of his students.
Burt Prelutsky. The Secret Of Their Success. 2008.
Gene: In dancing I got inspiration from people in Vaudeville like Dancing Dotson and, of course, Bill Robinson. My brother and I stole a lot of steps from him….But, I would have to say that my chief inspiration was Martha Graham…And when I did the choreography for Paul Robeson’s Emperor Jones, I worked with a modern dance troupe and it was very exciting…It was terrific just working with Robeson.
CLARENCE DOTSON (‘dancing’ Dotson or ‘one-eyed’ Dotson). 1881-1954.
He was a popular black tap dancer who performed on the Vaudeville circuits, He was known for his vernacular dances, The Itch, The Quiver, and Eccentric Tap.
BILL (BOJANGLES) ROBINSON. 1878-1949.
Also known as the King of Tapology. Thought by some to be the greatest tap dancer of all time. He invented many steps and was widely copied (probably by Gene, as he admitted to ‘stealing’ steps from the acts which came through Pittsburgh!) He was famous for his movies with Shirley Temple and others. He had a long and successful career, dancing well into his sixties, and appeared before the King of England, doing his famous ‘stair dance’
GEORGE COHAN. 1878-1942.
Like Gene, a multi-talented artist; playwright, actor, singer, dancer, songwriter, producer, director and author. He wrote many well known songs including I’m a Yankee-Doodle-Dandy, Grand Old Flag, and Give My Regards To Broadway. Gene was happy to be compared with Cohan, whom he admired greatly.
CAB CALLOWAY 1907-1944.
He was one of the Greats of the Swing era. He conducted his own band and performed at the Cotton Club. He made the term ‘jitterbug’ famous. He made many radio broadcasts and did extensive touring in the 1930s and ‘40s He also appeared on Broadway and on the London stage, and appeared in films from Stormy Weather to The Blues Brothers.
Gene and Fred (Kelly) actually worked with him on one occasion, without a ‘face to face’ audition, and getting the job filling in for someone else, before anyone realised they were not black!
Fred Kelly, quoted in Rusty E. Frank. Tap! 1994
The Nicholas Brothers left Calloway in the lurch when they were offered work in Hollywood, so Calloway had to find a black dance act immediately, preferably two brothers…
“…I certainly didn’t know much about the Cotton Club. All I knew was that Cab Calloway’s music was hot, and I wanted to dance to it…We just marched right backstage and asked for the manager..”You’re the Kelly brothers?”…The manager said “Cab…meet the Kelly brothers!”. Cab walked in, took one look at us, looked at his manager, and in a real Amos and Andy put-on said, “Somebody done make a big mistake!”
So he asked us, “Did you know this was an all-black show?” And I said “Yes, but I thought you needed a dance team.” He said, “You don’t mind working…?”…
We…handed the musicians our arrangements. Then one of the guys looked at Cab and he said, “It’ll take us a few minutes to dig some of this. But man, these arrangements are wonderful.”…Gene and I danced...and as soon as it was over, they all stood up and clapped and cheered. That was really something. The guys we were nuts about were applauding us!…We saw the guys from the theatre bring out a ladder to change the marquee: EXTRA-SPECIAL ADDED ATTRACTION – GENE AND FRED KELLY – THE KELLY BROTHERS. That was it. Now we knew we had made it! And, we even got held over with Cab the next three days in Johnstown
MARTHA GRAHAM 1894-1991
She was born in Pittsburgh – they certainly knew how to produce dancers and choreographers! Some things written about her could equally apply to Gene. She revolutionised dance, lighting, stage design, costuming and music with her creative perfectionism. She freed the art of dance by providing a new dance language and new concepts. She opened a school of dance. She had strong political ideals, refusing to attend the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. She danced at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt. She was invited to the Paris Opera and was awarded the Legion D’Honneur by the French government. Gene said of her:
"My chief inspiration was Martha Graham. Although I wasn't attracted to modern dance for myself, she definitely influenced me."
“I was very happy when I got to be friendly with Martha Graham because she approved of what I was trying to do. She went to see my movies and told me which numbers she liked.”
"...I was influenced by Martha Graham and others in modern dance, but they were anti-music. They danced to percussive sound and to poetry. The popular classic ballets were fairy tales. It was necessary to express something more and in stronger terms. That resulted in a revolution in dance."
Los Angeles Times. August 30th 1966
Ironically, two of Kelly’s favourite numbers – one about children’s games and the other with a dog and a statue – were last-minute inserts…”Let’s face it, it was a stinker. However, Martha Graham told me ’Oh boy, I liked those numbers’. She had gone to see this lousy picture because she’s a dance enthusiast. People think she’s a goddess up in Olympus doing the second extension, but she’s a great gal, a hip lady in every way. I don’t care if anybody else saw or liked the picture – it’s enough that she did.
Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman founded a dance school and company in 1928. Like Martha Graham, Humphrey was interested in a new dance vocabulary and style that was ‘modern’, and having to do with the young people of the America in the 20th century. She worked on the fundamental importance of tension and relaxation in the body, the foundation of her own system of movement principles.
Gene said: “I had a few idols who were the pioneers of modern dance, Martha Graham and Humphrey-Weidman, but they had a different outlook from me. I wanted to invent some kind of American dance that was danced to the music that I grew up on: Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin. So I evolved a style that certainly didn’t catch on right away, but I had some good mentors in New York who encouraged me.”
During the mid 1930s, for two weeks every summer, Gene studied in Chicago, which was renowned up until World War Two for its professional dance training in schools such as that of Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky who were said to have liberated ballet from the exacting technique of the French and Italian schools, and taught a vast array of dance traditions. Adolph Bolm was among the teachers. One of his students and his ballerina was:
BERENICE HOLMES, who taught Gene. She took over Bolm's classes when he went to San Fransisco in 1933. She became one of the great teachers of America. She was said to be a kindly and patient teacher. And, as she was young and beautiful, I heard that Gene found her very attractive also!
Gene said: “I studied ballet in Chicago with Berenice Holmes who was a protégée of Adolph Bolm, and I saw that I could work in all kinds of dance, but none of them alone satisfied me.”
St. Petersburg Times. January18th 1985
…Kelly’s ballet education started in the 30s during several summers of training in Chicago with Berenice Holmes. “Berenice Holmes was really remarkable,” Kelly recalled. “She knew how a man could dance.”
Chicago Tribune. January 4th 1970
“I got some of my best dance training in Chicago.” He would attend the Chicago Dance Masters convention in the ‘30s, working at night in North side nightclubs. “The best dance teachers lived in Chicago in the early ‘30s,” he says. He studied ballet with Berenice Holmes, a woman “Who had the ability to do certain virtuoso things that very few women could do.”
Her dance studio was located at 184 West Washington Street. Chicago.
The American Dancer February 1938
Of the relatively few dance personalities in the world today to whom it is given to enrich the future of their art, Berenice Holmes of Chicago is contributing her share…she has been the source of inspiration, of continued faith and encouragement, to hundreds of students and teachers who have studied with her or have seen her in concert. Particularly interesting is the spiritual exaltation that is in so much of her choreography, and which Mrs. Montie Beach described as “being good for one’s soul.” Back of all she does lies significance and the instinctive wisdom all artists possess in creating works that make life more important and develop human beings of unpredictable splendour.
Sculpting is her hobby…One sees in her choreography a gift for molding the human body into forms of beauty…Whatever she does has the ease and freedom of natural sequence…
The petite blond dancer is a person of tremendous willpower. Those who know her are amazed at the varied aspects of her personality. In her Chicago studio one may have lots of fun with her and enjoy the endless gayety of her nature. She is a very happy individual; she loves the movies, loves driving her car…loves having lots of people around her all the time…When discipline is necessary, she is absolute. Her classes are intensely interesting. She works right along with her students…Day after day one sees new things inspired on the moment, exemplifying such mastery over the body as a medium of poetry, that one is thoroughly fascinated. The Bulletin. August 30th 1940 A small platinum bolt, hinging a broken kneecap, makes possible the continuation of the dancing career of Berenice Holmes. Here to attend sessions of the Dancing Masters 57th annual
The petite blond dancer is a person of tremendous willpower. Those who know her are amazed at the varied aspects of her personality. In her Chicago studio one may have lots of fun with her and enjoy the endless gayety of her nature. She is a very happy individual; she loves the movies, loves driving her car…loves having lots of people around her all the time…When discipline is necessary, she is absolute. Her classes are intensely interesting. She works right along with her students…Day after day one sees new things inspired on the moment, exemplifying such mastery over the body as a medium of poetry, that one is thoroughly fascinated.
The Bulletin. August 30th 1940
A small platinum bolt, hinging a broken kneecap, makes possible the continuation of the dancing career of Berenice Holmes. Here to attend sessions of the Dancing Masters 57th annual
convention, Miss Holmes described her comeback after a fall eight years ago in Chicago…Miss Holmes began her dancing career at the age of 5. She has danced before the late Queen Marie of Rumania, has been prima ballerina of the Adoph Bolm ballet and a member of the Chicago Opera ballet. Dance Magazine. March 1944 Berenice Holmes, blonde and exquisite, was prima ballerina with the Adolph Bolm ballet company…When an accident to her knee temporarily laid her up, she started teaching and found she loved it…Miss Holmes has kept up her own brilliant technique and alluring solo dancing. Now heading her own professional company of sixteen dancers…she is winning the praise of critics and public, not only as an exquisite ballerina, but also as an original and delightful choreographer. Dance Magazine. March 1945 This season the Berenice Holmes Ballet added three new ballets to its already extensive repertoire…all choreographed by talented dancer-director Holmes and they vary widely in type…Berenice Holmes, who is one of the great ballet technicians of our time, dances in most of the ballets and has trained a most versatile group to support her.
convention, Miss Holmes described her comeback after a fall eight years ago in Chicago…Miss Holmes began her dancing career at the age of 5. She has danced before the late Queen Marie of Rumania, has been prima ballerina of the Adoph Bolm ballet and a member of the Chicago Opera ballet.
Dance Magazine. March 1944
Berenice Holmes, blonde and exquisite, was prima ballerina with the Adolph Bolm ballet company…When an accident to her knee temporarily laid her up, she started teaching and found she loved it…Miss Holmes has kept up her own brilliant technique and alluring solo dancing.
Now heading her own professional company of sixteen dancers…she is winning the praise of critics and public, not only as an exquisite ballerina, but also as an original and delightful choreographer.
Dance Magazine. March 1945
This season the Berenice Holmes Ballet added three new ballets to its already extensive repertoire…all choreographed by talented dancer-director Holmes and they vary widely in type…Berenice Holmes, who is one of the great ballet technicians of our time, dances in most of the ballets and has trained a most versatile group to support her.
Gene was offered a place with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a great achievement considering his late start in ballet training, but declined because he could not imagine himself being tied to one form of dance expression for the rest of his professional life. He was also honoured, in the mid-1930s, by being asked to do some teaching of tap dancing in Chicago, with the Chicago Association of Dancing Masters, a great compliment for such a young man.
Gene studied Spanish dancing with him in Chicago. He came from Spain with his family, who formed The Dancing Cansinos. They appeared in several films, including (prophetically?) The Dancing Pirate. His niece, Rita Hayworth, joined the troupe aged three. I read that Betty Grable was also related, but do not know for certain. Angel Cansino became a leading Spanish dancing instructor in the United States. I think we have him to thank for Gene’s spectacular Cumparsita dance in Anchors Aweigh, his Spanish dance in the Pontiac special TV show from 1959, and even more to my liking, his short Spanish section in the ‘Fido and me’ dance in Living In A Big Way. Thank you Mr Cansino!!!
He was another of Gene’s excellent teachers in Chicago. One claim to fame was that he was almost killed by the famous dancer Nijinsky when he discovered that his sister, who was married to Kotchetovsky, was pregnant! Perhaps we see now where Gene was taught his predilection for violence!
Gene: quoted in Hirschorn: “I got to know several of my teachers well. A lot of them…were real down-to-earth, even tough guys. There was nothing effeminate about them. Cansino was a little fellow, but strong as a bull…The same for Kotchetovsky. We used to go out and drink together in Chicago and have a ball. They were terrific men, and at the same time their whole life was the dance. They taught me a lot.”
There is a story by Gene on the Pittsburgh page, about how he played truant from school to go see a Fairbanks movie.
Gene, quoted in Going Strong, Pat York. Book of interviews with over-75s.
"When I was a little boy, I went to see Douglas Fairbanks in a picture, The Mark Of Zorro. In the very opening of the picture he was practising with a long whip. A nobleman rode by and Doug accidentally cut off the plume on his helmet. The nobleman rushed in and challenged him to a duel. Fairbanks apologised. All the courtiers who witnessed this were appalled, saying, 'How can you apologise when you were challenged to a duel?' Doug’s reply was 'If you’re in the wrong, admit it; if you’re in the right, fight.' That has remained my motto throughout my life. So good old Dougie gave this piece of wisdom to me, as a mere nine-year-old."
Gene, American Film magazine, 1985
"By far my favorite movie was The Three Musketeers, with Douglas Fairbanks. None of the others could touch it….I loved remaking it. I had the image of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., still fresh in my mind when I made it, even though it was a colour picture, and on a greater scale…I never escaped the influence of Fairbanks. "
Liberty magazine. September 1948
Gene’s ambition was to be another Ty Cobb, until he saw Douglas Fairbanks Sr., in The Black Pirate. “When I saw Doug leaping from balcony to balcony with such ease, I wanted more than anything else to be like him."
Los Angeles Times. November 28th 1985
Vagabond Theatre Fades Out
Owner Tom Cooper recalls…Gene Kelly used to sneak in whenever we showed Buster Keaton films.
American Film 1979. Gene:
Buster Keaton had a great influence on me. A lot of his moves I certainly intuitively copied in doing certain numbers. I know I was thinking of him when I did a dance with a squeaky board and a newspaper. I didn’t look like him, but I often wish I did.
ROBERT ALTON. 1906-1957. JOHN MURRAY ANDERSON. 1886-1954.
Robert Alton was a choreographer/dance director with many Broadway and Hollywood credits during the thirties, forties, and fifties. One scholar described Alton as: “The truest and best representative in our time of the historic qualities of American popular theatre dancing.”
John Murray Anderson was one of the great producers of American musicals. He was responsible for the first all-colour musical picture, The King Of Jazz, in 1930. The New York Times reported: “…[it] reveals this director to be a magician of far greater power than one imagined, even from his stage compositions. This Technicolor potpourri of songs, dancing and fun is a marvel of camera wizardry, joyous color schemes, charming costumes and seductive lighting effects."
Gene had a lot to thank them both for. Back in the early thirties when Gene was involved in the family’s dancing schools (by this time, called ‘Gene Kelly’s Studio of the Dance’) Robert Alton visited Pittsburgh and was impressed by Gene’s work. He told Gene to contact him if ever he decided to go to New York. Gene did just that, in 1938. Alton was working on Leave It To Me at the time, and introduced Gene to Johnny Darrow, who became Gene’s agent. According to Hirschorn, Darrow lost Gene a job by asking for too much money, so Alton offered Gene his first Broadway role as a speciality dancer in Leave It To Me. Alton also introduced Gene to Cole Porter, and they became friends.
Gene’s next role, in One For The Money, was also choreographed by Alton. It was directed by John Murray Anderson, of whom Gene said:
“I learned more about staging a show from Murray than anyone else in the business. I never took my eyes off him. His timing was superb... He could create any mood he wanted through his brilliant use of lighting…he understood about dancing…with Murray, all you saw was the magic and wonderment of the effect…When I went into pictures I tried to adopt his approach to colour… I would say no one has had as great an influence on my work as John Murray Anderson. The biggest compliment I ever had…was his approval of my work on One For The Money…It was to lead directly to my first solo credit on Broadway as a dance director.”
This happened when Anderson suggested Gene for dance director for a new show at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe club. So it might be said that Alton started a trail of events which led to Gene’s marrying Betsy Blair, as he met her while auditioning dancers for the show.
After Gene’s highly successful run in The Time Of Your Life, his big chance came when he was offered the lead in Pal Joey. Alton was dance director. He helped and encouraged Gene to follow his instinct in his characterisation of Joey through the dance.
Alton also worked on Zeigfeld Follies, and assisted Gene on Slaughter On Tenth Avenue from Words & Music, and The Pirate.
From Rudy Behlmen's biography of Gene for Films In Review.
Original document in the Gotlieb Archives in Boston. Gene was asked to look over a short biography written by Behlman. There was a brief mention of Robert Alton and Gene wrote in the margin:
“Kelly never forgets his debt to him and also to John Murray Anderson.”
ARTHUR FREED . 1894-1973.
His birth name was Arthur Grossman. He performed in Vaudeville, staged musical shows during the war, managed a theatre before joining MGM. He was a prolific songwiter, with his partner Nacio Herb Brown. His list of credits is enormous, Check him out on the internet movie database.
Arthur Freed was a huge figure in Gene’s working life. It was he who insisted on Gene’s being given the role in For Me & My Gal, in the teeth of opposition from almost everyone else involved in the making of the film. It was he who persuaded Mayer to then buy up Gene’s contract from Selznick.
Saul Chaplin: "He was easy to work for. You were given the widest latitude to be creative, without his interference. …If he approved of an idea you had that required clearance from the front office because of budgetary or other problems, he fought for it and usually won."
Johnny Green, Head of music at MGM.
Gene by now was the Neil Armstrong of MGM. (1952). He enjoyed great respect and admiration, and in Arthur Freed he had a powerful ally. It was almost a father-son relationship with the father having a near-reverence for the son.
Gene, TV interview 1974.
"We thought very highly of him for a number of reasons. He had been a songwriter so he knew the difficulties and joys of creating…he also was the fellow who said ‘Let’s make An American In Paris.’…The great thing about Arthur Freed was he had an eye for talent, much moreso than the so-called Head of the studio L.B. Mayer, who often took the credit…He fought for us and when we wanted to do something he would try to see that we got it done."
Interview Magazine 1994
The next musical I did with Arthur Freed after For Me and My Gal was Dubarry Was A Lady, which was atrocious. And I told him so. I said, “Arthur, you know, you don’t want to do this.” Meanwhile, he did try other things… And finally, through the influence of a lot of ex-Broadway people like Vincente Minnelli, Roger Edens, Saul Chaplin and Irene Scharaff, we started to do a new kind of musical. Arthur encouraged that: when we’d ask him to bring out new people, he would bring ‘em out.
Betsy Blair. The Memory Of All That: 2003
When L.B. Mayer saw the rushes of For Me & My Gal, and at the insistence of Arthur Freed, Metro negotiated with David Selznick to buy out the rest of his contract with Gene. I give the credit to Arthur Freed, because when Mayer saw Gene in Pal Joey, he said: 'Too short, too sexy, not sympathetic, not for us.' Impertinently I think he was confusing the role with the personality….contrary to L.B. Mayer’s opinion I found my husband very sympathetic…As to Mayer’s other comments, 'sexy' – even 'too sexy' – is good, and 'short' is debatable. Gene was five foot nine.
Jane Ellen Wayne. The Leading Men of MGM. 2006
There was only one quote I found that I thought was good in the book I have been reading, The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz, "Freed was on a roll at the time--three of his last four pictures had grossed over $3 million---and he was ready to try somehting a bit less conventional. So he decided to have Gene Kelly choreograph and direct On The Town, which may have been Freed's single most important decision as an MGM producer." And later ..."although there was no question thatt the governing creative force behind On theTown was Gene Kelly."
For me, Gene and Judy were the perfect screen couple. Alone they were luminous, charismatic, true stars, but together these effects were magnified a hundred times over, they were a magical pairing. I wish so much that they had worked together more often.
They first met when Judy saw Gene performing on stage in New York. She invited him to a party, but they slipped away and went walking in Central Park. I would dearly love to have overheard their conversation. Gene always gives praise to Judy for her invaluable help in making his screen debut a resounding success. (For Me And My Gal). In fact she was partly responsible for his being given the role, which had been earmarked for George Murphy.
Later, In 1950, Gene repaid her kindnesses when he supported her through her role in Summer Stock. She was having huge problems at the time. He was endlessly patient and loving, and so from an unexciting and unimaginative core plot, came the love story of Joe Ross and Jane, and the character which a majority of Gene Kelly fans think of as one of his most attractive and endearing.
Gerold Frank. Judy. 1999
Judy had met Gene…In the Spring of 1939…she had seen Kelly in One For The Money. She simply went backstage, introduced herself to him and said, “I just want to tell you you’re a wonderful dancer.” Kelly, in turn, told her how much he admired her work.
A year or so later he was starring in Pal Joey… Again she dropped backstage, accompanied by her mother Ethel and a retinue of MGM press aides…an MGM aide said, “Mr. Kelly, why don’t you and Miss Garland go out?” It would be good publicity for them both…They were taken to the Copacabana, where they were seated conspicuously about a huge round table…
Kelly, then twenty-eight, and a man of independent mind…took Judy out on the dance floor…Suddenly Kelly said, “This is a hell of a date. It’s just ridiculous…Don’t you trust people? Do they think I’m going to rape you, or what? I feel like I’m in a goldfish bowl.”
Judy stopped dancing. “You’re right,” she said….I’m going to leave them right here Will you come with me, just us?”
Which was exactly what happened…Gene took her to Leon & Eddie’s, on East Fifty-second Street, then several other small gathering places, returned her to her hotel at 3A.M…
Gene: "Of all the actors in Hollywood who had seen me or known me from my Broadway days, Judy was my first booster. I was a very lucky fellow to be selected by Arthur Freed to do my first picture opposite her, and don’t think that she didn’t have a lot to do with that. The greatest thing I remember about Judy…was her kindness. I was a good stage performer but the movies threw me…Judy never mentioned this to me, but very quietly helped me. I’ll never forget how much I learned about movies doing that first picture."
Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Jun 8th 1942
Metro’s all excited about the teamwork of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in For Me And My Gal and is thinking about building them up into a Rogers-Astaire combination.
Picture Show. September 25th 1943
“She is a real trouper, a brilliant actress, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I don’t feel that way because she liked my work on Broadway, you understand. It’s because she’s able to work out another person’s problems at the same time she’s working on her own. You see, it’s a little strange working before a camera when you have only had experience on the stage. Judy knows that – she used to be on the stage herself – and she was very helpful to me.”
Joe Pasternak. Easy The Hard Way 1956
Gene had worked with Judy on his first film. She had been considerate, generous, helpful….and Gene Kelly, a man who knows genius when he is next to it, for he is not untouched with it himself, was more than merely grateful…it took us six months to finish the film. [Summer Stock]. Gene Kelly rates a special mention…[He said] “ I’ll do anything for this girl Joe. If I have to come here and sit and wait for a year, I’d do it for her.”
Gene, quoted in Minnelli, I Remember It Well. 1974
The joy of working with Judy was her great capacity for laughter…when I made a goof, this made her laugh too. She had the movie-wise kid’s knowledge that a scene could be taken over again. Coming from the theatre, I didn’t know. I used to die when I made a mistake. This to Judy – and everyone else – was very funny.
Liberty Magazine. 1976
Gene: Judy wasn’t a dancer but she danced. She was fine within certain limits and it was wonderful when you could get her to go beyond the limits. She was the quickest study I have ever known.
Dallas Times Herald, June 1980
Gene: Judy Garland was the greatest performer we ever had. And she was brilliant. She could do everything. She could pick up a score and scan it once, or scan a whole page of dialogue and she would have it in her head. She was so perfect, so bright, she was wonderful to work with.
Irish America magazine. December 1990
Gene: Judy was a miraculous entertainer and she could learn scripts just by reading them through once. She had no formal education but she could adapt herself to any kind of entertainment...
We loved each other. I was married at the time and we had no so-called love affair, she was a deep friend of my wife and me and we were very very close to her. And I loved her dearly as a friend.
Architectural Digest April 1992
I knew nothing about playing to the camera. It was Judy who pulled me through
Gene: Reflections On The Silver Screen TV interview 1994: It was through her enthusiasm that I did those early scenes well...Judy was so great. In a scene she'd sort of nudge me around and I got more used to the camera.
Golden Greats of MGM. Jane Ellen Wayne. 2002
On Summer Stock: Gene Kelly outdid himself to make sure Judy received love and respect from everyone connected with the film. “We need to be patient,” Kelly stressed…”to understand what she’s been through.”
John Fricke & Lorna Luft. Judy Garland. A Portrait in Art and Anecdote. 2003
Betsy Blair on Judy:
She was nineteen when I arrived in Hollywood at seventeen with my brand-new-husband-about-to-be-movie-star Gene Kelly. Judy had seen Gene in Pal Joey, and she asked for him to play opposite her in For Me And My Gal…We were invited to dinner at Judy and David Rose’s house. She was a movie star; I was a girl from New Jersey…Judy saw no difference between us…she was a joy to know. And Gene always publicly acknowledged her vital help to him on his first film when he was the novice.