John Updike wrote that the movies of Old-Hollywood hoofer Gene Kelly were “cheerfully industrial,” but Kelly’s stuff is wilder and more unsettling than that. Think of the muted end of the Singin’ in the Rain routine—his films contain the recurrent threat that his dancing characters might be arrested for public disturbance. If Kelly’s feverish grin worried movie cops, it made him a kiddie-matinee favorite: he had a Bugs Bunny capacity for babushka drag while still exemplifying dance at its most he-mannish. He was an intellectual snob who loved catering to children, admitting once, “I’ll become something of a whore, if necessary, in my desire to keep them happy—whether I have to wiggle my bottom or stand on my head.” It’s true that his filmography is littered with numbers in which he pinwheels and capers to the delight of little ones—and not-so-little ones. (A grown-up friend of mine recently confessed a wishful little conspiracy theory: she believes Kelly faked his death in 1996 and is planning to show up, aged 100, to twirl her about a soundstage till she’s slaphappy.)
She’s still holding out hope, like those Amelia Earhart survivalists. The rest of us’ll have to settle for Kelly’s body of work: Warner Bros. just released Singin’ in the Rain on Blu-ray, and Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Kelly’s centennial today with a 24-hour marathon of his greatest hits. So step-ball-change to your television and TiVo these four.
ANCHORS AWEIGH (1945)
A cheery sailor comedy costarring a young Frank Sinatra, who’s as lovely and angular as a Cubist gargoyle (he was so scrawny the studio had to pad out the tush of his bellbottoms). According to one biographer, “When it snowed, girls fought over [Sinatra’s] footprints, which some took home and stored in refrigerators.” They really should’ve been fossilizing Kelly’s footprints, of course—as seen in this still-astonishing dance sequence with Jerry the Mouse.
THE PIRATE (1948)
An ideal gateway for Oz lovers. The Pirate begins with Judy Garland reciting from a storybook, her voice throbbing with Dorothy Gale sincerity—but director Vincente Minnelli soon eases her into a movie so hammy and glamorous it makes Kelly’s other films seem malnourished. This is the rare musical with a plot: a satirical potboiler full of clowns, tightropes, and Cole Porter songs (which all sound as if they were scribbled in slow-moving gondolas).
SUMMER STOCK (1950)
Devised during the sustained absences of drug-addled costar Garland, this is the most touchingly shabby of Kelly’s MGM routines—orchestrated by Presbyterian harp plucks, with Kelly dancing with a sheet of newspaper, a creaky floorboard, and a shadow that doesn’t even break off to dance on its own. (You expect this of shadows in movie musicals; it’s their lot.) For kids anxious to mimic the number, get them a fifteen-year-old copy of the Los Angeles Times. Kelly found it was the only vintage of newspaper that’d tear in half exactly when he wanted it to.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
The perfect movie to eat a Tupperware of spaghetti in front of. The title number is sublime but weedy, overgrown now with dreary little myths battling for primacy. (Was Kelly dancing with a 103° fever? Was he dancing in milk? Was he dancing in 103° milk?) Far fresher is Moses Supposes, in which Kelly and bestie Donald O’Connor reduce a speech therapist’s office to ruins via tap dance. The routine will appeal to manic children and may also seem like particularly fragrant payback for those struggling with lisps.