All hail legendary song-and-dance man Gene Kelly on the 106th anniversary of his birth on August 23. In the history of American film, there were unarguably two great male dancers — Fred Astaire and Kelly. Astaire’s style was romantic and sophisticated, with long lines and elegant movement. Kelly’s style was more athletic — a guy’s guy, if you will — with a scrappy style that set him apart from other dancers of his era.
Kelly appeared to be able to do it all. He could dance, sing, and act in his films, ultimately choreographing and directing them as well. In the course of his nearly four decades on film, he starred in such classics as “An American in Paris” and “Anchors Aweigh,” as well as starring and co-directing the great musicals “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
For his work, Kelly earned two Golden Globe nominations — one for Best Actor for 1951’s “An American in Paris” and a second for directing 1969’s “Hello, Dolly!” He also earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh” and was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1952 “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” He received a Kennedy Center Honors, American Film Institute life achievement award and Cecil B. DeMille Award during his career.
In honor of those brilliant achievements and wish him a happy birthday, let’s take a photo gallery tour of his 12 greatest films, ranked from worst to best.
12. XANADU (1980)
Of course, “Xanadu” is an absolutely ridiculous movie with its classical Greek allusions shoved into the setting of a roller disco, complete with songs by its star Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra. It’s dreadful and couldn’t be worse. But I’ve included it here for one reason — a huge ensemble sequence, as a tuxedoed Kelly, reprising his role as Danny McGuire from 1944’s “Cover Girl,” puts on his skates and leads his roller disco troupe in a circular dance routine.
11. LES GIRLS (1957)
Highlighted by the final film score of Cole Porter, “Les Girls” was Kelly’s last film under his MGM contract and one of his most unusual. Kelly plays Barry Nichols, leader of a dance troupe billed as “Barry Nichols and Les Girls.” Two of those “Les Girls” — Sybil (Kay Kendall) and Angele (Taina Elg) — get into a legal tussle of their affair with Barry, and the film’s plot tells each woman’s point of view followed by Barry’s.
10. THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967)
When I first saw Jacques Demy‘s musical “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” I was swept away in a French fantasy with Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac as artistic sisters in the French seaside town of Rochefort. When Oscar winner George Chakiris showed up as a carnie, I was a little surprised, but when Kelly appeared as a show-business bigwig, I was gobsmacked. Yet, Demy’s confection is so delightfully special that Kelly fit right in.
9. INHERIT THE WIND (1960)
As only one of two non-musical roles that Kelly played on film (the other was in 1964’s forgettable “What a Way To Go!”), Kelly acquitted himself quite believably in Stanley Kramer‘s screen adaptation of the play, “Inherit the Wind,” which dramatizes the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial about evolution. In it, Kelly plays E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald, a newspaper man (loosely based on H.L. Mencken) who influences the trial by bringing in Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to represent Scopes and defend evolution.
8. BRIGADOON (1954)
The film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical had all the right elements — Vincente Minnelli as director and Alan Jay Lerner as screenwriter — but the fanciful story of a Scottish town that appears for only one day every hundred years never really caught fire on film. Still the cast — Kelly and Van Johnson as American adventurers who discover Brigadoon and Cyd Charisse as the Scottish lass who perks their interest are terrific and the Lerner & Loewe score (including Kelly’s “Almost Like Being In Love”) is always worth another listen.
7. COVER GIRL (1944)
Although “Cover Girl” was designed as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth to display her many talents (and she does), Kelly made a huge impression as nightclub owner Danny McGuire. Hayworth’s Rusty has the chance to become a magazine cover girl, but Danny, reluctant to lose his star performer, nonetheless doesn’t want to stand in Rusty’s way, even though she really loves him.
6. THE PIRATE (1948)
For contemporary audiences who think that pirate movies can only be Johnny Depp romps, they may be surprised by this unusual Minnelli musical starring his then-wife Judy Garland as a young Caribbean girl who dreams of being swept away by the legendary pirate Mack “The Black” Macoco. Instead, she is wooed by Serafin (Kelly), the leader of a traveling circus whom she initially rejects, but their chemistry proves to be too strong for her to resist. The Porter score includes the legendary Kelly/Garland duet, “Be a Clown.”
5. IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955)
If “Singin’ in the Rain” tackles the emerging challenge of sound in movies, the same creative team takes on the emerging world of television in this MGM musical whose reputation has grown since its initial release. Once again the heroes are a number of GIs (Kelly, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd) who vow to meet up 10 years after the war, but their lives wind up taking very different paths, and their reunion doesn’t go as planned, winding up being told on this new medium called television.
4. ANCHORS AWEIGH (1945)
Kelly earned his sole Best Actor Oscar nomination for this George Sidney musical with songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Navy sailors Joe Brady (Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Frank Sinatra) are on a four-day leave in Hollywood when they encounter young Donald (Dean Stockwell), whose Aunt Susan (Kathryn Grayson) who wants to work in music and whose goal is to get an audition at MGM. The film is still remembered to this day for the dancing duet between Kelly and Jerry Mouse (of animated “Tom and Jerry” fame).
3. ON THE TOWN (1949)
In this, the best of Kelly’s military-guys-on-the-town films, Kelly stars as sailor Gabey, who, along with his pals Chip (Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin), have 24 hours leave to find romance in the Big Apple. At Kelly’s insistence, “On the Town’s” external numbers were filmed on the streets of New York City, a first for a major studio, and the Leonard Bernstein score gave the city one of the most iconic musical tributes with “New York, New York.”
2. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
This is the most honored film of Kelly’s career, winning six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Inspired by George Gershwin‘s orchestral composition, Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an expatriate living in Paris after World War II in hopes of becoming a successful painter. Jerry becomes enamored of a young French girl, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), who is initially turned off by but is inevitably attracted to Jerry, and in a bravura 17-minute ballet sequence, they dance together to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”
1. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
Although well-reviewed upon its initial release, Kelly & Stanley Donen‘s “Singin’ in the Rain” has only grown in stature in the intervening years, with the American Film Institute in 2006 naming it the greatest movie musical of all time. Dealing with the awkward transition in Hollywood from silent pictures to sound films, the musical focuses on debonair movie hero Don Lockwood (Kelly), who makes the transition easily. Not so his squeaky-voiced on-screen love interest Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whose voice the studio is forced to dub with that of ingenue Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). When Don begins to fall for Kathy in real life, Lina will just not have it.