#ClassicFilmReading: He's Got Rhythm: The Life and Times of Gene Kelly by Cynthia & Sara Brideson

Buckle up, friends, we're talking Gene Kelly today!


This is my latest review for Raquel's #ClassicFilmReading challenge, and the first book I've read this summer that isn't a first-person recounting of the person's life. Let's get into it!

Here's the thing about Gene Kelly: he made it all look so cool. Show me someone who isn't mesmerized by the 'Singin' in the Rain' routine and I'll show you a liar. He made dancing look fun and easy and light and athletic but when you really examine the movements, how the hell did he do it all? 

From Gene's mouth: "I knew I couldn't stay with straight classical ballet. I had to create something of my own... I had to express manliness and strength and Cokes and hot dogs and football and basketball and jazz. You can't do it with a port de bras." 

Funnily enough, Gene was brought to MGM not to be a dancer; Mayer wanted him to be the next Fredric March. Not that he didn't have the chops, but we're all that much richer because Gene was allowed to be Gene Kelly and wasn't forced into becoming the next Fredric March. Who could? 


What I love about this biography by Cynthia and Sara Brideson is how comprehensive it is. It's a total retelling of the life and times of Gene Kelly with a very thorough overview of his career; from his early life in Pennsylvania to his earliest attempts in Hollywood and New York; then his success in New York; his move to Hollywood and then his stardom and global domination as he began to focus on Europe.

The Brideson sisters are very engaging writers here, and punctuate their biography with contemporary sources to their subject. Gene's career is told as much through their lens as it is through what was being written about Gene in movie magazines or reviews. And when the story takes place against the wider landscape of the world, like the HUAC hearings and his then-wife's 'questionable' politics, they explain the context. 


I loved the deep dives into some of my favourite films, like The Pirate and Cover Girl and It's Always Fair Weather and On the Town (plus An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, don't worry). It was fun to read about what went in to the making of all these films; I always enjoy reading actor biographies like this, where you learn just how involved it is making any particular film rather than just 'Next, they made Film X which was released on Day Y and earned Z dollars at the box office before jumping in to their next project.'

I also loved reading about his home life. By all accounts here he was a dedicated father and husband and was loyal to his family and friends. Plus, he lived in the same home nearly his entire life once he moved out to Hollywood, and that's pretty wholesome. The sources used extensively here are his first wife Betsy Blair and his three children: Kerry, Tim and Bridget, so it's not just the story of a myth, it's the story of a man. 

But. 

But then you get to the parts where his mercurial temper shines through and you realize: 


gif by me

Because Gene was and could be the temperamental creative genius; the man who was talented, no doubt, but who got a pass because his films were hits and he was at the top of the food chain. 

And nothing against Gene Kelly because I do adore his movies (and I even liked Invitation to the Dance so maybe my judgement here is questionable), but I'm so tired of the temperamental male artist rising to the top unquestioned and unchecked and applauded for getting there despite the behavior they showed along the way. As an example: if you read my review of June Allyson's autobiography earlier in the summer, you know it was basically a take down of Dick Powell.

But like, some of the stories in here? Big yikes. 
  • He bullied Kathryn Grayson on the set of Anchors Aweigh by tripping her to the point that she had to grab him by the necktie and yank it tight until he was screaming at her to stop before he stopped teasing her. 
  • He yelled at Debbie Reynolds during rehearsals for Singin' in the Rain to the point that her feet bled and she was found sobbing under a piano by Fred Astaire. She seemed to have forgiven him and thanked him for pushing her, but Gene is quoted as saying that he couldn't believe she'd still talk to him decades later. 
  • He badgered Esther Williams about her height and her acting capabilities during the filming of Take Me Out to the Ball Game but she dished it back to him. She spread the rumor around MGM that she had severe scoliosis from having to hunch over working with Gene. 
  • And there was talks of a water sequence in the film but Gene refused, and when Esther quipped, "Are you sure it isn't because you don't know how to swim?" he replied, "I can swim, smart ass." 
  • When Leslie Caron cut all of her hair off for An American in Paris, Gene told her, "They fire girls for less than that, you know." 
  • He also showed Leslie Caron a retrospective of his movie dances and she said, "What tremendous fun you must have had!" to which he replied, "Fun?" and then dressed her down for thinking that it had all been so easy. Of all the leading women, she seems to have had the best relationship with Gene, but still. My God. 
The man once even broke his ankle because he stomped his foot too hard in a fit of anger over losing a volleyball game. He was disappointed when man landed on the moon in 1969 because it took away from the moon's romance. That's a real sentence in this book. 

He could be bullying and temperamental (the terrible stories of working with co-stars also include the way he treated Frank Sinatra and Donald O'Connor) and minimizing of others' contributions (consider that close friend and co-director on several films Stanley Donen didn't have many kind words for him decades later). 

So how do you reconcile this attitude when it comes from the same man who made so many wonderful movies and whose contribution to cinema indelibly changed it? Where are we without Gene Kelly's musicals or his athletic dancing? 

And I recognize that this is a hard opinion to have when Old Hollywood was dominated by them all; I don't know. Because I try to avoid actors like this when I'm watching modern fare. Give me a dozen Greta Gerwig directed movies before I have to sit through another Bradley Cooper directed movie. Let me watch Margot Robie in literally anything she wants to make before you make me watch a second of a Ryan Reynolds movie.

I don't have the answers. I'm not sure I even know how to properly ask the questions. Is it enjoying art for art's sake or does it taint it when you peek behind the curtain? (This existential crisis brought to you by me having just read that Hollywood Reporter article about the attempt to uncancel Fredric March following fresh evidence that supports him.) Let me know your thoughts.
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One more book for this summer's #ClassicFilmReading challenge: Hope: Entertainer of the Century by Richard Zoglin. Stay tuned for that review in September!

Comments

  1. Thanks for your review! I have this one but haven't dived in yet. I heard that Gene Kelly was temperamental but those anecdotes you shared (I've only heard the Singin in the Rain one) are eye-opening.

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