I hate to think what this world would have been like if we had never seen Gene Kelly dancing. I suppose it would have been a world in which we would have had to be content with Ray Bolger. I suppose it would have been a world in which a man could only dance for lack of a brain.
The world had already seen a smart man dancing. The world had already seen Fred Astaire. But Fred Astaire was all cigarette smoke and wrinkle-free charm and white-tie seduction. He was a sleek pair of patent leather Oxfords, gliding across a dance floor in a platinum and cellophane shiny cafe. Gene Kelly, however, came along in the 1940s, when the world no longer believed in cafes. He was all soft leather loafers, white socks and rolled-up, Everyman khakis. He danced on sidewalks and on the roof of the Empire State Building and on the decks of aircraft carriers. He traded spins with Jerry, the cartoon mouse, in a make-believe throne room. He did not dance in order to make dancing look easy. He danced in technicolor, boisterous and raucous. He did not dance dances that helped us escape life; he danced dances that showed how life was supposed to be.
He danced to impress nice girls like Debbie Reynolds and Judy Garland and Kathryn Grayson, but he did not dance to lure them away into dangerous, far-too-grown-up romances. He danced, like a Huck Finn or a Tom Sawyer would have danced, without the need for women, simply for his own delight and for his own pleasing, leaping over tables and chairs and flying, unafraid, unhampered airborne. He danced sexlessly, as if he did not care whether anyone, male or female, was watching. When he danced his best, most often, he danced alone.
Kelly fooled the world into thinking that Astaire was the greater artist. He fooled them because he quit dancing before he was no longer young, before he had to depend on sheer style and paper-thin memories of what he had once been. He fooled the rest of us because he was built like a street punk and because he elected to dance like one. Next to the endless-legged Cyd Charisse, he looked all of 3-and-half feet tall. Yet he danced with her, as he danced with Leslie Caron, not because there was any particular chemistry between them, but because she was beautiful. He danced with her because she was good.
Kelly fooled the world because he never let anybody forget that he came out of Pittsburgh and knew how to play hockey. He let the world think that he was Glenn Ford doing a time step. Kelly meant for the world to take him for granted, as if he were any American soldier dancing dances nobody had ever had to teach him. He let his dances look like so much roughhousing and guy-next-door rambunctiousness. He was a dancing Bill Holden, a dancing Henry Fonda. If the world needed a dancing Olivier, it already had its Fred Astaire.
But Kelly fooled the world because he made them all forget that it was Astaire who had been born in Omaha and who had hoofed his way up through vaudeville. He fooled them because it was Kelly who had the college education. It was Kelly who had studied ballet.
Kelly fooled them because, except when he was dancing, he never seemed quite comfortable on the movie screen. He did not sing any worse than Astaire, but he sang even more voicelessly. When he sang, he sang gracelessly and croakingly, out of the side of his mouth. Singing or speaking, his voice always sounded as if it were likely, at any moment, to break. He could not sell a song in the way that a Fred Astaire could sell one, by bending the line and touching it gently and tailoring it to his wispy-voiced lankiness. When Kelly sang, he sang as if under coercion, as if the lyrics were there merely as dues to be paid before he could get on to the dancing, before he could do the job he had come there to do. I cannot imagine what he must have been like on Broadway, playing the lead in Pal Joey. I cannot imagine what he could have been like, bearing the responsibility of a Lorenz Hart lyric, sharing the stage with the operetta-trained Vivienne Segal.
Standing still, consenting to make his way through the verse and one run-through of the chorus, he was likeable but somehow uneasy. Standing still while music was playing, he was wooden and box-shaped. It was only when he was dancing that he came alive.
It is probably too simple to say that Kelly quit dancing because he got too old to jump over tables any more. The truth is that, by the early 1950s, with Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, he taken the movie musical as far as it could go. He had taken the risk that had never worked in any movie musical before: he had put long, concerted dance numbers on the screen and his audiences had not run screaming into the streets. He had dared to make films in which the dances actually told stories, even if those stories were passed off as fantasies and a lovelorn GI vet’s dreams. He staged dances that did not depend on turntables and fountains and showgirls in tap shoes. He danced dances that tried to be art.
When he risked too much, when he grew too earnest, as he finally did with his high-minded, all-dancing exercise, Invitation to the Dance, Kelly must have realized that he had gone too far. He had only been dancing in Hollywood for a little over a decade, but when the ’50s were over, he did not dance any more. At a time when Astaire, after a quarter century in the movies, was still making TV specials and turning up in cameo appearances on weekly mystery series, Kelly had faded behind the scenes.
He could not be content to play anyone’s father on a TV series. He had made America think it could dance and be airborne and leap over tables. He danced like an America swaggering, full-of-itself and triumphant. It would have been cruel if he had let us see that America grow old.