“Gotta dance, gotta dance!” is the musical refrain Gene Kelly repeats over and over again throughout “Broadway Rhythm” in Singin’ in the Rain. It’s a good thing Kelly let himself and others he was directing dance in continuous, flowing, single-camera takes of mesmerizing movement. Because he possessed the discipline and artistic vision to allow dances to unfold in real time, rather than be fragmented by rapid cuts and close-ups, Gene Kelly was able to create films that represent the pinnacle of the golden age of American movie musicals.
To celebrate Kelly’s centenary–he was born on Aug. 23, 1912–this week the Doris Duke Theatre is screening three of his greatest film musicals: On The Town (Wed, Dec. 19, at 1 and 7:30 p.m.); An American In Paris (Thu., Dec. 20–Fri., Dec. 21, at 1 and 7:30 p.m.); and Singin’ in the Rain (Sat., Dec. 22, at 1, 4 and 7:30 p.m.)
On The Town (1949), the movie adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical about sailors on leave in New York City, was the first musical feature film to be shot on location. Kelly co-directed it with the then-25-year-old Stanley Donen and co-stars with the then-gaunt and limber Frank Sinatra.
An American in Paris (1951), a delightful showcase of Gershwin tunes, won a Best Picture Oscar and was masterfully directed by Vincente Minnelli. The great Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds join Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a musical spoof of the early days of talking pictures. Directed by the Kelly-Donen team and choreographed by Kelly, it is considered by many to be the greatest film musical of all time–and for good reason.
That’s because Kelly and Donen paid equal attention to the filmic and musical aspects of Singin’ in the Rain. The seamless interplay between the music, the dancers, the camera, the set and the costume design is stunning. In no other movie musical, before or since, do the elements work so well together.
Technically, Kelly and Donen do cut within their dance sequences, but only to introduce a new character, location, or plot detail. The rhythm of a sequence is not determined by the editing, as it is in an MTV music video, but by the dancers themselves. And the dancers are always filmed from head-to-toe, showing their entire instruments and, thus, the instruments of the choreographer. The art of dance on film is the dynamic of movement through space, not movement through fragments of time. Gene Kelly was the master of the former.
The eventual deconstruction of dance on film through rapid-fire edits and close-ups of body parts killed the classic Hollywood musical genre. The trend was started by some very talented people; Bob Fosse, himself a choreographer of Kelly’s caliber, made the editor the star of All That Jazz. MTV was the final nail in the coffin. In 2002, Chicago was the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar since Oliver! in 1968. Did this mark the return of the Hollywood musical? Sadly, no. Chicago was but a well-produced, feature-length music video. (I’ve heard Catherine Zeta-Jones really can dance, but you won’t be able to tell by watching this film.)
Ironically, the last glimpse of Gene Kelly-style greatness was in the last work of the man who, arguably, created the MTV dance music video genre. Near the end of the documentary This Is It, Michael Jackson begins playfully busting moves to “Billy Jean” during a break in one of the rigorous rehearsals for the concert tour that would never be. Except for cutaways of Jackson’s back-up dancers hooting and hollering, this amazing, off-the-cuff dance unfolds in a single shot, in real time.
Yes, Michael Jackson, at age 50 and days before his untimely death, could really dance. Thank God the editor had the good sense to let it be.