By David Reiss, PanAm Clipper, August 1980
Gene Kelly swings into the room with a self-described "face as familiar as the label on a can of Campbell's soup." The legs still
spring, the eyes crinkle, the husky Irish voice lilts, and you struggle to remember that this man is 68 years old; that the majority of the
civilized world grew up being entertained by him. If the word "legend" springs to an awestruck mind, don't let it spring to your lips or
Kelly will shout out with laughter. "Nonsense!" he'll say. "That's wonderful for the ego, but wait 50 to 100 years, then we'll see about
Gene Kelly, son of James Patrick and Harriet Kelly of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has done it all in show business. When the word
"dancer" comes up, Kelly and Fred Astaire are the names that most of us think of as the very best popular hoofer of the 20th century.
Kelly's touch of the common man mixed with a dollop of "All-American Boy" assures him legendary status among a vast numbers of
happy moviegoers. But in addition, he has been an actor, singer, choreographer, producer and director for stage, screen and
television. All those credits have been amassed during a career that began professional in 1938 in the musical 'Leave It To Me' and
continues today, 42 years later, as his latest film, 'Xanadu', prepares to open nation-wide. Surely he'd accept phenomenon status even
if he won't accept legendary.
The legend has verged on the mythic of late. Kelly has been less visible during the last ten years than at any time of his career. I was
bemused to realized that I, a journalist and film buff, didn't know why. I began to think back on what I really did know about Gene Kelly
aside from his work. I seemed to remember a stormy marriage to actress Betsy Blair, pictures of a beautiful daughter and vague,
fan-magazine rumors of him being something of a dashing ladies man. That was all the mind could dredge up in the way of personal
detail. So I was surprised and saddened to learn that his second wife, Jeanne Coyne, had died in 1973, leaving him with two children,
Bridget, now 16, and Timothy, now 18. He deliberately limited his career since then to be a father and mother to his brood. "To direct a
film takes two (years). I felt I had to be home for the children's sake."
Throughout the past ten years of child-rearing, though, Kelly has never lacked for film offers. It's just that he found them hard to accept:
"If I got the greatest script in the world to act in or direct, and it ment leaving the kids for a year, I wouldn't do it," he says firmly but not
Now that the children are teenagers, Kelly has began to allow himself more freedom to work. 'Xanadu' is his first full-scale screen
work since 'Forty Carats' in 1973, and it is a film he chose carefully. "Xanadu was made here in California," he says, "and I left every
morning and came home every night like a banker - so it didn't interrupt the routine of my family life. Most films today are shot on
locations around the world, and a film shot entirely in Hollywood is hard to come by."
The film that brings him back to the screen is a light hearted fantasy in which a Greek muse, played by Olivia Newton-John, descends
to Earth to help artists and musicians, one of them played by Kelly, fulfill their dreams. Kelly was attracted to the role in part because
he would allow to play a man his own age. (For most of his career he has been required to play a younger version of himself -
sometimes as much as 20 years younger than he was at the time of the filming.)
He initially stipulated that he absolutely would NOT dance, but his resolution apparently dissolved under very little pressure. As the
film progressed, an idea came up for a dance that Kelly felt was reasonable and logical. So dance he did.
But if the prospect of a Kelly film without a Kelly dance seems odd in retrospect, not discussing dance with him in an interview would
be like not discussing art with Miro if one had the chance. Kelly defines dance as "moving in rhythm". "I've been doing it most of my life
with great joy and great love - most of the time, " he adds wryly, recalling, no doubt, the years of long, arduous and sometimes painful
work that go into the training of a professional dancer. Despite the grueling labor involved, Kelly says he enjoyed movement for it's
own sake since childhood. "I used to run for miles just to feel the wind on my face," he remembers. "Part of dance is that kind of
expression. I had a friend who always said that dance is the first art, the primal art, because before man could talk, he could move. I'm
incline to agree."
Kelly's thoughts on dance should not be taken lightly; he has had more than a little influence on the dance scene. His unique, rugged,
American-melting-pot style did more to legitimize the male as dancer to US audiences than anything before or since. Kelly took the
male dancer out of tights and velvet jackets and put him in blue jeans and sweatshirts. But it wasn't until he was in his late 20's that
Kelly produced his own, individual Gene Kelly style. "I got a late start for a dancer, but I don't regret it," he says now.
Part of that style was, of course, his recourse to the music of popular US composers-men like George Gershwin, Cole Porter and
Irving Berlin. Kelly always used it to brilliant effect. Not that he boasts of his vocal achievements; the pop songs he sang were always
just a bridge between dialogue and dance. "I couldn't do much more [than that] with my little Irish whiskey tenor," he laughs. But he
believes in the real value of popular music and cites playwright Noel Coward's line about the "potency of cheap music". "It is very
potent," says Kelly. "It really hits the audience. I use it unashamedly and I love it."
Audiences have loved it too, and to some extent have forced Kelly, like many other stars, into repeating s stereotypical role. He has
broken the mold now and then-notably in Inherit The Wind, in which he played a cynical reporter, and The Guardsmen, a Ferenc
Molnar comedy-but his best known work has been in popular musicals. Kelly denies that all his efforts will remain famous. He finds
many of them dated today. "There's one, though," he says, "that I'll bet will never be dated, and that's Singin' In The Rain." It's not his
favorite film, but he dose agree that it seems to be an audience favorite.
The film he most enjoyed was The Three Musketeers. "I had fun on that one because [I felt] like a kid doing cowboys and Indians-with
plumes! And besides, setting up the duels was much more fun-and less rigorous-than doing dance numbers." Kelly isn't the only one
who had fun: Musketeers was the most popular film he ever made and is still showing around the world.
Clearly, he was a man who loved his work, but I felt compelled to ask, "Is there anything you've wanted to do and didn't get to?" Kelly
laughed uproariously and fired back: "That you could print?" Sobering, he reflected for a minute. "Yes, a few things, I wanted to do
Cyrano as a musical and MGM wouldn't buy a leading man with a long nose. And I wanted to be loaned out to other studios to do
'Guys and Dolls' and my Broadway hit. 'Pal Joey', but MGM had been burned when they loaned Clark Gable to Columbia for 'It
Happened One Night', so they wouldn't loan anyone out after that."
Kelly refused to join in with my cluck-clucks about how terrible the old studio system used to be. "MGM wasn't so bad," he said.
"Everyone accepted being indentured servants as part of the system-like ball players before the free-agent system. When actors
defied the wishes of the studios, they didn't get fired or put on suspension. We were listened to very civilly. Every system has its
Kelly feels films are in trouble today. Only 30 percent of the public goes to the movies, and what that 30 percent sees is expensive to
produce. Only the huge successes make money, the rest are a total or near-total loss. The producers of yesteryear may have had a
leg up on their present-day counterparts because they had more products to offer and more theaters to screen them in, but Kelly
thinks that they were more in love with the film business. He suggests that it is possible that more executives today like attractions
and perks the business offers, but not the film-making itself.
Kelly's mildly acerb views on modern film haven't dampened his chances with studios or independence a bit. Scripts and offers have
continued to pour in over the years. Whether or not 'Xanadu' is successful is not terribly important to Kelly's career. He notes that
romantic leads come his way less frequently as he has grown older, but parts for older men as increased.
This should not lead the idle reader to assume that he is out of shape, however. To be sure, true dancer and athlete that he was and
is, Kelly hates working out. Instead, he plays tennis, and volleyball with his kids. "They're getting better than I am, but I have to face that,
I guess." he laughs. His only other hobby is reading, to which he devotes three to four hours a day when he's not working; when he's
busy, the books and Sunday New York Times pile up at home. "Keeping up with the world takes too much time away from fun reading.
We're all going back to collage again," he offers wryly.
At least one aspect of change in the world today is no news to him, however. He claims always to have been champion of women, but
admits he has gained an even greater respect for the role of mother since becoming a single parent. "Maybe I'm just starting to grow
up myself," he smiles. He remembers that when he first came to Hollywood, women couldn't do anything, but men could do
everything. "I do mean everything," he laughs. "I don't have to mention the swashbucklers who proved it." Nor was vague or nonexistent
social status the only problem for women. Kelly feels women always had literally the toughest job making films, enduring, among
other things, all that early morning make-up routine while men were still in bed.
Progressing cautiously toward a discussion of equal rights, Kelly states, "I think it's ridiculous to fight about the Equal Rights
Amendment; it's a silly argument. Women should have equal rights, and it should be put down on paper."
Today, the frustration that confronts all dancers as they grow older affects Kelly. "Just as you get to know your trade, your body stops
working properly." He will, fortunately, keep his brain and talent as an actor, choreographer, director, producer and, limited, dancer. "I
have three scripts on my desk right now that I have to choose from in a hurry."
Kelly is a legend whether he wants to be or not, and, fortunately for the rest of us, one still at work. He's aware that he had a lucky
life-"lots of adventures, lots of laughs"-and that his continued appeal to the mass audience is remarkable. "I wish I could thank the
public for being so nice," he says pensively. "They've kept me in business for a very long period. Even when I do a guest spot on
television, I get letters that say, 'It's nice to see you again,' and there's never been any way to say thank-you for that." It could be that the
chance to see the all-American hoofer on the screen again is thanks enough for Kelly fans.
(c) 1980 Zeff/Davis Publishing Co.
The following is an extract from a more detailed Q&A Gene Kelly interview by the same author for
a different magazine called 'Premiere Magazine' (Vol. Two, Issue 4, Feb.1981):
Q: You haven't done a film in quite some time. Why all of a sudden did you decide to do XANADU?
A: Well, it was a personal choice. A film usually takes a year out of your life and if you're directing, it's two years. Since becoming a
widower I just had to be at home for my children who were very young when my wife passed away. Being lucky enough to be here in
the center of all the television activity I've managed to stay active. XANADU was made right here in Los Angeles. I was able to leave in
the morning and come home at night everyday just like a banker. So it didn't interrupt the routine of our lives. Most films now pretty
much spread out, a lot of them done on location. It's hard to find a film that stays in Hollywood.
Q: But why XANADU?
A: I liked the idea of it. I liked the juxtapostioning of the parts. I was playing a man my own age. Most of my life they've been asking me
to play myself twenty years younger, which is, I guess, a compliment, but, nevertheless, it felt very comfortable for me to play my own
age. I liked the idea of trying to make a film using popular music of today and yet trying to do a fantasy. I enjoyed making it and working
with the young people who made it. The choreographer was good and the people I played with were very refreshing.
Q: Do you see a return to musicals?
A: Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.
Q: Would you like them to make a comeback?
A: If they make a good one, I'll like it. If they make a bad one, I groan. There just not as meny musicals made now. And with the ones
that do get made there's a tendency to try and capture the youth market. A lot of them are below my mental age level, but I think you'll
find that the case with most adults over the thirty-five. So, since youth are the one's buying the tickets, the movie producers could care
less about the people my age. We're generally television watchers. I often wonder if I weren't in the movie business if I wouldn't have
become a television watcher too. I don't know.
(c) 1980 Premiere Publication, Inc.
POST SCRIPT: This same issue had a short interview with Dean Pitchford who wrote 'Fame' and would later do
'Footloose'. The following is an interesting extract from this piece:
One thing that doesn't work, in Dean's opinion, is the practice of creating a soundtrack album and then writing a movie to go around
the soundtrack. "The success of the album is almost always tied to the success of the film, and how well the film incorporates the
musical imagery. I don't think, except in rare cases, you'll find an album having a success of it's own outside a bad film. The glaring
exception is XANADU, but that's due, in no small part, to the marketability of Olivia Newton-John, ELO and Cliff Richard."
Later in this same article, Dean had just finished his first musical screenplay.