Gene Kelly, The Legacy, An Evening with Patricia Ward Kelly
This loving, lively, lyrical tribute to the actor/dancer who starred in and co-directed with Stanley Donen the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain is perfectly timed to coincide with L.A.’s rainiest weekend in many moons — and with the Academy Awards ceremony. Gene Kelly, The Legacy, An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly is ideal for fans of great hoofing, acting, cinema, song and for anyone who simply enjoys sheer entertainment. Patricia Ward Kelly, who was Gene’s third wife and married to the legend until his 1996 death at age 83, brings her museum and documentarian background to bear on this joyous 2 hour and 20 minute program without intermission.
Her romp down movie and musical memory lane is well put together, with an archival sensibility. For years, the woman who’d worked with the Smithsonian recorded — via audiotape, notes hastily scribbled on cocktail napkins and the like — Gene’s rich recollections of his life and career during the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. The tribute includes ample film clips, recordings of songs sung by Gene minus images and Patricia’s personal memories of the motion picture myth and private man she came to intimately know and love off of the silver screen he had made so glittery.
Perhaps the most profound point the show makes is that the athletic Kelly brought a singular cinematic sensibility to choreography, and helped to put the movement into moving pictures. Kelly has 14 directorial credits on IMDB.com and he often directed dance sequences in his films, which Patricia stresses were all carefully worked out in advance and were not merely spontaneous spurts of inspired motion. She also noted that he was a versatile dancer who hoofed in many styles, from ballet to tap.
The classic clips presented on a big screen above the Pasadena Playhouse’s stage, where Patricia held forth from, demonstrated that, among other things, Kelly’s choreography expressed character, as well as mood, emotion and thought. The meticulously choreoed so-called “alter ego” pre-CGI special effects sequence in 1944’s Cover Girl, wherein Kelly’s dance partner is none other than himself, is a screenic depiction of a dualistic, divided, conflicted self — if not of schizophrenia. (In another projected scene in Vincente Minnelli’s 1948 The Pirate Gene sings a witty Cole Porter lyric that rhymes the Spanish word for girl, “niña,” with schizophrenia, as he promiscuously woos a series of Caribbean senoritas in one sexually dizzying dance number.)
Like all great artists Kelly revealed his inner self through his work. Patricia tells us that a scene in 1950’s Summer Stock with Minnelli’s wife and his Pirate co-star, Judy Garland, was among Gene’s favorites. In it Kelly reveals his deep, abiding love for both show biz and Garland, whom Gene believed, Patricia, tells us, to have been the smartest and sexiest woman in Hollywood. (She also quips that it’s hard for Patricia, who was 46 years younger than her husband, to be jealous of romances, on- and perhaps offscreen, that took place before she was even born.)
In terms of self revelation, Kelly often exudes an onscreen exuberance, whether hoofing opposite the animated mouse Tom in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh or performing the watery title number in Singin’ in the Rain. (Ironically, while in the Navy during WWII, Kelly appeared in and directed the 1945 training short Combat Fatigue Irritability.) In one black and white clip the singin’, dancin’ Kelly stops traffic as he croons that because a woman loves him, he likes himself. Perhaps, like many performers, Kelly craved love and needed the adulation of an audience?
During the tribute, the Pasadena Playhouse’s stage is bare except for a number of boxes — but you’ll have to see this show for yourself to find out the role they play in Gene Kelly, The Legacy. This being La-La-Land, Patricia also dishes and one of her gossipy tidbits deals with 1969’s Hello, Dolly! (which Kelly helmed; a mini-doc of him directing this extravaganza is screened during the tribute). According to Patricia, the feud between co-stars Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand was, Gene said, actually instigated by Matthau. In retaliation, La Streisand can be seen onscreen turning her feathery hat into Matthau’s face. And speaking of faces, Patricia also reveals how her late husband received his facial scar.
I asked Mrs. Kelly if it was true that clean Gene had been progressive and she replied that he had been very progressive and leftwing. (Kelly’s first wife, actress Betsy Blair, whom I’ve also met, was either a dues paying, card carrying member of the Communist party U.S.A. or a fellow traveler of the party.) During her onstage comments Patricia noted that Gene stumped for John and Bobby Kennedy — his fellow Irishmen — when they ran for president.
One thing that the third Mrs. Kelly didn’t mention, but what is obvious in some of the film clips, is that in stark contrast to the dapper Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly adapted an onscreen proletarian persona. He wore blue jeans and T-shirts (before Brando did!) in movies such as 1947’s Living in a Big Way and sailor’s whites in 1949’s On the Town (with its great on location Manhattan shots and Frank Sinatra, who had his own lefty sympathies, once upon a time). No tails, tuxes or top hats for this working class hero, who emerged during America’s anti-fascist Popular Front era.
As we count down to the Oscars, Gene Kelly, The Legacy, is a glorious reminder of the man and genius behind 1951’s An American in Paris, which scored six Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, and was nominated for another two. A good time was had by all who attended this wonderful tribute.
Gene Kelly, The Legacy, An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly takes place March 1 at 8:00 p.m. and March 2 at 2:00 p.m. at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. For more info, go here; (626) 356-7529.