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Gene Kelly, 1912-1996: His Movies Made Dance More Popular in America


Gene Kelly dances with Shirley MacLaine during the making of the movie "What A Way To Go"

Gene Kelly dances with Shirley MacLaine during the making of the movie "What A Way To Go"



SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: I'm Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, People in America. Every week we tell about a person important in the history of the United States. Today, we tell about actor and dancer Gene Kelly. Experts say he did more than anyone else to make dance popular in America.

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in nineteen twelve. His mother wanted all five of her children to play music and to dance. Gene was more interested in becoming an athlete. Yet he continued his dance lessons even as he became successful in sports. He said later that he never started out to be a dancer. He wanted to play professional baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. But, he said, he discovered girls liked his dancing.

STEVE EMBER: Gene Kelly graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in nineteen thirty-three. He started teaching at a dancing school. He also directed local plays and performed with his brother Fred.

He went to New York City in nineteen thirty-eight. He was twenty-seven years old. After dancing in a few Broadway shows, he got the lead part in the musical play "Pal Joey" in nineteen forty.

Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly

Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly

Critics in New York praised Gene Kelly for his ability to sing and dance, and at the same time, create a believable character on stage. Soon, he was offered work in Hollywood. He went to California in nineteen forty-one.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Gene Kelly's real success in movies began in nineteen forty-four. He and director Stanley Donen created a special dance for the movie "Cover Girl." In it, Gene Kelly appears to be dancing with himself.

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Cameras took pictures of him doing two dances separately. Then the two pictures were placed on a single piece of film. In the movie, two Gene Kellys seem to chase each other up and down steps, threaten each other, and leap over each other's heads.

Gene Kelly said later that he had made a huge discovery in that movie. He said dancing in a movie does not look the way it does on the stage. So he tried to do things differently for the movies. He tried to invent dance movements that were especially created for cameras.

STEVE EMBER: In nineteen forty-five, Gene Kelly first used a method of filming seen often today. He shared the movie screen with a drawing. In the movie "Anchors Aweigh", he appeared to dance with a cartoon mouse. It cost one hundred thousand dollars to film the eight- minute dance.

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Gene Kelly danced first. Then cartoon artists filmed the drawings of the mouse's movements. The two films were combined into one. In the movie, Gene and the mouse are happily dancing and singing together.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Gene Kelly was part of another movie-making first in nineteen forty-nine. It happened in "On the Town." It was the first movie musical to be filmed in a real city. "On the Town" is about three sailors in New York. The movie shows sailors getting off their ship. Then they sing and dance through the city streets.

Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly combined their singing and dancing talents in the movie "It's Always Fair Weather"

Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly combined their singing and dancing talents in the movie "It's Always Fair Weather"

Musicals were normally filmed on sets built in Hollywood to look like other places. Gene said movie company officials at the time thought filming in the real city was crazy, but it worked. It changed movie musicals forever. Gene Kelly called "On the Town" his favorite movie. It opens with the song "New York, New York":

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STEVE EMBER: Some critics say Gene Kelly's greatest success was the nineteen fifty-one movie, "An American in Paris." It won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Gene won a special Oscar for his singing, dancing, acting and creating dances. The movie ended with a seventeen-minute ballet dance. It showed the effect of the city of Paris on the hero. In the ballet, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron danced to George Gershwin's "An American in Paris.”

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Many people think the best Gene Kelly movie of all is "Singin' in the Rain." Experts say "Singin' in the Rain" was the last of the great movie musicals. It was released in nineteen fifty-two. In one part, Gene Kelly sings the title song while he dances. It is considered one of the best movie scenes in history. In it, he shows how happy he is at the idea of being in love. He performs the song and dance while heavy rain falls on a lonely city street.

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STEVE EMBER: Gene Kelly appeared in forty-five movies. He danced and sang. He acted in movies that were not musicals. He produced movies and directed them, too. He also directed musical plays on New York City's Broadway. He appeared on television, winning an Emmy Award for the show "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Gene Kelly receives an Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1984 to replace the one he lost when fire destroyed his home in 1983

Gene Kelly receives an Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1984 to replace the one he lost when fire destroyed his home in 1983

STEVE EMBER: Gene Kelly was in the three "That's Entertainment" movies. In those movies, he worked with another great dancer, Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire was a movie star when Gene Kelly was just starting to dance.

Kelly said he was too big for the kind of dancing Astaire did so well. He said his kind of athletic dancing was better done in pants and a shirt than in the more formal clothes Astaire wore.SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Gene Kelly died on February second, nineteen ninety-six following a series of strokes. He was eighty-three years old. He had been honored many times for his work. He was given awards by the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the American Film Institute. The government of France gave him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. President Clinton gave him the American National Medal of Arts.

People said he had created a new kind of American dance by mixing modern, tap and ballet in an athletic way. Gene Kelly always said he was not that important. He said he really was just a song and dance man.

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STEVE EMBER: This Special English program was written by Nancy Steinbach. It was produced Lawan Davis. I'm Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I'm Shirley Griffith. To see photographs of Gene Kelly, visit our website, voaspecialenglish.com. And you can find us on Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.

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