The widow of movie star Gene Kelly sees it as “kind of ironic” that her husband’s drive to redefine the way dance was presented in American film “came out of a negative period.”
Patricia Kelly said her husband’s experience during the Depression made him resentful of how rich people were glorified on the silver screen in general and in musicals in particular.
“That was a difficult time for him – watching his father lose his job,” she said in a phone interview. “He felt a kind of resentment: ‘I don’t want to dance like these rich people. That’s not my world.’ ”
Gene Kelly ultimately developed his own aesthetic, Patricia Kelly said, by linking dance with the athleticism of great sports figures.
“Gene used to say, ‘There nothing more beautiful than a double play,’ ” she said.
That aesthetic is amply on display in “Singin’ in the Rain,” which is the beneficiary of a big, new home video re-release on the occasion of its 60th birthday.
Kelly said she didn’t even know who Gene Kelly was when she was asked in 1985 to work with him on a documentary about the Smithsonian Institution.
“I was this terrifically nerdy Melville scholar who thought she’d go on to become one of the top Melville scholars in the world,” she explained.
Gene Kelly subsequently hired the future Mrs. Kelly to pen his memoirs, and sometime in the lengthy course of the requisite interview process, the pair (with more than four decades separating them) fell in love.
“He was this wonderful blend of erudite gentleman and Pittsburgh street kid,” she said.
Kelly said her late husband was a tough nut to crack as an interview subject.
“Gene himself was as carefully choreographed as anything you see on screen,” she said. “I’d always say I had to marry the guy to get the story.”
Kelly is still working on that book.
She said she doesn’t know exactly how many hours of recorded interviews she has, but she said she was “with him for a little over a decade” and she “recorded his words in some format nearly every day.”
“I have an extraordinary record that the rest of the world doesn’t have,” she said.
In unguarded moments, Kelly said, her late husband revealed that he didn’t really care about being remembered as one of the great movie stars or performers.
But he did want to be recognized for changing the look of dance on the screen.
There are many ready explanations for the longevity of “Singin’ in the Rain,” but it is remarkable in one respect, Kelly said.
We live in an age when every piece of art that is created as an electronic form or preserved in some electronic form lasts forever in several electronic forms.
Sixty years ago, art (at least art of the cinematic variety) was more ephemeral.
“One thing that’s hard for people to imagine 60 years later is that at the time these movies were made, no one ever dreamed that anyone would see them again,” she said. “There weren’t any DVDs; no VHS.
“ ‘An American in Paris’ had come out the year before, and it was assumed to be the sine qua non of movie musicals,” Kelly said. “No one thought there would ever be anything to improve on that.”
What Gene Kelly might observe about “Singin’ in the Rain” today, Patricia Kelly said, is that it “had legs.”
“He used to say to me, ‘I wish I could come back in 100 years and see what people are still watching,’ ” she said.
Some people who worked with Gene Kelly derided him as a taskmaster and a tyrant on set, but Patricia Kelly said anyone who truly cared about the outcome understood his motivations.
“True professionals understood that dedication to craft,” she said. “It’s why we’re still looking at these movies 50 years later. Why is ‘perfectionist’ a derogatory word?
“I have heard him described as a supreme egotist, but that’s not what he was like at home. I saw a man of great humility who never took anything for granted.”
As much as “Singin’ in the Rain” means to most people, it is not the movie that Patricia Kelly finds hardest to watch.
“If you look at ‘Xanadu,’ ” she said – “and normally I wouldn’t recommend that anyone do that – that’s the Gene I met. That’s harder for me to see than ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’
“I never sensed that he was older,” Patricia Kelly said. “He was so young at heart, so vibrant. I know this sounds naïve, but I never stopped to think about the age difference. I don’t think either of us ever dreamed going into it that it would evolve into this tremendous love affair.”