I’ve had Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s biography of Gene Kelly on my shelf for way too long, and if this pandemic has done anything it’s that I have no excuse not to sit down and read it. Kelly’s an interesting figure in Hollywood. He never had any scandals associated with his name, there aren’t grand conspiracy theories about him. In the world of Old Hollywood that should make for a relatively boring book.
He’s Got Rhythm has to be the definitive text on Kelly, deconstructing every facet of his life with a solid mix of first-hand personal accounts and written material. Compared to other Hollywood hoofers Kelly wasn’t born in a trunk. He became the pride of Pittsburgh with his family, working in the Kelly dancing school at a young age. What the Bridesons do best is analyzing Kelly not solely through the lens of being an actor or director, but as a dancer.
One of Kelly’s biggest desires was to showcase dance as an example of athleticism, and the book explores how important it was for him to illustrate that dancing was a sign of his masculinity. A brief discussion of Kelly’s tendency to make homophobic jokes does acknowledge the man’s flaws – and certainly indicative of a different generation – but further brings home the point of why it was so important for him to parlay dancing with masculinity.
It’s interesting because, so often, biographies often lay out the bad elements of a person’s life without providing any context, more content on throwing out the salaciousness. Here, everything is laid out in terms of why Kelly was the way he was. Sometimes this reads as proof of Kelly’s “what you see is what you get” mentality, and could read as simplistic, but Kelly was that guy.
The way the Bridesons write there’s a lot of discussion about dancing and influences, and once Kelly goes to Hollywood there’s an equally heavy examination of him as a director. It is a great education into filmmaking and the history of dance but it can read as just that: educational. It’s not that the way it’s written is dry, there’s a general tone of looking at dance to show how Kelly was different that can read as teaching, as opposed to recounting things.
The more fascinating pages are in looking at Kelly’s relationships. The actor was notoriously private and one can only imagine the research involved in finding new things to say about his marriages. In the introduction there’s mention made to Betsy Blair’s unpublished memoirs which, no doubt, aided in telling about Kelly’s first marriage. Kelly’s complexity as a human comes through in these sections, detailing his and Blair’s early relationship which eventually crumbled due to her growing adulthood (he knew Blair as a child).
In-between all that are looks at Kelly’s filming of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), An American in Paris (1951), and other favorites. If you’re only going to read one book on Gene Kelly, it’s hard to think of anything better than this one.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.