Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Invitation to the Dance

This week's Dance Party stars Gene Kelly, who had a birthday this week, or would have, had he not been dead. Everybody knows Kelly was one of the biggest musical stars of the 40s and 50s. His masculine athleticism set him apart from the other dancing superstar of the era, Fred Astaire. While Fred's work was sophisticated, elegant, and a bit ethereal, Gene's was aggressive, powerful, and more sensual. I doubt the two were ever up for the same part, though Kelly was supposed to play opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade before he broke his ankle and was replaced by Astaire. How different that film would have been with Gene in the lead!

Astaire had the slender, willowy frame of the aesthete, while Kelly was muscular and earthy. Gene learned early in his career that his physique was his fortune, and he was usually dancing in form-fitting costumes which accentuated the use of his body as a tool (Fred, on the other hand, always seemed to leave his gangly body behind when he danced).

Just take a look at the costume Kelly wore in a fantasy sequence in The Pirate. I bet that closet queen Vincent Minnelli had a hand in putting Gene in hotpants and a muscle shirt; this guy would have been at home dancing on a box at a disco in West Hollywood:

There are dozens and dozens of clips out there, of Gene Kelly and his work. He danced with all the big stars of the day (go here to see a very sweet clip with Julie Andrews in a previous Dance Party), but I find it fascinating that his creativity was not limited to human dance partners. When left to his own devices, Gene came up with some of the most unusual dance routines in film history. He danced on skates, and with a mop, a garbage can lid, a goat, and his own reflection (and of course, in one little-known clip, he does some hoofing in a rainstorm).

He danced with the cartoon mouse Jerry, as well as a host of other hand-drawn partners, in his dialogue-free masterpiece, Invitation To The Dance, released in 1956. That film flopped but is now considered an innovative gem; it provided Walt Disney with the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

This week's Dance Party comes from 1950's Summer Stock. In it, Gene Kelly uses a creaky floorboard and a ripped newspaper as both percussion and dance partner. Happy birthday, Gene!