Gene Kelly for Time LIFE Magazine, 1944.

Why Gene Kelly Gets Me All Hot and Bothered

The classical Hollywood star represents a complicated form of heterosexual masculinity largely absent in cinema today.

Aside from my spouse, four guys elicit from me feelings of sheer elation. Two are deceased, one resides in the U.K., and one begs for food every morning at 6:35 AM.

William Shakespeare and Colin Firth occupy two of these positions. My cocker spaniel, Baxter, is the hungry fellow. The fourth is dancer/choreographer/director extraordinaire and star of MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Gene Kelly.

I have taught and have seen Singin’ in the Rain multiple times, so several scenes come to mind when I hear the title mentioned: Donald O’Connor’s trying his damndest to entertain the viewer with “Make ‘Em Laugh,” Gene Kelly’s dancin’ and singin’ in the rain, and the colorful spectacle that is the “Broadway Melody” number.

But there’s one shot I look forward to every single time I watch the film. It’s random. It’s not funny. It’s not part of a song-and-dance number. Honestly, it’s not all that remarkable. But I am smitten and elated every time I see it.

The Money Shot

My favorite shot in Singin’ in the Rain falls about 70 minutes into the film — after Kelly’s iconic titular number and after Lockwood (Kelly), Cosmo (O’Connor), and studio producer R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) agree to adapt the ill-fated “talkie” The Dueling Cavalier into the musical The Dancing Cavalier.

The shot begins with an extreme close-up of a microphone and dollies back to reveal Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) dubbing the song “Would You?” for the shrill-sounding Lina Lamont (trivia: Reynolds was actually dubbed here by singer Betty Noyes).

Then, the camera pulls back further to reveal Cosmo’s conducting a full orchestra.

After that, it slowly pans to the right, from Cosmo and Kathy, to Kelly’s Lockwood who watches the performance.

Now, just a small dolly forward, and there you have it: the one shot of Singin’ in the Rain that gets me every time:

As Don Lockwood, Gene Kelly rests his upper body on a baby grand piano and stares adoringly at Reynolds’s Kathy Seldon. The glamorous three-point lighting, Kelly’s olive complexion, and the use of shallow focus separate the star from the orchestra playing in the background.

At this point, I don’t think of Kelly’s toupee or that less-than-sexy jacket he’s sporting (which he also wears in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, btw). It’s just Gene/Don and me, with the former looking affectionately at me in the manner he’s looking at Kathy.

The shot continues for a few more seconds. It pans left as Don walks in front of Kathy, and then it centers all three players in the frame, with Don still gazing tenderly at the girl who “was meant for him.”

Why All the Fuss? An Initial Reaction

I rarely cry during movies or television shows. I don’t swoon over couples in most romantic comedies. I’m normally not the spectator who gets attached emotionally to her moving pictures, at least not in the lovey-dovey sense. But a handful of male stars and films out there can affect me in such a manner — for example,

  • Colin Firth in Love Actually (2003)
  • Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
  • Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary: Edge of Reason (2004)
  • Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Okay, Colin Firth in almost anything, including A Single Man (2009) in which he (heartbreakingly) plays a gay widower on the path to suicide.

Right back at’cha, Mr. Firth.

Evoking similar feelings in me is that piano shot of Gene Kelly from Singin’ in the Rain. [1]

So why? Why do such images of Gene Kelly (or Colin Firth) move me in this manner, but I get nothing from Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal (2009), John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Mel Gibson in What Women Want (2000), Hugh Grant in Notting Hill (1999), or Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (1993)? Or turning to classical Hollywood, why do I remain mostly unaffected by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939)?

Gene Kelly. Image: Chinomatography.

First, a visceral reaction to this question is that I find Gene Kelly physically attractive. In brief, he’s hot.

Second, I have an interest in Kelly that I do not with, say, Ryan Reynolds, Mel Gibson, or Clark Gable. While each actor/star may be good-looking and may perform well onscreen, none fascinates me in the way that Kelly does, which leads me to my third response.

Third, I experience such pure delight when I see Gene Kelly because I am attracted to his talents — his dancing ability and choreographic skills as well as his innovations in staging and cinematography. Although a perfectionist and evidently hard-nosed on (and off) the set, Kelly is gifted, ambitious, and brilliant — and it shows. [2]

Digging Deeper: What Gene Kelly Represents

But again, these three answers are the easy way out. After all, stars function as much more than mere objects of attraction and/or lust. As Richard Dyer explains in his books Stars and Heavenly Bodies, stars or celebrities:

  • are ideological texts on which viewers project their desires
  • reinforce dominant cultural ideas about sex, gender, race, religion, politics, etc.
  • embody types (e.g., John Wayne as “the Good Joe,” Katharine Hepburn as “the independent woman”)
  • compensate for qualities lacking in our lives and “act out aspects of life that are important to us.” [3]

Therefore, a more analytical response to why I am enchanted by and attracted to Gene Kelly — and that brief (sexy) image of him from Singin’ in the Rain — should take into account what he reinforces, what he embodies, what he mirrors in life that is important to me.

If that is the case, then I likely feel this way about Kelly not only because I find him physically attractive, but also because he represents a complicated form of heterosexual masculinity that is largely absent in cinema today.

Specifically, Gene Kelly — in his heyday — fits traditional conventions of American masculinity. He is athletic; his figure is muscular, solid, and agile. Moreover, his characters (and Kelly himself) wear conventional mannish garb: sweaters, blazers, T-shirts, khakis, and loafers.

Additionally, his screen characters (and he personally) always get the girls. As well, Kelly’s onscreen romantic dances with Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron, for example, exude intense (hetero)sexuality.

“Sex” in Singin’ in the Rain. Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly. GIFS from Tumblr.

At the same time, Gene Kelly and his star image challenge conventional representations of masculinity. For example, he frolics about the screen in sailor hats (On the Town and Anchors Aweigh). He wears “Daisy Dukes” and pole dances (The Pirate). And many of Kelly’s dancing partners are not women but

  • children (An American in Paris),
  • inanimate objects (the newspaper/squeaky board in Summer Stock),
  • (male) cartoons (Anchors Aweigh, Invitation to the Dance),
  • male costars (Cosmo in Singin’), or
  • Kelly himself (Cover Girl, It’s Always Fair Weather).
Gene (barely) dons Daisy Dukes. Image: Tumblr.

To many people, including several of my film students, these images are often read exclusively as “gay” or “feminine” — and this is generally meant derogatorily. But to me, much more is going on here.

First, these unconventional images point to both a particular place and a (highly successful) genre in cinema history.

Second, they denote an element of creativity and sense of oneself that is sorely lacking from much of Hollywood’s current fare and which has been replaced by blue CGI people, bomb explosions, bromances, car chases, and tacky romantic comedies.

Finally, these more “feminine” representations of Gene Kelly in conjunction with the relatively conventional “masculine” ones listed above signify, for me anyway, a layered and more accurate form of heterosexual masculinity than we currently see at the local Cineplex — one that is unabashedly virile and exposed, commanding and playful, sexy and inventive, physical and refined. [5]


NOTES

[1] There is a shot in Summer Stock (1950) that affects me similarly. It comes at the end of Judy Garland’s song “Friendly Star” when we learn Kelly’s character has been eavesdropping on this performance the entire time.

[2] For examples of Kelly’s giftedness, ambitiousness, and brilliance, see the opening sequence of On the Town (“New York, New York”); Anchors Aweigh in which he dances alongside Jerry the mouse (yes, we know that he dances with Family Guy‘s Stewie too); and/or the elaborate and costly (half a million dollars) ballet sequence in An American in Paris.

[3] Richard Dyer, Stars 32, 55, 60; Dyer, Heavenly Bodies 17.

[4] It’s no secret that Kelly was keen on (or obsessed with?) demonstrating to viewers the parallels between dance and athletics. See Kelly’s televised special Dancing: A Man’s Game for more here.

[5] Special thanks to Adrienne McLean for introducing me to Gene Kelly.

Originally conceived May 4, 2010.

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