Authors: Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson
Title: "He’s Got Rhythm – The Life and Career of Gene Kelly"
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky, 2017; 411 pages of text, 44 pages of black-white photos
Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson, who are twin sisters, have written a wonderful, readable and enjoyable biography of Gene Kelly, a great dancer, as well as an actor, singer, choreographer and director. What makes this biography so very interesting is the way the Brideson sisters trace Kelly’s career.
They discuss each of his stage and movie productions in order so you can feel his career developing to the point where many of us in our generation enjoyed his great movie musicals in the 1950s. Having seen them, how can one forget “Singing in the Rain” (1951) and “An American in Paris” (1952)?
Eugene Curran Kelly, the second son of the five children of James and Harriet Kelly, was born on Aug. 3, 1912, and grew up in Pittsburgh. His mother was the dominant parent in his life. She wanted her kids to learn how to dance so Kelly, at age 7, went to Blinsky’s Dancing School and his lessons continued throughout his schooling.
He and his brother, Fred, won dance competitions and started making money. After graduating from high school, Gene attended the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1933. Kelly kept on dancing and teaching dance. He enrolled in law school, but dropped out after several months to concentrate on dancing. Though his mother favored Fred, she wisely realized that Kelly was a local success so they opened the “Gene Kelly Schools of Dance,” which flourished during the Depression, and which continued as successful businesses.
The Brideson sisters made me realize Kelly was really a success from the outset of his career, becoming more and more successful as he moved from stage to the movies to television. He went to New York in August 1938. His first big stage appearance was in “The Time of Your Life,” which opened in New York in October 1939. In December 1940, “Pal Joey” opened in New York with Kelly as its star. He met Betsy Blair, a young actress. They married on Sept. 24, 1941, when she was 17 and Gene was 29. She had to have her father’s permission to get married. Kelly was more liberal and she was left of him. In fact as he was becoming famous, she wanted to join the Communist party, but it refused her saying she could be more useful outside of the party.
With success on stage in New York, he signed a contract with David O. Selznick and arrived in Hollywood in November 1941, subsequently signing a contract with MGM in 1942. The way the Brideson sisters cover his life in Hollywood makes Kelly into a star that did not let stardom go to his head. He and Betsy had people over to their house almost every night with a guest list of movie stars, producers and directors. It seemed like a fascinating time.
Their daughter, Kerry, was born in October 1942, and they were a happy family. Kelly was a star whose career kept growing. In 1944 during World War II, Kelly became a Naval officer producing and appearing in films for the Navy. Kelly and Betsy, with Kelly’s help, avoided being “blacklisted” in the post war anti-Communist scare.
In December 1949, “On the Town,” in which Kelly and Frank Sinatra played two sailors on liberty in New York, opened to enthusiastic reviews and made money. Not all his films were successes, and, in April 1957, Betsy divorced Kelly having fallen for another man, but it seems she always loved Kelly. He moved on and married Jeanne Coyne, his one-time assistant, in August 1960, and they had three children. Their marriage ended with her death from leukemia in May 1973. In both of these marriages, Kelly proved himself to be a decent family man who loved his wife and children.
He wasn’t so fortunate when he married his third wife, Patricia Ward, who he had hired to help him write his autobiography. In 1990, they were married when Gene was 77 and she was 31. He suffered his first stroke in 1994 after which Patricia basically cut him off from everyone and lived a high life. His first wife, Betsy, insisted on seeing Kelly. While Kelly, Patricia and Betsy were having tea, Betsy wanted a refill. Bridesons write, “Betsy held out her cup for a refill. Patricia did not take it; instead, she rang a bell on the tea trolley beside her and the little group waited in awkward silence for the maid to come from the kitchen to pour.” That told me all I needed to know about Patricia. Kelly died on Feb. 2, 1996, followed by an unfriendly settlement of his estate with little going to his children.
All the stars and movies and plays and TV productions mentioned throughout this wonderful biography make this a truly delightful read. Bridesons quote Hal Rubenstein who wrote in 1994, “His buoyant athleticism, naïve passion and look Ma - I’m-hoofing brand of enthusiasm introduced cinematic dance to sweat, lust and earthly delights. Gene Kelly made Everyman believe he could dance, and Everywoman wish that he would.”