August 23: Gene Kelly’s Birthday

KELLY, GENEDuring the Golden Age of Hollywood, film goers were frequently treated to performances by two of history’s greatest dancers: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, the latter of whom was born on this day in 1912.  Now, while Astaire brought the ballroom to the big screen, it was Kelly who was was both the superior actor and the more adventurous dancer.

Kelly tried to make dancing more accessible to everyone. Rather than sticking with traditional ballroom, his choreography drew from a wide variety of influences including ballet, tap, folk, jazz and modernist styles and sometimes light touches of slapstick or martial arts. Rather than adopting the formal wear worn by previous generations of dancer, Kelly danced in the outfit of the common man: suits, t-shirts and slacks with loafers and even the occasional sailor suit in lieu of the traditional top hat and tails. Kelly also aimed to create a more athletic approach to dance, trying to show the discipline was not too far removed from the world of sports.  As Kelly once said, “There’s a strong link between sports and dancing, and my own dancing springs from my early days as an athlete…I think dancing is a man’s game and if he does it well he does it better than a woman.”

Aside from what he did on camera, Kelly made huge innovations behind the camera too. Whereas in the past, cinematic dance photography was limited to shots that largely didn’t move, Kelly decided to make the camera a partner in dance, creating choreography that moved around the film set leaving the camera to follow the dancer in constant motion. Kelly was constantly looking for a new trick, sometimes it would be a novel idea for choreography (dancing in puddles in the title number from Singin’ In The Rain, combining tap with roller skating while singing “I Like Myself” in It’s Always Fair Weather) and sometimes it would be a new cinematic technique (dancing with his mirror image in Cover Girl or with the cartoon duo Tom & Jerry in Anchors Away).

However, as great as all that innovation was, the best thing about Kelly was that in every one of his performances you can tell that this was a man who loved his work. He made dancing look effortless, and even in his last role, in the otherwise dreadful Xanadu, Kelly looks like he was having the time of his life. All the joy of a Kelly performance can be seen in his trademark smile, easily the best grin in cinema history: warm, inviting and a little mischievous, as if he’s saying “Hi, thanks for coming out, we’re going to have a lot of fun tonight.”

Unlike Kelly, you might need a drink or two to make you a better dancer. If that’s the case, I recommend a drink named after what’s probably his second best known film, An American In Paris. It’s a French spin on the classic Manhattan (Really it should be called a Frenchman in New York, but I digress.) which throws the sweet blackcurrant liqueur crème de cassis into the traditional Manhattan mix. It’s a graceful drink with a masculine edge, not unlike Gene Kelly.

An American In Paris

  • 1½ ounces Whiskey
  • ½ ounce Crème De Cassis
  • ½ ounce Dry Vermouth
  • ½ teaspoon lemon juice

Combine in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon slice.

Tomorrow: “Pompeii’s nice if you want to make a vacation of it though. But you gotta set your alarm for Volcano Day.”

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