Gene Kelly

The Making of a Creative Legend

Earl Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar

Whether as a curiosity or a beloved idol, Gene Kelly (1912–1996) lives on in our cultural memory as a fantastic dancer in MGM musicals, especially Singin’ in the Rain. But dancing, however extraordinary, was only one of his many gifts. This book, for the first time, offers a full picture of Gene Kelly as the Renaissance man he actually was—dancer, yes, but also choreographer, actor, clown, singer, director, teacher, and mentor. Kelly was star of radio and television as well as film, avant-garde as artist and auteur but also ahead of the curve in opening the world of dance to differences of race, ethnicity, and gender.

Gene Kelly: The Making of a Creative Legend takes us from Kelly’s youth in Depression-era Pittsburgh through his years on Broadway and ascendance to stardom in Hollywood. Authors Hess and Dabholkar pay particular attention to his work with the US Navy, solo directing, and lesser-known but considerable accomplishments in television, radio, and on the stage in later years. The book gives us a rare inside look at Kelly’s relationships with dancing partners and peers from Leslie Caron, Vera-Ellen, and Cyd Charisse to Fred Astaire, and at his directorial collaboration with Stanley Donen and Vincent Minnelli; and at his solo directing. The authors show us significant but little-examined facets of Kelly’s character and career, such as the political convictions that got him graylisted in Hollywood; his passion for creating cine-dance and serving as an ambassador of dance in America; and his forging of links between dance, civil rights, and the “common man.”

“Hess and Dabholkar’s Gene Kelly: The Making of a Creative Legend is the most complete biography of Gene Kelly to date. It offers a substantial addition to what we know about Gene Kelly’s career and enriches our appreciation for the depth and range of his accomplishments, thanks to extraordinary and far-reaching research into materials never studied by Kelly’s previous biographer. Gene Kelly is a delightful read and a true page-turner.”

—Rick Altman, author of Film/Genre

“This meticulously researched biography not only is an important addition to film musical scholarship and to our understanding of Kelly’s transformative contribution to the film musical genre but also gives us a rounded portrait of him as a human being. We follow him from his youth in Depression-era Pittsburgh to his early years on Broadway to his career in Hollywood not only during film musical’s ‘golden age’ but also during his work with the navy and for the first time his not inconsiderable accomplishments in television, in film, and on stage in his later years. Perhaps most important, this biography throws important new light on the Kelly-Donen working relationship by providing deeply researched evidence on the primacy of Kelly’s role. Also examined is Kellys role as an active supporter of progressive causes during the New Deal and the McCarthy era and its underlying connection to the ‘common man’ roles he developed with great sympathy. The authors illuminate Kelly’s role as artist and innovator not only in his championship of dance as an art form but also in his role as an educator who effectively promoted the value of male dancing at a time when those who practiced the profession in the United States were stigmatized and stereotyped.”

—Beth Genne, professor of dance history, University of Michigan

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Steeped in research and replete with photographs, this career biography uniquely encompasses all phases of Gene Kelly’s life and work—and finally gives us a full portrait of this central figure in the history of the film musical during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

About the Author

Earl J. Hess is Stewart W. McClelland Distinguished Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University. Pratibha A. Dabholkar is emerita professor at the College of Business at the University of Tennessee. Their book Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece is also published by Kansas.