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6 Classic Films Starring Gene Kelly

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A vibrant actor, singer, dancer, director and choreographer, Gene Kelly became synonymous with the movie musical in the 1940s and 1950s. Along with contemporary Fred Astaire, Kelly was classic Hollywood’s most famous song-and-dance man and rode the wave of the musical genre’s height of popularity.

After making 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, the most popular and enduring of all classic musicals, Kelly saw the genre’s appeal with audiences fade and with it his own star began to dim. Though he sought more dramatic roles later in his career, Kelly stepped behind the camera to direct and produce, only to fade from view by the late 1960s.

Kelly made something of a resurgence in the 1980s, but by mid-decade chose to live the retired life. Regardless of his long period of inactivity, Kelly remained one of the all-time greats while almost single-handedly innovating the Hollywood musical.

1. ‘Cover Girl’ – 1944

Sony Pictures
On his way to becoming established in Hollywood, Kelly had his breakthrough hit as an actor and dancer in the Technicolor musical, Cover Girl. Starring Rita Hayworth, who was catapulted into superstardom alongside Kelly, the film featured the actor as a nightclub manager left behind by his chorus girl flame (Hayworth) who goes in search of fame and fortune. Kelly was given free rein to create his own dance numbers and came up with a memorable routine where he danced to his own reflection. Directed by Charles Vidor, the lavish film featured beautiful chemistry between Kelly and Hayworth, though it was the redheaded actress who received the lion’s share of attention.
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2. ‘On the Town’ – 1949

MGM Home Entertainment
Sharing directing credit with longtime collaborate Stanley Donen, On the Town was vibrant, groundbreaking musical that became an instant hit with audiences and critics. The picture starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin as three sailors who are given 24 hours of shore leave, which they decide to spend enjoying the glitz and glamour of New York City. Along the way, they make the amorous acquaintances of an aspiring dancer (Vera-Ellen) hiding her burlesque job, an aggressive cabbie (Betty Garrett) and an anthropology student (Ann Miller), all of which leads to fun, adventure and lots of song-and-dance. One of the best musicals made by MGM, On the Town was the last of three films Kelly appeared in with Sinatra.
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3. ‘An American in Paris’ – 1951

MGM Home Entertainment
Having already become a major Hollywood star, Kelly cemented his stature as the king of the musical with An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli’s lush George Gershwin-inspired tale that featured Kelly as Jerry Milligan, a starving artist living in The City of Light. Taken on by a wealthy patroness (Nina Foch), who becomes something more, Jerry sets his sights on fame and the love interest (Leslie Caron) of a popular nightclub performer (Georges Guetary). Though thin on plot, An American in Paris features great dance numbers set to Gershwin tunes like “I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful,” and ends with an elaborate 16-minute ballet number that’s worth the price of admission alone. All told, the film ranks high on the list of Kelly musicals alongside On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain.
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4. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ – 1952

MGM Home Entertainment
One of the most popular movie musicals of all time, Singin’ in the Rain featured Kelly’s most celebrated dance number while simultaneously marking the beginning of the end in popularity for the genre. Kelly played a silent era film star paired with a lovelorn partner (Jean Hagen) who makes the transition to talkies with relative ease, only to see his partner have trouble because of her shrill singing voice. That’s when Debbie Reynolds steps in to dub her own lilting vocals and complicate matters by falling for Kelly. During production, the actor suffered a high fever during the filming of his famed dance routine twirling an umbrella while singing in the rain, but soldiered through to deliver his most recognized performance.
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5. ‘Les Girls’ – 1957

MGM Home Entertainment
Directed by George Cukor, Les Girls was the last musical ever made for his home studio, MGM. Co-starring a trio of leading ladies – Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg – the film works as both a showbiz comedy and a Rashomon-like mystery about the various goings on of a female cabaret trio, all of whom accuse each other of having an affair with Kelly. Featuring music by Cole Porter, Les Girls marked the end of an era for Kelly, who soon sought out more dramatic roles while moving behind the camera to direct and produce with more frequency.
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6. ‘Inherit the Wind’ – 1960

CBS Video
In an effort to break free from his association to musicals – which by 1960 were in steep decline – Kelly accepted a supporting turn opposite Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-nominated drama Inherit the Wind. Inspired by the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted the science of evolutoin against religious doctrine, the film featured Tracy as a crusading Clarence Darrow-like defense attorney, March as a hardheaded fundamentalist prosecutor and Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck, an H.L. Menken-esque reporter who shines a national spotlight on the case. Kelly was surprisingly good as the muckraking Hornbeck and could have taken on more dramatic roles, but instead he chose to concentrate more on directing. By the late 1960s, Kelly had all but disappeared from the silver screen.
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