By William Wolf


They were two very special evenings—Patricia Ward Kelly, the widow of the phenomenal star Gene Kelly, talking about his life and the broad range of his talent, and showing a large selection of impressive film clips to demonstrate the point. The events on Friday and Saturday July 20 and 21, 2012 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, part of its film tribute series marking Kelly’s 100th birthday year, offered an extra treat along with the focus on the star.

Patricia Kelly proved to be a special person in her own right. A writer and scholar, she is also a terrific speaker who would grace any platform. On the night I attended (July 20), I found her talk was loaded with information and humor delivered with eloquence and charm. She exhibited personality plus, first evident in the lobby when she greeted people who came to hear her as if they were acquaintances. She also conveyed the affection she feels for Kelly in the way in which she talked about him and in the anecdotes shared, all with the professionalism also evident in her smooth, entertaining introductions of the film clips.

She said that when she first met Kelly while working as a writer on a television show that he was doing at the Smithsonian Institute, she didn’t even know who he was. She had not seen his films. But they got talking and there was an intellectual spark in their conversation. She was 26 and he was already in his 70s. A relationship developed and they were married five years later in 1990. She said Kelly told people that she was five years older than she was, as if that would help bridge the gap for those who cared about their age difference. Kelly died in 1996. Her talk came across as a celebration of their life together, which by the way she spoke of him, would indicate a happy marriage. It is easy to understand what Kelly would have seen in this vibrant mate.

In 1992 Kelly named Mrs. Kelly as the sole trustee of the Gene Kelly Image Trust, and she is an organizer of the Gene Kelly Collection. She is currently in the process of writing a book about him, and she lectures in schools and other venues about his life and work.

With all the acclaim that Kelly garnered in his life, Mrs. Kelly said that he retained humility. “One of the last things he said to me was asking whether I thought he had left a mark,” she recalled.

After listening to her stories and seeing clips from his movies, there could be no doubt about the mark he left, as those of us familiar with his work through the years have known. Mrs. Kelly stressed how broad his achievements were. There was not only his skill as a dancer and the way he revolutionized the art with his remarkable physicality in the blending of tap with gymnastic-like movement combined with ballet. He was a choreographer, a director, a teacher and an actor who could be effective in romantic roles as well as dramatic ones. I had forgotten about his role in the film “Inherit the Wind,” a clip from which showed him more than holding his own in a dramatic scene with the esteemed Spencer Tracy.

Clips that Mrs. Kelly introduced on the night I attended included one from “Cover Girl” showing him dancing gracefully with Rita Hayworth; “Anchors Aweigh,” in which he famously danced with an animated mouse; “The Pirate,” stressing a swashbuckling side; “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” in which he made contact with his Irish heritage singing “The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick’s Day;” “On the Town,” teaming with Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin singing “A Day in New York;” “An American in Paris,” with his discovery Leslie Caron, and “Summer Stock” with Judy Garland. The reason he agreed to do the latter film, Mrs. Kelly said, was that Garland was in need of help at the time and she was a favorite of his.

Of course, there was also the familiar clip of Kelly dancing in the rain from the classic “Singin’ in the Rain.” Another showed him dancing with the exceptional Cyd Charisse in “Brigadoon.”

Kelly was a master of innovation, always pushing himself to try new things, such as dancing with himself on screen. Today it would be relatively simple with digital technology, but it was much more complicated when he did it. He would also experiment with combining different sounds, such as doing a number dancing on a squeaky floorboard and on newspapers. He also pushed his physicality to dance with extraordinary gymnastic challenges rather than use stuntmen, except when serious danger was involved. He also exhibited a knack for doing numbers with children.

Mrs. Kelly wove information about such attributes into her presentation. At the side of the stage was a pile of boxes, and one wondered what they were doing there. Near the end of the program we found out. Mrs. Kelly began opening them to reveal memorabilia that her husband had collected. For example, she showed us the green hat he had worn while singing “The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick’s Day,” and she appeared to be suppressing emotions as she displayed various other items.

Through her presentation Mrs. Kelly injected bits of humor reflecting the personality of her late husband. He liked the story of how when he was getting one of his many awards his mother was present and asked by a newsman what she thought of her son. She replied, “Which one? I have three.”

On another occasion a reporter asked him whether anything funny had happened while he was directing the film version of “Hello, Dolly!” Kelly replied, “There was nothing funny about ‘Hello, Dolly!’”

Seeing Mrs. Kelly’s program brought back my memories of having interviewed Kelly for a chapter on “Singin’ in the Rain” that I included in my book “Landmark Films: The Cinema and Our Century." Something he said indicated why his films can still seem so fresh. He bridled at the idea that musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” might be regarded only as nostalgia.

“It might be nostalgia to me,” Kelly said, "but not to a nine-year-old, or a sixteen-year-old, because they’ve never seen some of these films. Would you say that people read Euripides, Shakespeare or Dickens out of nostalgia?”

His films, his multifaceted achievements and his memory are being kept vividly alive before the public by his advocate-in-chief, Patricia Ward Kelly. Lucky guy. Posted July 22, 2012.


[Film] [Theater] [Cabaret] [About Town] [Wolf]
[Special Reports] [Travel] [HOME]