And the taps were dubbed later–with Kelly dubbing his taps as well as Debbie Reynolds’, said Patricia Ward Kelly, who married the dancer-choreographer in 1990, when she was 31 and he was 77. He died in 1996.
Patricia Ward Kelly said her husband wanted to be remembered for his work behind the camera, as a choreographer, director, writer and producer, as much as for his performances on screen, including in “An American in Paris” in 1951.
“He wanted to be known for changing the look of dance on film,” she said.
She shows clips of dances he choreographed and performed at her tribute shows she gives all around the country like the "Alter Ego” number from “Cover Girl” in 1944 where he dances with himself through a double exposure of the film. The double exposure technique had never been tried before. “It was an incredible feat,” said Patricia Ward Kelly.
The dancing and the camera movements in that number were synchronized with the musical beat as was a number in the 1945 movie “Anchors Aweigh” where Gene Kelly danced with the cartoon character Jerry the mouse. Twenty-four drawings of the mouse were needed for every second of the dance.
“Cover Girl” was a turning point in Gene Kelly’s career because MGM never loaned him out to another studio again. He also gave up the idea of returning to Broadway, deciding instead to dedicate himself to a career in Hollywood.
Patricia Ward Kelly said the problem with showing dance on film is that it is two-dimensional. To combat that, Gene Kelly choreographed his dancers so they were constantly moving toward the camera and he kept the dances shorter than they would have been on stage. He also used light and color to add a sense of a third dimension.
She said Gene Kelly insisted that the full figures of his dancers be filmed, rather than allowing the camera to focus only on the feet or arms. He would cut the film on a dancer’s turn so the audience would be less aware of it.
Patricia Ward Kelly said that when her husband was asked to name his favorite dance partner, he often would say Jerry the mouse “because he showed up on time and worked his little tail off.”
He thought the best all-around dancer was Vera-Ellen and the best tapper was Eleanor Powell while Donald O’Connor was the most unsung, said Patricia Ward Kelly.
She said Gene Kelly choreographed his dances to show off his partners, whether Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra or Olivia Newton-John.
He was classically trained in ballet and had studied modern dance in New York with Martha Graham and others. But he took his inspiration from sports, including hockey, his favorite, she said.
He also was trying to create “a particular American style of dance,” so he preferred to choreograph to music by American writers, such as Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Irving Berlin.
Gene Kelly also helped spur the use of Technicolor film in low light after he urged his co-director on the 1949 movie of “On the Town,” Stanley Donen, to shoot the last scene as daylight was fading because the Navy ship they were using was about to pull away from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Technicolor film previously had been used only with very bright lights, and the camera operators agreed to shoot the last scene of “On the Town” only under protest, Patricia Ward Kelly said.
She said she met Gene Kelly in 1985, when he was narrator on a television special that she was writing. When they met, she had not heard of the performer.
He brought her to California to work on his memoirs, and they married five years later.
She described taking dance lessons so she would be prepared to keep up with her husband but said he usually pretended to have an injured leg when they attended events that included dancing. They did dance together at home on New Year’s Eve. “He was the epitome of romance,” she added...