Gene Kelly has a very important place in the history of movie musicals. In addition to being an actor and dancer, he was a singer, choreographer, and director who left behind a legacy of incredible moments on film. The ways Gene Kelly changed movies were so significant, they can be seen even in modern films like La La Land. Gene Kelly musicals are as important to that genre as Hitchcock's work is to modern thrillers.
In a quick bit of old Hollywood history, movie musicals were at the height of their popularity in the 1940s, as Hollywood adapted Broadway shows, Busby Berkeley created crazy extravaganzas of choreography, and Fred Astaire wowed audiences with his classy clothes and elegant dance moves. But just as the musical genre seemed to be dying, Gene Kelly tap-danced in and completely changed how movie musicals were made.
Many people have seen him in Singin' in the Rain, but his impact on film and dance goes a lot deeper. How Gene Kelly changed musicals is an amazing story and, considering some of his innovations are still in use today, he is definitely a man to remember.
Since film creates a 2D image, despite being shot in a 3D environment, Gene Kelly reasoned dancing in the movies had to be treated differently than on stage or in other live environments. "I tried to do things uniquely cinematic, that you couldn't do on a stage. Call it 'cine-dancing,' or whatever, but I tried to invent the dance to fit the camera and its movements," he said. Integrating camera movement into choreography was something no one had tried before Kelly.
One of the best examples of this can be seen in Singin' In The Rain, when the camera pulls back, the music swells, and Kelly dances using wide movements. Then, as the camera closes in on him, the music softens and his movements become less dramatic. This technique focuses your attention and creates a sense of intimacy; it's a vastly different approach than previously standard massive wide shots attempting to replicate the spectacle of Broadway. It also allows for the increased use of depth in cinematic space.
Early musicals treated song and dance separately from the story, like a bonus for the audience. Kelly realized during the making of Cover Girl that a dance routine could actually be used to tell part of the story. He dances with his alter-ego in the film, visualizing internal conflict. Allowing the audience to see how a dance impacts the characters and story was a big step forward for movie musicals, and is still widely used by modern musicals.
On the Town celebrates New York City through the eyes of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave and features the classic song "New York, New York." At the time On the Town was made, movie musicals were always filmed on sets. Kelly realized the movie would not have an authentic look and visual impact if shot anywhere other than the streets of New York. Collaborating with co-director Stanley Donen, he insisted the studio let the production film on location, marking another first for studio musical filmmaking.
Mixing live action and animation had been tried several times since the silent film era, but until Anchors Aweigh, no one had attempted to film an intricate dance number that combined the techniques. Gene Kelly changed that by dancing with Jerry the Mouse from Tom and Jerry in a short color sequence that took two months to shoot. The piece is a composite; Kelly danced against a blue backdrop and the animation was added later. With CGI, this could be easily done, but in 1945, it was a major accomplishment.