BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
There were few rainy days in the dance career of movie legend Gene Kelly. And this week, audiences can rediscover his musical masterpiece, Singin’ In the Rain, which he starred in and co-directed (with Stanley Donen).
“It really was a history of the movies done in the most wonderful way. The most unique way. It was really a love poem to movies,” says Oscar-winning film star Rita Moreno, who at age 20 played a small but pivotal role in the 1952 classic. “It was one of the great joys of my life working with my icon, my idol. I really felt I died and gone to heaven.”
Restored from original audio and video elements, Singin’ In the Rain, a spoof of the early days of talking pictures co-starring Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, plays Thursday in theaters throughout South Florida and arrives Tuesday on Blu-ray and DVD ($85 special edition Blu-ray and DVD set; $20 single Blu-ray; $15 two-disc DVD).
Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her performance as Anita in 1961’s West Side Story, grew up watching Kelly sing, dance and act in M-G-M musicals including Anchors Aweigh, Ziegfeld Follies (both 1945) and On the Town (1949).
“Put yourself in the place of meeting someone you had practically worshiped in the movies, and being with him all the time,” Moreno tells The Miami Herald about working with Kelly on Singin’ In the Rain. “I was there to watch every scene that was being filmed in that movie. I never stopped visiting the set because I only had about five scenes. I was there till the very end. I was there all day, every day watching the Singin’ In the Rain number done.”
Film lovers still talk about Kelly’s famous splashing song-and-dance sequence — which he performed with a 103-degree fever.
“It took 2½ days to film it. After they would do a take, he would go out and bake in the sunlight,” says his widow, journalist Patricia Ward Kelly.
They met in 1985 when he hosted a TV special she helped write. Later they collaborated on his memoirs and in 1990 Kelly and Ward married. He was 77; she 31.
Kelly became a sensation in 1940 when he starred in the original Broadway production of Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey. Two years later, he made his film debut starring opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal.
“It was Judy who carried him in that and taught him how to perform in front of a camera. How to sit down and how to kiss, which I am very grateful for,” Patricia Kelly says.
Garland and Kelly co-starred in two more pictures: The Pirate (1947) and her final M-G-M film, Summer Stock (1950). “He said she was the sexiest woman in Hollywood for him,” says Kelly’s widow. Previously, he was married to actress Betsy Blair (they divorced in 1957) and dancer Jeanne Coyne, who died in 1973.
Throughout the ’50s, Kelly made hit after hit: An American in Paris (which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1950); Brigadoon (1954); It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).
After Les Girls in 1957, Kelly left M-G-M and co-starred in only a few more pictures. He concentrated on choreography and directing films including A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand (1969) and That’s Entertainment, Part II (1975), a musical documentary in which he co-hosted and danced with Fred Astaire. The camp 1980 musical Xanadu marked Kelly’s final big-screen acting appearance.
The dance star would have turned 100 on Aug. 23 and his centennial will be marked July 13-23 with a 23-film series at Lincoln Center in New York.
Kelly died in 1996 at age 83. “One of the last things he said to me was, ‘Did I make a mark?’ ” Patricia Kelly says. “I read these stories about his immense ego and how difficult he was. That wasn’t the guy I knew.”