Gene Kelly Corrupts the Young

27 Aug

summer stockNow that I have your attention…

A friend has a five-year-old child who has, for at least a year, been a Gene Kelly devotee. I think it started with Singin’ in the Rain (as it should) and moved through the rest of his musical oeuvre pretty swiftly – to the point that, when we were invited over to watch a movie last weekend (projected onto the side of a white house on a lovely summer evening), some effort had to made to find one she hadn’t seen. And no, Xanadu doesn’t count; we want to be invited back.

We watched Summer Stock in preparation for this evening, because aforementioned Kid had already seen it, we hadn’t watched it in a long time,  and I got the TCM Judy Garland box for my wife a while back. For a movie that was made on (and in fact in meta-reference to) a hackneyed hey-kids-musical-in-a-barn skeleton, it really holds together well. Summer Stock isn’t the focus of this entry, but I’m going to indulge in a digression.

The creative act is very rarely captured well dramatically. I have a pet peeve involving scenes in films like Ray and The Glenn Miller Story where that conversation that never happens happens: “If only I could find that sound [that happened serendipitously but that hindsight has shown us is my signature and therefore it’s assumed was meticulously planned].” Bugs the crap out of me. There are only two scenes that come to mind that capture the creative moment.

One is in Mike Leigh’s Topy-Turvy, in which William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) has the click that gives him the idea for The Mikado and twinkles directly into the camera, hearing music that has not yet been written. It’s right.

TopsyThe other is Gene Kelly’s famous floor squeak/newspaper solo to “You Wonderful You” here, which I could wax rhapsodic about here, about how this is really how such things happen (or seem to at the time), or you could just spend five minutes watching, after which time you’ll agree and I won’t have to talk about it anymore.

Anyway.

It had been concluded that The Kid had yet to see Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which is by no means Kelly’s finest work (or Busby Berkeley’s) but, again she’s already binged on his film career, so it was this or Ziegfeld Follies.  Or, I suppose, Young Girls of Rochefort, which…not yet.

I had never seen Ball Game big-screen size before and it’s fascinating what that does to a performance. Besides the physical wonder of Esther Williams in even the smallest swimming scene and Gene’s solo Irish breakdown at that picnic (plus the numbers that remain my personal favorites, “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” and “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate”), Gene in particular seems kind of over the top in an unusual way. He’s got the crazy eyes in this one…

ballgame2

I mean, Betty Garrett (criminally underrated and under-utilized) never played ‘em small, and yet she’s always the right kind of large. The well-documented offscreen tensions between Kelly & Berkeley and Kelly & Williams probably explain Kelly’s performance here, as well as all the hodge-podging and montaging. Though I’m not sure anything can explain that closing number and its begging of the whole “are we in character, or not, or…?” question. Weird choices, Buzz.

ballgame3

The Kid seemed to enjoy her evening, however. And we’ve been asked to curate a few selections for next summer, by which time she’ll have accepted that she’s seen all the Gene and needs to branch out…Carmen Miranda time, anyone?

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2 Responses to “Gene Kelly Corrupts the Young”

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  1. Donald O’Connor | I Humbly Suggest... - August 29, 2013

    […] O’Connor would have been 88 today. We all got fancy with our Gene Kelly birthday action last week. In lieu of such an occasion, let’s talk about something important: formative […]

  2. Rhythm on the River (1940) | I Humbly Suggest... - September 23, 2013

    […] he whistles the actual melody, he pre-noodles it on an elevator with Mary Martin in a way that – personal bugaboo alert – convincingly replicates the actual way one noodles and settles on a tune. It’s really […]

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