Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gene Kelly, Mary Gordon

Who was born on this date:

Actor Gene Kelly was born on August 23, 1912 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks and the likeable characters that he played on screen. Kelly was a dominant force in Hollywood musical films from the mid 1940s until the late 1950s. His many innovations transformed the Hollywood musical film, and he is credited with almost single-handedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences.  

He began his entertainment career on the Broadway stage in November 1938 as a dancer in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me!. His first career breakthrough was in the The Time of Your Life, which opened on October 25, 1939, where for the first time on Broadway he danced to his own choreography. In the same year he received his first assignment as a Broadway choreographer, for Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. Offers from Hollywood began to arrive but Kelly was in no particular hurry to leave New York. Eventually, he signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood in October 1941. Selznick sold half of Kelly's contract to MGM and loaned him out for his first motion picture, For Me and My Gal (1942) with Judy Garland. Kelly’s first opportunity to dance to his own choreography came in Thousand Cheers (1943), where he performed a mock-love dance with a mop.

He achieved his breakthrough as a dancer on film, when MGM loaned him out to Columbia to work with Rita hayworth in Cover Girl (1944), where he created a memorable routine dancing to his own reflection. In his next film Anchors Aweigh (1945), MGM virtually gave him a free hand to devise a range of dance routines, including the celebrated and much imitated animated dances with Jerry Mouse, and his duets with co-star Frank Sinatra. Anchors Aweigh became one of the most successful films of 1945 and it garnered Kelly his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In Ziegfield Follies (1946), Kelly collaborated with Fred Astaire. After World War II and his return to Hollywood in the spring of 1946, MGM had nothing lined up and used him in a B-movie, Living in a Big Way. The film was considered so weak that Kelly was asked to design and insert a series of dance routines, and his ability to carry off such assignments was noticed. This led to his next picture with Judy Garland, the film version of Cole Porter's The Pirate, in which Kelly plays the eponymous swashbuckler. Now regarded as a classic, the film was ahead of its time and was not well received.

Although MGM wanted Kelly to return to safer and more commercial vehicles, he ceaselessly fought for an opportunity to direct his own musical film. In the interim, he capitalized on his swashbuckling image in The Three Musketeers and also appeared in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1948). He was due to play the male lead opposite Garland in Easter Parade (1948), but broke his ankle playing volleyball. He withdrew from the film and encouraged Fred Astaire to come out of retirement to replace him. Kelly then appeared in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), his second film with Sinatra, where Kelly paid tribute to his Irish heritage in The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick's Day routine. It was this musical film which persuaded Arthur Freed to allow Kelly to make On The Town, where he partnered with Frank Sinatra for the third and final time, creating a breakthrough in the musical film genre which has been described as "the most inventive and effervescent musical thus far produced in Hollywood."

Then two musicals secured Kelly's reputation as a major figure in the American musical film, An American in Paris (1951) and probably the most popular and admired of all film musical of all time Singin’ in the Rain (1952). An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, in the same year, Kelly was presented with an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film musicals and the art of choreography. Kelly, at the very peak of his creative powers, now made what in retrospect is seen as a serious mistake. In December 1951 he signed a contract with MGM which sent him to Europe for nineteen months so that Kelly could use MGM funds frozen in Europe to make three pictures while personally benefiting from tax exemptions. Only one of these pictures was a musical, Invitation to the dance, a pet project of Kelly's to bring modern ballet to mainstream film audiences. It was beset with delays and technical problems, and flopped when finally released in 1956. When Kelly returned to Hollywood the film musical was already beginning to feel the pressures from television, and MGM cut the budget for his next picture.

Kelly did not return to stage work until his MGM contract ended in 1957, when in 1958 he directed  the musical play Flower Drum Song. He continued to make some film appearances, such as Hornbeck in the 1960 Hollywood production of Inherit the Wind. However, most of his efforts were now concentrated on film production and directing. He made frequent appearances on television during the 1960s, but his one effort at television series, as Father Chuck O'Malley in Going My Way (1962–63) was dropped after thirty episodes. Kelly died in his sleep from a stroke on February 2, 1996 at his Beverley Hills home. His body was cremated, per his instructions there was no funeral or memorial services and his remains were given to family. Final disposition is unknown.

Who died on this date: 

On August 23, 1963, actress Mary Gordon died. She was born on May 16, 1882 in Glasgow, Scotland. She was a character actress who specialized in housekeepers and mothers, most notably the landlady Mrs. Hudson in the Sherlock Holmes series of movies of the Thirties and Forties. She would appear in nearly 300 films between 1925 and 1950. She became good friends with director John Ford while making Hangman’s House (1928) and went on to appear in seven of his films. In 1939, she took on her best remembered role as Sherlock Holmes's landlady and played the role in ten films and numerous radio plays. Film credits include Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Pot O’ Gold (1941) and Fort Apache (1948). She lived out her final years in Pasadena, California with her daughter and grandson and died on August 23, 1963 from a long undisclosed illness. She is buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.

www.michaelthomasbarry.com, author of Fade to Black Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950

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