A dancer who shone with brash lovability

Death of a legend: Gene Kelly's style contrasted with Astaire: 'Fred danced in tails but I rolled up my sleeves and danced in jeans'
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The Independent Online

Los Angeles

Gene Kelly once said he never imagined his scene in Singin' in the Rain, in which he plays the euphoric lover dancing untouched by the rain, would enter movie history. But in 1989 it was one of the first to be selected by the Library of Congress for a national registry of significant films.

He was the reigning star at MGM in the heyday of Hollywood musicals, also starring in the celebrated On the Town. But his last film Xanadu, in which he donned roller skates in 1980, opposite Grease star Olivia Newton John, was a costly failure.

Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1912, the capital of the American coal and steel industry. His mother, an actress, made him take dancing lessons but he did not pursue it seriously until high school.

His career began on Broadway in the New York musical productions of Cole Porter's Leave it to Me and Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey.

He entered films aged 30. As a straight actor, although he played roles opposite actors such as Henry Fonda and James Stewart, Kelly had little success. But as a dancer he was athletic, romantic and exuberant, and shone with a brash lovability.

In An American in Paris, Kelly choreographed an ambitious ballet dream that lasted a full 27 minutes, set to George Gershwin's music, and which is regarded by critics as his greatest artistic achievement. He also established a career as a director that stretched from a 1958 Western, The Tunnel of Love, to Hello Dolly! in 1969.

Kelly died peacefully in his sleep at his Los Angeles home after suffering a series of strokes, with his wife Patricia at his side. His film legacy spanned more than four decades, with his debut opposite Judy Garland in Me and My Gal in 1942.

She was the first in a string of leading ladies. In Singin' in the Rain, a comedy musical set in the early days of talking pictures and shot at MGM's Los Angeles studios at the height of summer, he led Debbie Reynolds through her first dancing role. "You must make the lady look good, you must present her," he once said.

Kelly was considered less of a natural dancer than his historical rival, Fred Astaire, but more artistically adventurous. Trained as a ballet dancer, he could switch at ease into tap. "I didn't want to dance in suits," he said.

"People would compare us, but we didn't dance alike at all," he said. "Fred danced in tails - everybody wore them before I came out here - but I took off my coat, rolled up my sleeves, and danced in sweatshirts and jeans and sneakers."

They danced together only twice, playing friends in Ziegfield Follies in 1946 and at the end of their careers in That's Entertainment II.

In Anchors Aweigh, Kelly danced opposite both the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry and his co-star, Frank Sinatra, earning an Oscar nomination in 1945. But On the Town, the story of sailors on shore leave, was his favourite picture, he said.

It marked his move into directing and broke the Hollywood mould for being filmed on location. Kelly's co-director on that film and frequent artistic partner was Stanley Donen, who, like him, began as a Broadway dancer.

Comedian Ernie Wise, who famously spoofed Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain'' dance on TV with his partner Eric Morecambe, last night paid tribute to the star. He said: "He was one of the greatest. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were the masters. We won't see their like again.

"I met him once and we talked about our "Singin' in the Rain'' sketch. He said he had seen many spoofs of that routine, but he liked ours the best. He didn't mind it at all."