Great twirling blast of cheeky urban energy

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The Independent Online
Gene Kelly's last film appearance in the most recent of those vault-robbing compilations, That's Entertainment 3, undoubtedly came as a blow to those who still, in the private cinema inside their heads, pictured him as the athletic, umbrella-twirling hoofer immortalised by Singin' in the Rain, the apogee of the MGM musical.

But MGM had fallen on evil times (witness the shabby That's Entertainment 3 itself) and so, obviously, had Kelly. Bloated of body, orange of skin and topped by a sad, stiff toupee, Kelly, that great, twirling, blast of cheeky urban energy, shuffled across the screen, game, but almost lame. He'd just recovered from a stroke, and the show had to go on. Two strokes later, the curtain has finally fallen.

Now the long dormant debate about Kelly's merits as an actor (Inherit the Wind), a dancer, a choreographer and a solo director (Hello, Dolly!) will be revived, his rooted, ordinary Joe persona again contrasted with the relaxed sophistication of Astaire (how odd that the latter is considered the more "classical'' and ethereal of the two when the former was the one obsessed with incorporating ballet into the celluloid dance vocabulary: see An American in Paris and his disastrous pet project, Invitation to the Dance).

Where Astaire backed away - he made you move towards him - Kelly came forward; he did all the work. Astaire may have made you work, but Kelly, curiously enough, was the one who could leave you feeling exhausted.

To an extent it was his trademark brashness, honed as Broadway chorus boy who wanted to be noticed, and then turned into a style by his star turn in the original Pal Joey, but it was also deep in the dancing itself.

Others hid the sweat required, flowed in one seemingly continuous movement, but Kelly, even at his most balletic, took it all apart, twisted and turned, banged his feet, was at pains to radiate a rough masculinity. Peruse The Babbit and the Bromide to see what Astaire and Kelly do with exactly the same steps, or better yet, watch Kelly and Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh.

Kelly was outsize enough to compete with any cartoon, which is why he fitted so amusingly well into the cartoon situations of The Pirate and The Three Musketeers.

He also fitted his times. Astaire was an Art Deco dream of the Thirties - the upper crust; Kelly represented Forties hustle and bustle - the seething masses.

Following on from Pal Joey he was even allowed to be a heel, as long as he repented before the end credits unreeled.

The end credits are unreeling now, and he leaves behind a legacy that had influenced figures as diverse Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul and Robin Cousins. But then, star shine, like rain, falls everywhere.

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