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(Credit: Allan Warren)


The dark side of Hollywood: The "cruelty" of Gene Kelly


Changing the conceptual language of cinema, actor and performer Gene Kelly was an icon of Hollywood in the mid-20th century thanks to his exuberant gymnastics and frenetic toe-tapping feet. An actor, dancer, singer and filmmaker, Kelly was a multi-faceted creative who starred in some of the most popular musicals of the 1940s and ‘50s, becoming a household name and American poster boy at the same time. 

With crazed energy on-screen, Kelly rose to success with such commercial hits as On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain, though found it eternally tricky to forge professional relationships off-set, namely due to his lesser-publicised fragile temper. Though in the public eye Kelly was seen as a contemporary Hollywood darling, behind the scenes he was more of an egotistical pest, carrying a dictatorial attitude toward his coworkers and a fondness for younger women. 

Reports of such behaviour occurred throughout Gene Kelly’s career, with Stanley Donen who worked alongside the star for many years as a choreographer and co-director reporting later in his career that the actor was a challenge to work with. Having collaborated with Kelly for many years, when asked about the performer in an interview with The New York Times, Donen wrote, “What I didn’t like – and I know this is not appropriate now – was his manner off-screen. He could be difficult with me and everyone else”.

It was whilst working on the iconic musical Singin’ in the Rain that Donen experienced such problems with Kelly, the focus of much contention on set due to his bitter relationship with Debbie Reynolds. Arriving on the set of the film aged only 19, Reynolds looked up to Kelly for guidance only for him to consistently turn a cold shoulder and even voice that he wanted a different actor to work with on set. 

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Gene Kelly was a “cruel taskmaster”, Debbie Reynolds noted in her memoir, Unsinkable, adding: “He came to rehearsals and criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement”. They were the sort of rehearsals where Reynolds needed encouragement too, with her gruelling physical work on set becoming a thing of Hollywood legend, typified by the dance number for ‘Good Morning’ that took 15 hours to get right and resulted in the doctors putting her to rest for two days with bleeding feet and exhaustion. 

“I had three months to learn what Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor had been doing for years,” wrote in her memoir, bringing attention to the fact that Kelly gave her no time at all to acclimatise to his way of working. Not only was the working on set with Kelly a gruelling physical process for Reynolds, but it was also a deeply uncomfortable one, with the star of the film subjecting her to unwanted sexual advancements during their first on-screen kiss. 

As Debbie Reynolds writes in Unsinkable, ‘The camera closed in. Gene took me tightly in his arms…and shoved his tongue down my throat,” describing the ordeal in great detail. Breaking free from Kelly’s grasp, Reynolds ran out of the set frantically, with the actor recalling, “I was an innocent kid who had never been French-kissed. It felt like an assault. I was stunned that this thirty-nine-year-old man would do this to me”. 

Such criticism was not isolated to Debbie Reynolds either, with one of the most venomous condemnations coming from Esther Williams who said the actor was “a jerk”, describing her time on Take Me Out to the Ball Game with Gene Kelly as “pure misery”. 

Kelly would take this identity as a self-obsessed, paranoid Hollywood star to his grave in 1996, memorialised both as a star of the Hollywood golden age and an illustrative example of the industry’s archaic values. Though he remains recognised as a pioneer of the movie musical, Kelly’s impact as a personality and force for social change remained stagnant throughout his entire career.

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