Gene Kelly: Still timeless after more than 50 years

Gene Kelly would have been celebrating his hundredth birthday tomorrow, but his influence is still being felt in movies and theater.

Wyatt Counts/AP
Gene Kelly starred most famously in 'Singin' in the Rain,' which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary this year.

Tomorrow will be the hundredth anniversary of Gene Kelly’s birth, and it’s been 32 years since his last film appearance (1980’s “Xanadu” – don’t see it, it’s terrible).

But while it may have been decades since he was a star of the screen and his musicals were power players at the box office and critically, Kelly and his influence are still being felt all over the place.

Okay, I may be slightly biased, sitting here as I am with my Gene Kelly mini-poster hung on the left side of my desk and dozens of “Singin’ in the Rain” viewings under my belt. But I was genuinely heartened to see how much of a lasting impact Kelly had had when I watched a documentary titled “Singin' in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation,” which came attached to the sixtieth anniversary DVD of “Singin’.” The documentary featured interviews with current stars like actors from the TV show “Glee,” film directors Rob Marshall and Adam Shankman, and others, all effusively praising “Singin’ in the Rain” and its dancing and how much we still owe Kelly today.

“We, the artists of today, stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us,” singer and dancer Usher, who performed the title number from “Singin’” as part of the CBS special “Movies Rock,” said during the documentary. “The magic that Kelly possessed was the ability to make something so difficult look so effortless.”

Usher said that. You know, an artist that actually has current chart-topping hits? He not only knows who Kelly is but loves him so much that he chose to perform Kelly’s signature number on a national TV special.

Despite my being born 38 years after it was released, Kelly’s movie won me over, too, when I first saw it. My mother put "Singin'" on for my sister and I when we were still fairly young and we laughed at Donald O’Connor slamming himself against walls in “Make ‘Em Laugh,” giggled at the intentionally goofy ‘20s outfits, and couldn’t take our eyes off the screen as Kelly splashed through rain puddles. I’d taken tap dancing lessons as part of my after-school program, eventually letting them lapse after a couple of years, but after “Singin’” started its repeat viewings in my house, I took them up again.

Musical junkies like my family and myself may be the exception to the general public in terms of how many old movies we watch. But in that documentary “Raining on a New Generation,” theater and TV stars like “High School Musical’s" Corbin Bleu and “Glee’s" Matthew Morrison said that when they were growing up, Kelly and how cool he made dancing made them feel like they could pursue it without being laughed at, without being derided for participating in a “girly” activity. Kelly made dancing look athletic, let you see how hard he was working, but still somehow made it appear effortless.

And if it happens to rain tomorrow on his birthday and you find yourself doing a little skip down the sidewalk – well, that’s all him, too.

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