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Brattle Celebrates Gene Kelly :: It’s Always Great Dancing

by Jake Mulligan
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Monday Dec 24, 2012
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Boston remains one of the best spots for repertory cinema in the country; and Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre is going to prove it this holiday season. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the legendary Gene Kelly’s birthday, they’ve lined up a series of 12 films that celebrate his career in its many facets. Actor, director, choreographer, singer; all of the above - this "Centennial Celebration" has the bases covered.

It all starts on Christmas Day with the seminal "Singin’ in the Rain," co-directed by Kelly and his greatest collaborator Stanley Donen. Considered by many to be not just his best work, but the best film in the history of the musical genre, "Singin’" uses the dawn of ’talkies’ as an excuse to dive into the deep end of movie history. Donen leaves Kelly swooning for a chorus girl (Debbie Reynolds) and hopelessly prancing from set-to-set in hopes of winning her heart; using the lackadaisical narrative as an excuse to fit in show-stopping set-piece after show-stopping set-piece.


But while "Singin’" is all about artifice, the pair’s first collaboration, "On the Town" [playing Wednesday the 26th, as a double feature with "Anchors Aweigh,"] is a street-level revelation.

Often credited as one of the first films ever to be shot on location; "Town" sees Kelly (along with Frank Sinatra) as a Navy man on leave, gleefully tapping across rooftops, subway stations, museums, and landmarks aplenty. Betty Garrett and Ann Miller play their aggressive suitors; leaving Donen and Kelly’s first picture both playfully sexy and completely exuberant.

But for my money, their third and final film together, "It’s Always Fair Weather" [playing the 27th,] is their masterpiece. Covering three men who, a decade after they fought together in WWII, re-unite to realize they’ve grown to hate each other (and themselves), "Weather" is a bit of a spiritual sequel to "On the Town."

But it’s also the culmination of what makes Donen and Kelly so singular: their dance sequences are divorced from the stage, overlayed with expressive lighting, special effects, numerous editing "tricks," and expansive multi-level sets. Their work, more than any other musicals of the time, were inherently cinematic. And when those talents are placed against their strongest and most distinct narrative yet - "Fair Weather" would seem blisteringly cynical today; in the mid-50s it must have seemed downright revolutionary - their work rises to the height of genius.


But Donen wasn’t the only auteur Kelly spent time with. The Brattle is also playing three pictures he did with the great Vincente Minnelli (also known for "Gigi," and "Some Came Running.") "Brigadoon," playing on the 27th as a double feature with "Fair Weather," sees Kelly team with Van Johnson for a hunting trip to a magical village in Scotland.

But it’s "The Pirate" I’m most excited to see, playing the 28th as a double feature with "The Three Musketeers." This second Kelly/Minnelli team-up has some ardent fans in the EDGE offices, and the plot - which sees Kelly, as an actor, masquerade as a pirate to win the heart of Judy Garland - sounds downright delightful (as does the Cole Porter soundtrack.)

However, their "An American in Paris" is sure to enjoy the most attention. Drawing influence from Michael Powell and "The Red Shoes," Minnelli’s sets are a painted Parisian wonderland. The film, which sees Kelly as an American painter losing his heart after WWII, devolves further and further into those expressive set designs. It eventually closes in a near-surrealist dancing finale, with Kelly and Leslie Caron stepping their way through a lovingly handcrafted set.


Speaking of expressive, that double features [on Sunday the 30th] with Kelly’s "Invitation to the Dance", the first film he directed on his own. A triptych of short stories; "Dance" features no dialogue, delivering only what the title promises. For those whose interest lies in Kelly’s craft as much as it does in the movies that display it, then this is the picture you can’t afford to miss (it’s also incredibly rare, only recently having been released on a still-somewhat-hard-to-find DVD.)

That leaves only Saturday the 29th, which sees a triple bill of features that pair Kelly up against more-than-capable leading ladies. In "Summer Stock" Judy Garland is left matching his moves, while in the 1944 star-making "Cover Girl" he grooves around Rita Hayworth. But I’m most interested in a big screen look at the early 80s curio "Xanadu," a roller-disco-set melodrama with Kelly mentoring Michael Beck, who’s in turn guided by a muse (literally) played by Olivia Newton-John. It’s culty madness, and endlessly entertaining.

Just programming all these movies would be enjoyable enough; but the Brattle has been able to secure 35mm prints for each and every film. In a day and age where every critic is publishing articles about the death of film, it’s legitimately uplifting to be around theatres that don’t just employ, but completely rely on what is still the best way to watch a movie. Do yourself a favor: if you take the family to the movie over Christmas, spurn the lowbrow efforts by Barbara Streisand and Billy Crystal. Check out one of Kelly’s innumerable classics instead. You might just leave with a spring in your step.


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