Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly: the story behind the rivalry that never existed

Exquisite artists, with enormous ability to dance in front of a movie camera, went through their careers surrounded by rumors of jealousy and competition. The truth about those two track geniuses.

In the long history of Hollywood musical cinema, only two male figures reached the highest peak of fame and there they remained forever. They were only two, among a large number of dancers-actors who passed through the screens of that golden age. Surely it goes without saying, but let’s still confirm that it is Fred Astaire y Gene Kelly.

Friends or enemies? Fierce rivals or gentle competitors? More so: Astaire versus KellyWho was the best dancer? Before going into that hypothetical duel, about which so many times has been discussed and is being discussed until today, let’s go briefly to each one’s journey to get to the moment they meet in Hollywood.

She began to dance professionally when she was six years old, not of her own free will, but following in the footsteps of her older sister, Adele, the talent of the family; very soon they formed a dance couple and, as such, they toured the circuits of vaudeville throughout the vast expanses of the United States.

The vaudeville, let us remember, it was a popular form of entertainment during the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the XX. Each show brought together the most varied numbers: singers, dancers, imitators, ventriloquists, trained monkeys, stomppers, comic actors.

For many American artists, as important as Martha Graham and Fred Astaire himself, Vaudeville, though a minor genre, was a valuable school: Every night they performed in a different city or town, in front of the most varied audiences and had to adjust to a mathematically exact rhythm for each entrance and exit from the stage.

In 1917 Adele and Fred made their Broadway debut, and thanks to a dozen musical comedies by George Gershwin, in which they always appear as a duo, they become stars. In 1931, fortunately for Fred’s later career (and for us viewers), Adele marries a son of the Duke of Devonshire in England and leaves the stage.

Fred travels to Hollywood and there he circulates around the big studios giving tests; In one of them, a producer’s assistant watches him do his number and then writes down these lines: “He doesn’t know how to act. Does not know how to sing. He’s getting peeled. Dance a little”. A crushing verdict that does not discourage Fred. In 1933 he was given a secondary role in the film The dancing lady, but that same year, with Flying to Rio, Fred Astaire is revealed before the immense planetary public in all its fullness; from that moment, the admiration for his extraordinary dancing skills will never wane.

Interpreter of supreme elegance and imaginative creator and very personal, Astaire preferred individual or couple scenes – mostly romantic situations – over group choreography. She had several excellent dance partners, although the most famous and with whom she made the most films was, of course, Ginger Rogers.

They formed a sublime couple on screen; However, outside of it they were not friends, they did not share social circles and they did not even know their respective houses, because they never visited each other.

He grew up in a happy middle-class family in Pittsburgh; The dance-loving mom sent two of her sons, Fred and Gene, to dance lessons. The boys did not feel very comfortable with these classes, which on the other hand They were forced to fight with their fists with their neighborhood companions when they were called “sissies”. A few years later, however, Gene went back to the same school because discovered that knowing how to dance was an unbeatable way to conquer girls.

After several jobs and studies of all kinds, Gene Kelly – who added to his strong sports training had already faced an intense training in dance techniques – came to Broadway in 1937. He began working assiduously as a dancer and occasionally as a choreographer.

Two years later he achieved colossal success with Pal Joey, a musical comedy that deviated from the usual conventions of the genre. Among other things, the subject had a more serious character, the connections between scenes acted and danced were more fluid, and the main role, a nightclub entertainer, was an unpleasant and unscrupulous guy. Gene Kelly was able to put his skills as a dancer there, but also his acting skills.

Thanks to this success, offers began to arrive from Hollywood, which he was slow to accept; one of the most tempting came from the famous David O. Selznick (producer of gone With the Wind), but Selznick was not interested in musical films and wanted Gene exclusively as an actor. It is then that the contract passes to MGM.

Gene Kelly will finally shoot forty Hollywood movies, mostly musical comedies, including the immortal Singing under the rain in 1952.

When Gene Kelly came to Hollywood in 1941, Fred Astaire reigned as the great screen dancer for nine years. References about Kelly began to be heard: “A new Astaire appeared.”

Not because they were alike – which they weren’t – but because the public couldn’t find a simpler way to describe it. Kelly did not mind that comparison: “I was delighted,” he said later, “because Fred is a genius in his own right and anyone who dances on the screen, and does not acknowledge the debt he owes him, is a fool or a liar. ; I used to envy his distant and aristocratic style, so intimate and contained; but I also realized that it was not for me. Fred wears a top hat and evening dress like he was born for it. If I put them on I would look like a truck driver”.


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