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The Gene Kelly bio He’s Got Rhythm only occasionally creates that glorious feeling

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Graphic: Devin Vaughn
Graphic: Devin Vaughn
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He's Got Rhythm: The Life And Career Of Gene Kelly

Authors: Cynthia Brideson & Sara Brideson
Publisher: University Press Of Kentucky

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A celebrity biography, particular one for a movie star, comes with inherent obstacles that are difficult for even the most skillful writer to bypass. First and foremost, the reason the subject is being written about—and presumably, the reason the reader cares—is because of their work, something that’s not always revealing of them as a person, and rarely fits into any kind of satisfying arc.

In the case of He’s Got Rhythm, a biography of Gene Kelly written by sisters Cynthia and Sara Brideson, it seems a reasonable assumption that most will be curious to learn about Kelly’s MGM musical masterpieces. The problem, at least from the point of view of drama, is that these productions occurred midway through his life and ran relatively smoothly. Not every classic is fascinating behind the scenes, especially when most of the anecdotes can be found on its IMDB trivia page, and if the headlining event is a narrative dud, where does that leave the rest of the book, particularly with 200 pages left to go?

That the most famous moments of Kelly’s life, which get the most attention, don’t sync up with the most interesting ones is the key issue faced by Rhythm. This isn’t a fatal flaw, however, and for the most part the book is an engaging, thoughtful, and comprehensive look at the great hoofer, one that doubles as a kind of parallel history of modern dance, given how its subject absorbed so much of what came before him and then influenced everything that came after (in a sign of the attention paid to Kelly’s legacy, the final section covers “1972-present,” even though Kelly died in 1996).

It helps that Kelly as a subject is complex and important to cinematic history, and yet still fairly unknown from a biographical standpoint. Even fans who have Singin’ In The Rain committed to memory are less likely to know the specifics of Kelly’s upbringing or personal life, which gives He’s Got Rhythm a leg up over other recent entries in the genre. George Lucas wasn’t completely satisfying because most fans already knew what it had to say, and the book didn’t provide any additional analysis. Charlton Heston was frustrating because of how obviously it was skipping past things, even if the readers themselves didn’t know the details. He’s Got Rhythm isn’t burdened by those types of preconceptions, and the job the Bridesons do in filling in his blank slate can’t help but be interesting to a certain extent.

However, that certain extent is where the book bumps up against another frequent obstacle of celebrity biographies: Most of the juicy stuff can only be hinted at. The authors get into a lot of recorded history—contract maneuverings, the plots of Kelly’s films, their critical and commercial reception—but this stuff, ultimately, only holds limited interest. There are enticing what-ifs for movie buffs like alternate castmates and projects he wanted to be involved with but couldn’t do, but these things don’t generate narrative momentum. The things that do are largely in the margins.

Consider Betsy Blair, Kelly’s first wife, and a relationship with some fascinating dynamics. She was in awe of his abilities (“He’s 32 times larger than life!”), but also resented how, as the bigger star and a dominant personality, he essentially dictated their life, something he seemed to have mixed feelings about himself. She was also a communist sympathizer who left him for another man; when told, he claimed affairs of his own, something the authors speculate was a lie told to assuage her guilt. Ideally, their marriage would form the backbone of the book, as it is truly illuminating about his personality and the times they lived in. But because it happened off the record, essentially, there’s only so much they can report. There’s a sense that the intimacies of fiction would better serve this part of the story.

But the material the authors do have, they write well. Kelly’s brutal competitiveness and dictatorial on-set tendencies are given a full airing, but they’re also put into a fair context, balanced against how he held himself to the same high standards he had for his dancers, and by the principles he showed (he created cinema’s first interracial dance sequence, and worked to destigmatize male dancing). The Bridesons also make a convincing case for Kelly as an unheralded artist behind the camera, noting his formal inventiveness with unconventional lenses and split-screen framing. Kelly was a thoughtful artist—accepting a risky project’s failure by noting it was an experiment, something he says is necessary to prevent artistic atrophy—and the authors foreground this attribute. (There are also times when they don’t seem skeptical enough of the studio line, as when they accept Kelly’s explanation for taking a starring role because he “saw unemployment in wartime as unpatriotic.”)

All that is enough to make Rhythm worth reading, with a couple caveats. It never shakes its structural issues, the episodic repetitiveness of starting, filming, and finishing a movie, some of which do well, and others of which don’t. Ideally a biographer would structure the story to better navigate that kind of terrain, but the simple cradle-to-grave tact used here isn’t nothing, considering the life that’s being explored and all the ways it was meaningful. The breadth Rhythm has is usually enough to compensate for its lack of depth. Usually.


Purchase He’s Got Rhythm here, which helps support The A.V. Club.