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Thursday, March 14, 2019

March 14, 2019: Irish Americans: Gene Kelly’s Films

[March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that is apparently a far bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of famous Irish American cultural figures, leading up to a post on some wonderful Irish American literary voices!]
On stand-out moments from three of the legendary Irish American dancer’s biggest hit movies.
1)      Anchors Aweigh (1945): Anchors co-starred a very young Frank Sinatra, and it would be interesting to compare it to another, significantly darker (perhaps in part because it was released after the war was over) World War II-set naval film co-starring a slightly older Sinatra, From Here to Eternity (1953). But in truth, Anchors will always be known first and foremost for the famous sequence in which Kelly dances “alongside” Jerry Mouse (of Tom and Jerry fame). Besides being pretty advanced in its combination of animation and live action (more than forty years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), the sequence foreshadows the kinds of intertextuality, playfulness, and multimedia elements that would come to define post-war, postmodern American art.
2)      An American in Paris (1951): Full disclosure, I watched all of American for a high school project where I used clips from all the Best Picture Oscar winners over a period of the 1940s and 50s, and I can’t remember a darn thing about it other than the very long climactic ballet dance featuring Kelly and Leslie Caron from which I drew my chosen clip. But in reading up on this acclaimed and hugely popular musical, what I find most interesting is that it’s an adaptation of a 1928 George Gershwin orchestral piece of the same name. American culture in the 1920s was of course defined in many ways by the expatriate experience, by artists and others (many WWI vets) living in places like Paris yet still thinking of themselves as Americans. The same is apparently true of Kelly’s World War II vet protagonist in the film, and it’d be interesting to think further about the similarities and differences between these two eras and their expatriate communities.
3)      Singin’ in the Rain (1952): Not sure I need to say too much about a film so acclaimed that Sight  & Sound put it 20th on their 2018 list of the greatest films of all time, and so beloved that the famous titular dance sequence with umbrellas was just recently part of a very different (and also very popular) pop culture moment. But I will say this: the film’s plot, which focuses on three silent film stars attempting to make the move to “talkies” in the late 1920s, and thus parallels quite interestingly the fraught place of movie musicals in an era of increasing cinematic realism, is one of the more thoughtful and historically nuanced of any film from the period (much less any musical). Indeed, I would say the same about Kelly’s oeuvre overall—in less than a decade he made all three of these thematically complex and historically resonant movies, belying any sense of him as simply or solely a song-and-dance man (unbelievably talented as he was at the dancing).
Last Irish American tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Irish Americans you’d highlight?

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