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Gene Kelly:
Anatomy of a Dancer

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer
Warner Home Entertainment
2002 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 87 min. / Street Date September 24, 2002 / $24.98
Starring Betsy Blair, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Betty Comden, Stanley Donen, Judy Garland, Betty Garrett, Kathryn Grayson, Adolph Green, Jean Hagen, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Kerry Kelly, Ann Miller, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Phil Silvers, Frank Sinatra, Stanley Tucci, Vera-Ellen, Esther Williams
Cinematography David M. Ferrara
Film Editor Arnold Glassman
Associate producer George Feltenstein
Produced, Written and Directed by Robert Trachtenberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer attracted me because it's the kind of Hollywood docu I sometimes edit. In these kinds of shows the driving force is usually the producer, and judging by this tasteful, carefully crafted effort, Robert Trachtenberg is among the best. The added resources of Public Television help make the difference between a 'dvd extra' and a fully-fleshed definitive biography.


Gene Kelly's life and career are assayed, from Pittsburgh dance school teacher to Broadway and then Hollywood. Interview material is balanced with newsfilm and feature clips to show his marriage to Betsy Blair, his collaboration with Stanley Donen, and his triumphs at MGM.

A gift to fans of musicals and Kelly, Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer takes a sober look at the life of the dancer, choreographer and director and discovers a complex man. Kelly's beginning epitomized the work ethic; wiped out in the stock market crash, his family survived by starting a dancing school. He always took work seriously and bore down hard to perfect his craft, which accounts for many of the innovations and achievements in his films.

There are some beautiful moments where one feels as if the interviewees are revealing thoughts about Kelly that they've been hanging onto for decades. Ex-wife Betsy Blair is candid about her marriage, and especially about their problems with the HUAC: he read the liberal mail before signing petitions, but she just signed every liberal paper that came along, and had bigger problems with the blacklist. A nice section about their homelife shows Kelly playing just as hard as he worked, becoming angry if party games weren't taken seriously, or if a volleyball match dragged on because the players were more interested in having a good time than scoring. A thoughtful Arthur Laurents opines that while it seemed everyone else in show business went to analysts, Kelly remained successfully non-introspective, and never saw the need for self-doubt.

Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer gets the show biz stories right without becoming gossipy or building a case for or against Hollywood in general. Selznick and Mayer manipulated Kelly out of simple business smarts, not any particular malice; Arthur Freed comes off as the perfect enabler for film talent, and pal Stanley Donen begins as a filmic prodigy (with a technically difficult scene in Cover Girl) and later crosses egos with Kelly when he wants a career of his own.

For a supposed tough taskmaster, Kelly seems to have had collaborators and helpers more than eager to stay on his team for decades. He married one of his first dance assistants thirty years and one marriage later; his dance assistant Carol Haney (remembered on film from The Pajama Game) was with him all the way, and was even meant to dance the role of the gangster's moll in the Broadway Rhythm number in Singin' in the Rain.

The dial on the Hollywood fawning is turned way down. Judy Garland became a pal helping Gene with his first MGM picture, and he returned the gesture by helping her through her last, eight years later. Betty Garrett and Cyd Charisse talk about coming home from work with bruises when dancing for Kelly, something that didn't happen with Astaire. Without gushing, the various dancers describe the differences between the Kelly and Astaire styles. Personalities are kept out of it.

Anatomy of a Dancer winds up Kelly's story with the dancer's decline in television and as a film director. He's seen on the set of That's Entertainment 3 looking very weak. Docu narrator Stanley Tucci explains Kelly's later disappointments without painting his life as some kind of tragedy. The show has balance and good taste, and many small revelations about the man and his career.

Warner/Turner's DVD of Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer is a fine disc of this new documentary first seen on PBS. The quality of the image stays high, with film clips from MGM and Columbia looking great. The crushing expense of licensing music and film clips is the difficult problem with this kind of show, but all of the clips here come with their Gershwin and Cole Porter original cues, and efforts to include TV, newsreel and home movie clips appear to have been exhaustive. As the interviews range from older (1975) material with Kelly, to archived and new Turner footage, there's some quality variance between clips. The sound is first-rate. The only extra is a Kelly filmography, but this is still one of the best Hollywood docus Savant has seen.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 22, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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