If Hollywood did anything right during the studio era, it was escapism. We’re lucky enough to get to watch the fantastic musicals and comedies of that time whenever we may need them. For the days when we are stuck inside, there are no better movies than those that make you sing and dance. And no one did song and dance on screen quite like Gene Kelly.
His choreography was some of the hardest, putting his costars through the wringer for the best dance number. He wasn’t afraid of being downright goofy but knew how to turn on the tears when a serious scene was needed. His musicals have the power to take you away from any sadness you’re experiencing, even if for just an hour and a half. You’ll want to keep the following films handy for when real life gets to be too much.
For when you need a laugh
There are few Gene Kelly musicals that don’t have a funny number or two, but there are certain numbers that stand out when flipping through his filmography. One of Kelly’s greatest aspects was his comedic grace. He effortlessly combined laugh-out-loud jokes into dances but more importantly delivered them with every inch of his body. His face contorted into the funniest faces while his limbs dance along to the music. With his costars, he wasn’t afraid to get feminine for a joke.
One of the funniest is from 1949’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game called “Yes, Indeedy.” Kelly and Frank Sinatra sing about their (exaggerated) philandering from while they were away from baseball. Kelly emulates the women they sing about, turning his hat up like a bonnet and singing in his falsetto. They jump around the baseball field while cracking their teammates up, and it’s impossible not to crack a giggle yourself.
In The Pirate, from 1948, Kelly entertains a crowd and encourages them to be silly with him in the song “Be a Clown.” He goes from pirate to clown in a snap, taking on a silly costume and performing acrobatic moves. Before the number starts, Kelly jokes, “As my mother used to say, no noose is good noose.” In the middle of his insane dance number, he dances a little too close to a hanging noose, bringing that joke back into the song. Kelly and his backup dancers shake their butts and put on a good show that will be sure to put a smile on your face.
Kelly had the ability to make you laugh without a dance as well, especially in “Blue Danube (I Shouldn’t Have Come)” from It’s Always Fair Weather. Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd sing in their heads about how they’d rather be home. The feeling in the song is one we all know too well, and this number cracks fun at it. Even though the moment in this film is pretty sad, the war buddies realize they aren’t as close as they once were, Kelly has the ability to find the fun in the song.
While Gene Kelly himself doesn’t perform “Make Em’ Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain, he is behind the insane choreography. Donald O’Conner jumps on walls and flips over couches to make you laugh, so you should let him. It’s one of the most remembered dance numbers on film, period, and Kelly’s impressive ability to throw together a dance unlike you’ve seen before is on full display in “Make Em’ Laugh.”
For when you’re lovesick
It’s no news that Gene Kelly was pretty to look at. He was handsome and it’s impossible to ignore when he’s dancing around on screen. Although, it wasn’t just his good looks that made him irresistible. I don’t need any science to back up the fact that anyone would melt if Kelly looked at them the way he gazes at his leading ladies. His whole face softens and suddenly that woman is the only woman in the world to him. If you don’t have someone looking at you in your life, God it feels good to watch Gene Kelly do it.
In An American in Paris, he sings “Our Love is Here to Stay” to Leslie Caron. Swelling strings and a gorgeous orchestra behind Kelly’s soft serenading is the perfect formula for you to fall in love with him. He’s so full of suave talent and watching him guide someone else in his arms makes him look like the perfect man. If Leslie Caron can’t help but love him, you’re no match for his charms.
Kelly’s earlier and lesser-known movies include Du Barry was a Lady, in which he asks “Do I Love You?” to Lucille Ball in her character’s dressing room. It’s a darn sweet song, but it’s Kelly that takes it to the next level. He never takes his eyes off of Ball as he sings, and the close-ups on his face are sure to make you swoon. There’s something about watching Gene Kelly serenade a lady that makes you believe maybe good men do exist and you deserve to be loved like that.
Even when Kelly isn’t being funny, he exudes this regular-guy charm that he wears so well. He’s not too gorgeous. He’s not too good at getting the girl. He’s not too smart. He’s just the right amount of adorable. He always plays the good guy and it’s always alright to fall in love with him. It’s impossible not to.
For when your surroundings are looking dull
Gene Kelly musical can take you out of your living room and into a Technicolor dream world or even a more colorful version of real cities. Thanks to Hollywood’s ability to recreate more vibrant interpretations of places, Kelly got to dance in the best settings you could imagine. Kelly’s musicals give you the ability to escape to a better version of reality for a bit.
Kelly’s version of New York City is as magical as you’d want. The opening of On the Town shows the best parts of New York: its gorgeous skyline in the sunrise, the Brooklyn Bridge, a beautiful view from above the streets, and much more. It features all the best New York has to offer and everything you dream to see if you visit there. Throughout the rest of the movie, Kelly dances through New York the way we all would love to if people didn’t look at you like you were crazy. It’s the perfect movie for when you can’t enjoy New York City.
It’s no surprise that Paris in An American in Paris is at its most beautiful thanks to director Vincent Minelli. Minelli and Kelly worked together on several films, including this poetic musical. Kelly dances through Paris in some of the most colorful scenes imagined. The backdrops aren’t always realistic, and that’s what makes them so gorgeous. They’re vibrant recreations of the feeling that Paris brings to those who visit the city, and Kelly inhabits this world beautifully.
Some of Kelly’s most beautiful scenes don’t happen in actual places. He’s never afraid to take us further out of reality and into his own dreamscape. In “Gotta Dance / Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly dances under Broadway lights and into Cyd Charisse‘s arms. The song itself is joyous and lovely, but the visuals make it truly unforgettable. What I would do to live in that number for just a bit…
For when you’re needing a friend
Gene Kelly is not the only talented song and dance performer from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but he sure makes them look even better when he’s next to them. Kelly was able to transform actors who didn’t know a lick about dancing into tap stars and glide right next to his predecessors. Everyone is his great pal in his movies, and that’s thanks to his ability to find chemistry with everyone he worked with. Having him next to your favorite stars somehow makes them even more talented.
Sinatra needed no help when singing songs in the musicals he did with Gene Kelly, but he did need extensive lessons on dancing. It’s not easy keeping up with Kelly in any of the dance numbers he did in his musicals, but he was able to teach Sinatra how to. When watching their numbers together, like “I Begged Her” from Anchors Aweigh, you’d never know he normally had two left feet. Kelly never made him look inadequate as a dancer. He amplified his potential and challenged him to give us a good show. Their musicals, which also include Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town, are some of Kelly’s best, and it’s partly thanks to how well he and Sinatra worked with each other.
Thankfully, Gene Kelly made a number of movies with Judy Garland. He gave her dance numbers and accompanied her in songs that showcased her best talents. While Garland is known to have been rather difficult to work with, Kelly makes it look easy in any movie he starred in with her. Their musicals together include Summer Stock, The Pirate, Words and Music, Ziegfeld Follies, and Thousands Cheer, but their best is For Me and My Gal. It has romance, comedy, and tragedy all in one. One of their numbers, “Ballin’ the Jack,” has some of the quickest footwork ever, but Garland keeps up easily. Their chemistry makes for a beautiful love story that every fan of Garland should see.
Fred Astaire was dancing on celluloid years before Kelly arrived in Hollywood, but that didn’t mean he could dance circles around Kelly. They are evenly matched in the only number they did together, from Ziegfeld Follies. “The Babbit and Bromide” showcases two of the most talented dancers from Hollywood in one song. They show they can both be funny while doing dance moves no one else could pull off so easily. Seeing them perform together is a treasure. It’s only a shame they never did it again.
For when you’re feeling hopeless
Gene Kelly had a way of singing about life that makes things seem okay even if you’re going through the worst of it. Love is a wonderful gift when he sings “Almost Like Being in Love” in Brigadoon. He lists through all you should love about yourself in “I Like Myself” in It’s Always Fair Weather. He cheers up Jerry the mouse in “The Worry Song” in Anchors Aweigh. He sings about a hope for a better day in “Make Way for Tomorrow” in Cover Girl. The list goes on. Kelly has the ability to bring out all the joys of life in every musical he did, and it’s hard not to find his happiness contagious. His most famous happy song is the title number from Singin’ in the Rain. He gives fancy footwork through puddles and twirls around lamp posts all with a glorious smile on his face. It’s a song that has cheered up generations who never even got to see the movie in theaters. It’s thanks to Kelly’s innate talent for inhabiting the joy of being alive. Life to Gene Kelly in his movies is grand enough to sing about and moving enough to dance about. He’s the perfect cure for when you’re down and out.
Gene Kelly once said, “I know if I can make you smile by jumping over a couple of couches or running through a rainstorm, then I’ll be very glad to be a song and dance man.” Make him glad and continue to turn to his movies when you need some cheering up.