Remembering Gene Kelly

This August 23, 2012 marks the centennial of the birth of Gene Kelly, the great American dancer, actor, singer; a guy’s guy who—along with Fred Astaire—is the only male who ever left me (momentarily) wishing I could dance.

I’ve always felt a kinship with Gene Kelly. It starts with Pittsburgh, the town of our birth. Kelly was born there, a hardworking Irish Catholic kid, son of Harriet Catherine and James Patrick Joseph Kelly. He attended St. Raphael Elementary and eventually sparred in fistfights and on the dance floor before opening a studio in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill section.

And then there’s our connection to the University of Pittsburgh, from which we both graduated many decades apart—he in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. When I step on campus today, I walk by his star engraved outside the William Pitt Union. There are no stars chiseled on campus for the likes of, say, Thomas Starzl, who pioneered organ transplantation at Pitt’s School of Medicine, or for Jonas Salk, who was developing the Polio vaccine at Pitt when Kelly was making “Brigadoon”—but, hey, such is celebrity, and I’m happy that folks get this regular reminder of Kelly’s feet once gliding across campus. That star stands a few feet from where—at old Forbes Field—Bill Mazeroski beat the New York Yankees in the 1960s World Series, and where Roberto Clemente did a different kind of gliding across the base paths.

Readers familiar with my writings are probably thinking I must also feel a political kinship with Kelly. Not exactly. I’m, of course, a conservative; Kelly was anything but. In fact, it pained me to include him in my book, “Dupes,” where I noted Kelly among the Hollywood progressives exploited by Hollywood communists. To wit:

In October 1947, Gene Kelly joined a gaggle of Hollywood liberals who forming a group called the “Committee for the First Amendment.” They launched a major public-relations trip to Washington to defend accused friends; that is, friends accused of being communists. Their friends had been summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities for their blatantly pro-Soviet activities. The accused insisted they were neither pro-communist nor pro-Stalin. Kelly and his fellow progressives believed them totally—hook, line, sinker.

Among the liberal stars enlisted were Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Gene Kelly.

Once they got to Washington, however, the wide-eyed progressives learned the truth. The accused, such as the likes of John Howard Lawson—known as “Hollywood’s Commissar”—Dalton Trumbo, Alvah Bessie, and Albert Maltz, were guilty as charged. When the actors watched the hearings, they were stunned that Congress’ Democrats and Republicans and their lawyers had done their homework and presented massive volumes of hard evidence: Communist Party card numbers, dues payments, writings for the Daily Worker and New Masses, membership in front-groups, and on and on. The actors had been lied to—big-time. Bogart flew into a rage, screaming with choice profanities that he had been “sold out.” He sure had—as had Gene Kelly and the others.

In fact, it was the second time that year that Kelly had been duped. In February 1947, Hollywood’s closet communists cast Kelly, the all-American boy, to provide the introduction at the kick-off meeting of the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), held at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles. Kelly was no doubt surprised to see (before he spoke) the large screen that splashed rolling footage of Harry Truman’s and America’s bloody crime at Hiroshima. This was part of Communist Party USA’s anti-Truman campaign, along with other campaigns that year that served Stalin: their attacks on the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. On the ballot that evening as board members of PCA was the likes of Lawson and Trumbo.

Kelly was hardly alone in being burned by the Reds. My political hero, Ronald Reagan, once a self-described “hemophiliac liberal,” likewise was torched by Hollywood’s communists. Reagan, of course, more than redeemed himself. As a result, we remember him for his politics more than his movies.

As for Gene Kelly, though, we fortunately remember him for his movies: The blue-collar, happy-go-lucky GI performing “I Got Rhythm” to French kids in Paris post-World War II; singing with Judy Garland when she was famous before he was (“For Me and My Gal,” 1942); doing the town with Frank Sinatra; and, best of all, immortalized in that wonderful scene in “Singing in the Rain.” For the record, my favorite occasion watching the latter was during a rain delay one day at a Pittsburgh Pirates game. That brought it all home.

Here’s to Gene Kelly, fellow Pittsburgher—and American icon. May that star continue to shine beyond Pitt campus.