Gene Kelly – American Film Institute

Gene Kelly

13th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

Gene Kelly

The American Dream. The phrase most immediately conjures up images of Horatio Alger-like journeys from humble beginnings to grand success, of the “little guy” overcoming great odds and landing firmly and gloriously at the top. Yet the phrase can be expanded and seen to include our smaller, simpler, but no less powerful dreams as well. The dream of three sailors’ joys and fears on their first day in New York. The dream of another GI now out on his own, an American expatriate searching for art and romance among the glories of Paris. The exhilaration of walking along the street at 3 o’clock in the morning — too happy and in love to be bothered by the rain pouring down around you. Maybe even happy enough to sing and dance a little. These are the dreams recognized and expressed through the genius of Gene Kelly.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1912, Gene Kelly served his “apprenticeship” as a dance teacher, ballet dancer, summer stock choreographer, and vaudeville circuit performer with his brother Fred, before deciding to give New York a try in 1937. Achieving his first great success as “Harry the Hoofer” in William Saroyan’s THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE, Kelly officially became a Broadway star on Christmas night, 1940, in the landmark musical PAL JOEY. Less than a year later he signed a contract with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who told him, “You’re a great actor. This nonsense about your doing musicals, that’s fine. You can do them for a hobby.” Luckily for us all, the stubborn Irishman didn’t heed the advice.

With his first film FOR ME AND MY GAL in 1942, Gene Kelly established himself as a strong and unique screen personality. In the 1944 film COVER GIRL he began to explore what he saw as the unlimited reaches of the film medium. His “Alter Ego” dance was hailed then, and still stands today, as a testimony to the vision of an individual not content to be seen as “just another song and dance man.” In his first film as director (with his invaluable collaborator Stanley Donen), ON THE TOWN, Kelly took the musical out onto the streets of New York. Using actual locations he opened up the musical film both physically and emotionally by placing it firmly in reality. His innovative use of dance, music and camera continued through such films as BRIGADOON, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, LES GIRLS, and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

Kelly is an artist constantly searching and reaching — as an actor opposite the great Spencer Tracy in INHERIT THEWIND, as the director of HELLO DOLLY and THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB, and as a choreographer. His efforts as creator of PAS DE DIEUX for the Paris Opera’s Ballet Company contributed to his being made a Knight of the French legion of Honor.

Perhaps the phrase “American Dreams” is too limiting, as Gene Kelly’s emotional and artistic appeal is truly universal. In accepting last year’s Life Achievement Award, Lillian Gish spoke of an actor’s desire to “please the world;” of a language of film that spoke to every individual in every country on earth. She might very easily have been speaking of the accomplishments of Gene Kelly, a man who recognized the simplest and grandest of the worlds’ dreams, added a little color, song and movement, and gave them back to us to carry away into our lives. For this gift and for his great artistry, the Trustees of the American Film Institute voted the thirteenth Life Achievement Award to this American Dreamer, Gene Kelly.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.