Toe-Tapping Facts About Gene Kelly, Hollywood's King Of Dance

October 18, 2023 | Rachel Seigel

Toe-Tapping Facts About Gene Kelly, Hollywood's King Of Dance

Gene Kelly’s effortless charisma and perfect smile lit up the screen—but there was a disturbing side to him that his audiences never saw.

1. He Was A Triple Threat

Gene Kelly was one of entertainment's most talented triple threats, but he was so much more than that. Even off-screen, he was a powerhouse to be reckoned with: He was a director and choreographer who innovated the Hollywood musical. But his perfectionism was also his Achilles' heel.

Though he came across as a suave Prince Charming, many of his co-stars later confessed nightmarish tales about him.

Gene Kelly dancing and looking at the camera

2. He Didn’t Like Dancing

Gene Kelly was only eight years old when he first put on his dancing shoes. His mother placed both him and his brother James in dance classes—but it was not love at first twirl. Other boys in their neighborhood called them “sissies,” which led to constant fistfights. With all the teasing and turmoil that came along with dancing, Kelly deeply resented it and eventually stopped altogether.

Of course, he had no clue that dancing would become his destiny.Gene Kelly in black suitColumbia, Cover Girl (1944)

3. He Gave It A Second Shot

At the age of 15, Gene Kelly gave dancing a second chance. Approaching adulthood, he had transformed into a strong athlete and no longer feared those who once intimidated him. Moreover, he realized that dancing was the best way to woo a woman.

Though he planned to get a journalism degree—there was a tragedy waiting in the wings. The 1929 crash changed his life forever.

Gene Kelly  in black dancing with Cyd Charisse in whiteHulton Archive, Getty Images

4. The Depression Made Him Desperate

The depression was a dark time for most people—and Kelly’s family was no exception. Desperate to keep everyone afloat, he promptly dropped out of school and began dancing with his brother Fred. They performed in nightclubs and signed up for talent contests in the hopes of bringing home the prize money. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Photo of Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, and Gene Kelly from Anchors Aweigh (1945) in sailors uniformLiberty Publications, Wikimedia Commons

5. He Was A Teacher First

By 1932, Gene Kelly’s family had opened a dance school, and it wasn’t long before Kelly finally accepted the inevitable: He and dance were a match made in heaven. Soon his interest in teaching waned and his hopes and dreams became centered on one thing only—performing. He broke into Broadway, but it wasn’t until 1940 that Gene Kelly got his first, irresistible taste of fame.Gene Kelly in black suit and bow tieBettmann, Getty Images

6. He Was A Perfectionist

With his lead role in Broadway’s Pal Joey, Gene Kelly’s notorious reputation as a unflinching perfectionist took root. One of his co-stars, Van Johnson, began to notice something odd about Kelly: He never seemed satisfied with his performances.

Johnson recalled, “It was midnight and we had been rehearsing since 8 in the morning. I was making my way sleepily down the long flight of stairs when I heard staccato steps coming from the stage... I could see just a single lamp burning. Under it, a figure was dancing... Gene”.

But as we’ll see, Gene Kelly’s obsession with perfection would get him into some chilling situations.

Michael Kidd, Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey in uniforms dancingMGM, Wikimedia Commons

7. He Met His Future Wife

Though it may seem like it, Gene Kelly wasn’t all work and no play. In 1939, he met the actress Betsy Blair in a meet-cute that sounds reminiscent of the musicals he was destined to make. When she first ran into him at an audition, she naively assumed he was a hired hand. However, when she returned the following day, there was a surprise in store for her.

Betsy Blair  in black  jacketUnited Artists, Wikimedia Commons

8. He Took Her By Surprise

Blair was shocked to learn that the handsome hired hand was actually the show’s choreographer. They began dating and, two years later, they tied the knot. Blair later admitted to jumping blindly into the marriage after Kelly romantically proposed to her in front of the Plaza Hotel: “I said yes immediately. I didn’t have any reservations at all. You don’t when you’re in love”.

But the closer you look at this love story, the more the cracks begin to show.

Betsy Blair (1923 - 2009), winner of the Best Foreign Actress award for her role in 'MartyTerry Fincher, Getty Images

9. He Liked Younger Women

When Gene Kelly first me Betsy Blair, he was 27…She, on the other hand, was only 15 years old. Sure, it was a sad truth that many men in that era dated women far younger than themselves—but even then, the age gap between Kelly and Blair was significant enough to draw criticism.

Of course, this was nothing compared to the eyebrow-raising relationship he pursued later in life.

Promotional photograph of actor Gene Kelly in gray suitMGM, Wikimedia Commons

10. He Was Insecure

With his undeniable talent on display, Hollywood came calling in no time at all. In 1942, Kelly starred in his very first film alongside Judy Garland, For Me and My Gal. Immediately, his self-doubt kicked in. He felt, “appalled at the sight of myself blown up 20 times. I had an awful feeling that I was a tremendous flop”. NOPE.

Kelly nailed the role—but it was really his work on Cover Girl, two years later, that propelled the star to new heights.

Judy Garland  and  Gene Kelly in  For Me and My Gal playing a pianoMGM, For Me and My Gal (1942)

11. His Films Were Similar

Singin’ in the Rain is undoubtedly the film Gene Kelly is best known for, which made Cover Girl the pitch-perfect dress rehearsal. Upon closer inspection, the similarities between the two films are quite shocking.

While dancing along a city street, Kelly’s character sings the lyrics, “What if it rains and it pours? It only rains out of doors! Let every frown disappear..". But that wasn’t all.

Gene Kelly & Rita Hayworth in green outfitsColumbia, Cover Girl (1944)

12. They Seemed Connected

In Cover Girl, Gene Kelly dances with Rita Hayworth and Phil Silvers, which uncannily mirrors his dancing with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain. However, Kelly’s experience during the production of Cover Girl was extremely special for a surprising reason.Rita Hayworth Gene Kelly Phil Silvers in  Cover Girl  dancing togetherColumbia, Cover Girl (1944)

13. He Had All The Power

Gene Kelly had all the power on the set of Cover Girl. In fact, Columbia Pictures granted him complete control over it. It was the right move. Kelly ended up contributing key ideas which leant to its overwhelming success.

For instance, he implemented trick photography, which allowed him to dance with himself. He even found a way to film Rita Hayworth and Phil Silvers’ dance sequence in one take by removing the sound stage walls. Kelly proved himself as an innovator and a star—but behind closed doors, he hid a shocking dark side.

Rita Hayworth and  Gene Kelly in Cover Girl  dancing togetherColumbia, Cover Girl (1944)

14. He Had A Dark Side

There’s nothing juicier than the behind-the-scenes stories that came out of Singin’ in the Rain—and it showcases a different side of Gene Kelly.

Yes, Gene Kelly was known for his exhausting rehearsals, but Debbie Reynolds really got the short end of the stick. She was only 19 when she landed a role in Singin’ in the Rain—but she had no clue what she was getting herself into.

Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain looking at the cameraMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

15. He Was Hard On Debbie Reynolds

Compared to her co-stars, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds still had a lot to learn. She wasn’t an experienced dancer and her limited skills frustrated Kelly, who was extremely hard on her. Reynolds later wrote in her memoir, “I had three months to learn what Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor had been doing for years”.

But Kelly didn’t cut her a single break.

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in  Singin' in the Rain, singing and dancingMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

16. He Was A "Cruel Taskmaster"

Debbie Reynolds painted a disturbing picture of the beloved Gene Kelly, later describing him as a “cruel taskmaster”. During their long rehearsals, he cast a critical eye over every move she made and, according to her, offered not a single word of word encouragement. Somehow, it gets even worse.

Gene Kelly dancing in studio looking upHulton Archive, Getty Images

17. Their Chemistry Was Fake

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds certainly had acting chops because their onscreen chemistry is downright breathtaking. However, their working relationship was far from romantic. In her memoir, Reynolds shared the cringeworthy story of their characters’ first kiss. Gene Kelly surprised her in the worst way possible.

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds  in Singin' in the Rain outsideMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

18. His Kiss Disgusted Her

When Gene Kelly leaned in to kiss Debbie Reynold for the first time, he allegedly “shoved his tongue” down her throat—something she wasn’t prepared for at all. Her reaction was doubly upsetting. Reynolds ripped herself from his grasp and began hollering for some Coca-Cola so that she could rinse out her mouth. But that wasn’t the most upsetting part.Gene Kelly  and Debbie Reynolds in  Singin' in the Rain in a car drivingMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

19. He Didn't Get Her Consent

In describing her kiss with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds wrote, “I was an innocent kid who had never been French-kissed. It felt like an assault. I was stunned that this thirty-nine-year-old man would do this to me”. Unfortunately, Kelly made Reynolds’ experience a downright nightmare, and his rehearsals drove her to the very edge.

Screenshot 2023-09-28 123143MGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

20. His Rehearsals Were Horror Stories

Gene Kelly really put his co-stars through the wringer with the number “Good Morning”. They danced from 8 am to 11 pm, and by the end of it, Reynolds’ feet were bleeding and she had to be carried off the set. She spent two days recovering. Still, this wasn’t the end of Kelly’s reign of terror.

Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain, singing and dancingMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

21. He Made Her Cry

Reportedly, Gene Kelly’s disciplinary attitude caused Debbie Reynolds to completely break down in tears. On one distressing day, she sought sanctuary in a deserted rehearsal room, hiding beneath a piano to unleash her overwhelming grief in solitude. But in one of her darkest moments of despair, somebody found her.Debbie Reynolds Singin' in the Rain cryingMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

22. He Never Dried Her Tears

Unfortunately, Gene Kelly did not show up to offer words of consolation to his weepy co-star. No, instead, it was the other dancing legend Fred Astaire who told Debbie Reynolds, “You’re not going to [perish]. That’s what it’s like to learn to dance. If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Debbie Reynolds wasn’t the only one to wilt in the presence of Gene Kelly.

Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain looking shockedMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

23. He Left Her Covered In Bruises

Compared to Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse was a dancing powerhouse—and yet, even she had her gripes with Gene Kelly. According to her, Kelly sometimes manhandled his dancing partners, leaving them with shocking bruises.

Charisse even said that her husband knew exactly who she’d been dancing with if she came home with marks all over her body. If she was unmarked, he knew that she’d been working with Fred Astaire and not Gene Kelly.

gene kelly  in singin' in the rain dancing on stageMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

24. He Was Too Competitive

Turns out, Gene Kelly was as intense off stage as he was on stage. Even fun pastimes like volleyball became grueling competitions as the actor just couldn’t shake his desire to be the best showman around. 

Bob Fosse once said, “I’d never seen anyone so fierce about a so-called friendly game in my life. He had a competitive streak in him that was quite frightening”. And at times, Kelly’s extreme behaviors resulted in painful consequences.

Lana Turner and Gene Kelly sitting on a sofa at an eventUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

25. He Was A Sore Loser

Gene Kelly’s competitive nature could be his strongest asset or his greatest weakness. On one unforgettable occasion, a game of volleyball ended in disaster. When he lost the game, he reacted like a petulant child. Kelly stomped his foot so hard on the ground—his ankle broke. As a result, he could no longer star in 1948’s Easter Parade, his role going to Fred Astaire.

However, his perfectionism left even deeper scars.

Fred Astaire and  Judy Garland in  Easter Parade looking at each otherMGM, Easter Parade (1948)

26. He Doubted His Abilities

Although Gene Kelly’s every move on screen seemed graceful, effortless, and utterly believable, he harbored some real personal demons. He doubted his acting abilities constantly. In fact, he was so critical of himself that he loathed seeing himself on screen. Kelly couldn’t stop comparing himself to other Hollywood giants.

Gene Kelly in Cover Girl sad walking on streetColumbia, Cover Girl (1944)

27. He Never Felt Good Enough

In the biography He Got Rhythm, Kelly’s staggering insecurities are brought to the forefront. Although he admitted to being a competent stage actor, he considered himself to be just “passable” in films. He knit picked everything from his gestures to his facial expressions and voice. Kelly even stated, “I would have loved to have been as good an actor as Spencer Tracy or Marlon Brando”.

Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh walking somewhereMGM, Anchors Aweigh (1945)

28. He Ruffled Some Feathers

Three years before Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly made Take Me Out to the Ball Game with Frank Sinatra and Esther Williams. Here too, Kelly managed to ruffle some feathers—most notably, Esther Williams’. The actress was not a fan of Kelly and she didn’t mince words: “He was a jerk, but he could dance”.

Turns out, she had good reason to be annoyed.Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly in take me out to the ball  game  dancing and looking at the cameraMGM, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

29. He Made Her Miserable

Esther Williams described her time working alongside Gene Kelly as “pure misery”. Though he seemed to be almost too professional in some cases, Kelly really missed the mark while working on Take Me Out to the Ball Game. He hated the fact that Williams was taller than him and wanted her to slouch whenever they had a scene together.

In one take, he even complained while she was sitting, saying Williams “even sits tall!” Of course, Williams wasn’t the last person to complain about Kelly.

Esther Williams and Frank Sinatra in Take Me Out to the Ball GameMGM, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

30. He And His Collaborator Butt Heads

Gene Kelly’s turbulent, working relationships with co-stars like Debbie Reynolds and Esther Williams were nothing compared to his relationship with his greatest collaborator, Stanley Donen. The actors met back when Kelly starred in 1940’s Pal Joey on Broadway. At that time, Donen was just a 16-year-old chorus boy who looked up to the star of the show, Gene Kelly.

But that wouldn’t last forever.

Stanley Donen wearing a jacketJohn Springer Collection, Getty Images

31. He Was A Mentor

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen had a classic dynamic; Kelly became a mentor with Donen as his young protégé. As time passed, Donen began working as Kelly’s assistant, and they eventually became co-directors. But this working friendship set the scene for one of the greatest falling outs in Hollywood.

Gene Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ball Game wearing a plaid jacket dancingMGM, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

32. He Had To Share The Stage

Once Donen grew into a man and became confident in his own abilities, he also grew out of his role as the dutiful protégé and assistant. An even playing field emerged—but of course, Gene Kelly had a domineering streak. Compromise wasn’t always Kelly’s strong suit. And down the road, Donen exposed how tumultuous their “friendship” truly was.Elizabeth Taylor and director Stanley Donen in 1951 in Hollywood, CAKeystone-France, Getty Images

33. His Talents Were Undeniable

Stanley Donen never denied the genius of Gene Kelly and later called him one of “the wonders of the 20th century”. However, he never had an issue with Kelly’s talents, but rather his character. Though hesitant to talk badly about Kelly, Donen eventually expressed some of his true feelings—and they cast a shadow over Kelly’s reputation.

Jerry Mouse and Gene Kelly DanceMGM, Anchors Aweigh (1945)

34. He Was A Difficult Man

In speaking about Kelly, Donen later expressed, “What I didn’t like—and I know this is not appropriate now—was his manner off-screen. He could be difficult with me and everyone else. It was always a complicated collaboration…It wasn’t always the happiest thing”.

This fraught working relationship undoubtedly led to their startling breakup—but it wasn’t the most scandalous reason why.

Gene Kelly in Cover Girl looking sad singingColumbia, Cover Girl (1944)

35. He Was Part Of A Love Triangle

Enter: Jeanne Coyne. Beginning with the production On the Town, Jeanne Coyne was Gene Kelly’s assistant. In fact, she had a hand in creating Kelly’s signature style. On set, they seemed like a great match, but Coyne ended up marrying Kelly’s friend Donen. This was a recipe for heartbreak.Gene Kelly looking left from the cameraU.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons

36. His Friend's Wife Fell In Love With Him

When Gene Kelly’s marriage to Betsy Blair began to crumble, Jeanne Coyne seized her chance—and made a jaw-dropping confession. Apparently, she was completely in love with Kelly. It was enough that Coyne had betrayed her husband, but there was an even greater treachery in store.divorce case, May 17, 1951. Mrs Jeanne Donen (Jeanne Coyne, stage name)University of Southern California, Getty Images

37. He Had A Serious Breakup

Stanley Donen was undoubtedly enraged by his wife’s secret love for his collaborator Gene Kelly. The messy love triangle was just another nail in the coffin when it came to the great collaboration of Kelly and Donen. It was finally over—but Kelly really knew how to exacerbate the situation further.Nina Foch And Gene Kelley in An American In ParisUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

38. He Dealt Him A Betrayal

Once both Kelly and Coyne escaped their marriages, they were finally free to pursue one another—and they eventually tied the knot in 1960. Two children soon followed, Timothy and Bridget. But this was no “happily ever after”. Fate had a terrible twist in store for these two dancers.Actor Gene Kelly with his wife Jeanne Coyne, son Tim and daughter Bridget, pose for a family portrait in 1971Martin Mills, Getty Images

39. He Tragically Lost His Wife

Sadly, life has a way of throwing the most shocking curveballs, and for Gene Kelly, one of them must have been his wife’s leukemia diagnosis. Jeanne Coyne was only 50 years old when she passed from cancer, leaving her husband and two young children behind. 

After losing Coyne, Kelly was reportedly set on never marrying again…that is, until he met someone he never saw coming.Headshot of Gene Kelly (1912-1996), US actor and dancer, wearing a dark blue jacketSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

40. His Last Relationship Was Scandalous

Remember when Gene Kelly began dating his first wife when she was only 15, well, his last relationship was jaw-dropping in a similar way. Gene Kelly was 73 when he met 26-year-old Patricia Ward in 1985. Even more shocking? Ward had no clue who Gene Kelly was, and she certainly hadn’t seen his most famous film, Singin’ in the Rain.  

Gene Kelly portrait smiling at the camera in 1986Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

41. He Wasn't Recognizable

While working on a documentary about the Smithsonian museum, Patricia Ward first heard Gene Kelly’s name. Though he was the host narrator of the production, she later confessed, his “name meant nothing to me”. It gets weirder.

Her first impression of Kelly was that he was a “very elegant man,” but she remained oblivious of his Hollywood fame until the production wrapped.Patricia Ward Kelly at the 18th Annual Les Girls CabaretKathy Hutchins, Shutterstock

42. He Never Told Her Who He Was

On their final day of working together, Gene Kelly scooted off in a limo—and that’s when Patricia Ward finally discovered the truth. The woman next to her said, “He was really famous, you know,” prompting Ward to finally do some research. She went to a video store, and rented as many Gene Kelly films as possible. She was about to have her mind blown.

Gene Kelly  and Patricia Ward at an event looking at the cameraFrank Trapper, Getty Images

43. His Blew Her Mind

Watching Gene Kelly’s filmography threw Patricia Ward for a loop: “I just remember this kind of marathon of watching with my mouth agape, because the work is so brilliant. And timeless”. Ward was no doubt entranced—but it wasn’t long before Kelly came knocking at her door. 

He called, asking her if she wanted to collaborate again. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse.Gene Kelly in Take Me Out To The Ball Game playing baseballMGM, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

44. He Lied To The Press

Gene Kelly and Patricia Ward’s working relationship soon transformed into something more—and they married five years after their first meeting. Ward was 31 at the time she said “I do,” but Kelly decided to tell the press a little white lie. He told them that his blushing bride was actually 36. 

Perhaps he already knew that the age gap would cause a scandal.Gene Kelly Patricia Ward looking at the cameraFrank Trapper, Getty Images

45. His Wife Didn't Mind The Age Gap

Even in his old age, Gene Kelly titillated the tabloids. But while the world cast a wary eye over Kelly’s new bride, Patricia Ward didn’t bat an eyelash. She later claimed that she never gave the age gap a second thought: “He was so terribly handsome. He didn’t seem old to me”. But that wasn’t all.

Gene Kelly with wife Patricia Ward, arriving at a formal celebrity eventVicki L. Miller, Shutterstock

46. He Was Perfect For Her

In many ways, Patricia Ward actually preferred having met Gene Kelly in his old age: “People say to me, ‘Don’t you wish you had known him when he was much younger?’ But the way I look at it is, I got him when he didn’t have to prove anything to anyone”.

Unfortunately, this also meant that the two lovebirds didn’t have much time left to spend together.

Patricia Ward in blue dress looking at the cameraGa Fullner, Shutterstock

47. His Health Nosedived

You see, by the late 1980s, Gene Kelly’s health really began to suffer—and his end proved to be devastating. He suffered a stroke in 1994, landing him in the hospital for weeks, but this was only the beginning of the end.

The next year, he had another stroke, but the consequences were even more dire. Kelly was now extremely disabled. He hung on for one more year, passing on February 2, 1996.

Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in black and white clotheskate gabrielle, Flickr

48. His Old Friend Wanted Nothing To Do With Him

Even after Gene Kelly’s passing, there was one man from the dancer’s past that would never forgive him. Yes, Stanley Donen held a deep, dark grudge against Kelly, so much so that he absolutely refused to contribute to the documentary being made about him. His reason why was brutal. 

Reportedly, he informed the filmmakers that he didn’t have anything kind to say, so he’d rather keep his lips sealed.

Gene Kelly in suit speaking on micFox Photos, Getty Images

49. He Was Burnt Out

Singin’ in the Rain was a tough production to be a part of, both Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor had their share of aches and pains—but few know that Gene Kelly also didn’t escape unscathed. As the star of the show, the director, and the choreographer, Kelly had run himself ragged by the time he had to shoot the title sequence.

Debbie Reynolds and  Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain in formal clothesMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

50. He Had A High Fever

Though stories differ, many say that Gene Kelly had a fever of up to 103 degrees on the day he filmed the song “Singin’ in the Rain”. Sick as a dog, he refused to postpone the shoot, and got ready for his solo on the drenched soundstage. But it turned out to be a harder day than anyone expected.

There were so many delays because of water effects and the pipes, and it took a day and a half to complete the scene.

Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, singing in rain sceneMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

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