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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gene Kelly: Working Class Hoofer

WASHINGTON -- Proud to be working class, defiantly deprived, a proletarian who got a college degree and even went to law school for a few months. But he saw himself as working class in the ennobled and entitled vision of the 1930s and 1940s.


This is what you saw in the dancing of Gene Kelly, the exuberant, charismatic hoofer who died Friday in Los Angeles at the age of 83 after years of declining health.


In 1994 in Interview magazine, Kelly said, "We -- the Kellys -- never got invited to the upper crust soirees in Hollywood. My parties ... well, we were the working stiffs.... That's what I was -- working class. When I grew up in the Depression I hated the kids that could drive a car to school and spend 25 cents on lunch; we had to spend a nickel or a dime. Later, all my dancing came out of the idea of the common man."


He was an Irish guy in sports shirt, slacks and white socks -- white socks! (they called attention to his feet) -- and specially made moccasins. In "Anchors Aweigh" and "On the Town" he wore sailor suits, a bit of haberdashery that belongs to the proletariat alone. They were "the greatest dance outfits ever conceived," Kelly said.


It was hard to imagine him dancing when he wasn't, in the way that it was hard to imagine Fred Astaire not dancing any time. Astaire's transition into a dance number was a question of degree, as if he were simply gathering all his walking, sitting and knee-crossing gestures into one place.


With Kelly, the transition was trickier. He often used animation and dream sequences to break the viewer's hold on the real world, as in "On the Town's" dreamy "Day in New York" ballet. Though he was more proletarian than Astaire, he was often more balletic -- turning, pausing and extending his hand in a dancer's gesture of "There!"


Kelly turned stage dancing into sound-stage dancing. Hence the suddenly three-dimensional quality of the numbers in his movies.


As he told Interview magazine in 1994: "I did 'Cover Girl' on loan to Columbia, with Rita Hayworth, and that's when I began to see that you could make dances for cinema that weren't just photographed stage dancing. That was my big insight into Hollywood, and Hollywood's big insight into me."


His most famous piece, "Singin' in the Rain," incorporates ballet, slapstick, Pierrot wonderment and self-mockery.


He was average height, about 5 feet, 9 inches, but he had the tidy cheer and carefully trained muscles of a little man, the eagerness of a Jimmy Cagney with far more dance moves at his command.


Maybe it was the fact that all of his gestures seemed conscious, but he lacked sexiness. He looked as if he might have secrets, but no mystery. Maybe it was an inability to shake the wariness of the working stiff, or the sense that a woman would have a hard time hurting him.


Consequently, there were no great Kelly pairings such as Astaire and Ginger Rogers. You remember him dancing with Donald O'Connor or Frank Sinatra.


Art forms come and go, and the movie musical has largely gone. With Astaire, dance partners were goddesses. With Kelly they were dates.


Dance critic Arlene Croce once wrote, "The major difference between Astaire and Kelly is a difference, not of talent or technique, but of levels of sophistication."


The working stiff vs. the playboy.


It's easy to compare him to Astaire and leave him in second place. But while Astaire was crystal goblets and sterling-silver flatware, Kelly was the meat and potatoes.


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Audrey Meadows, the veteran actress who made her mark in the classic 1950s series as the sparring partner to Jackie Gleason's blustery Ralph Kramden, died of lung cancer on Saturday in Los Angeles, The Associated Press reported. She was 71.


To millions of television viewers, she was Alice, the long-suffering wife on "The Honeymooners" who stood up to her husband's threats with a sarcastic calm.


"I loved that character of Alice," she said in 1994, "because she was strong and she was tender. She was everything that I think is fine in a woman."


She had kept her illness a secret, even from her sister Jayne Meadows, until newspapers learned of her hospitalization early this year.