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A Return to Old Turf for Gene Kelly : Movies: As one of the hosts of 'That's Entertainment! III,' the legendary hoofer works again at Stage 5, the key setting for musicals in MGM's Golden Era.


On a recent Saturday afternoon Gene Kelly, dapper in a dark suit, striped shirt and colorful tie, and accompanied by his wife, Pat, visited Sony Studios in Culver City. When it was MGM, he reigned as a major force in a series of classic musicals, as a performer, choreographer and director.

Stage 5 is a 1933 Art Deco structure dominated at one end by a stage with a proscenium that served as a legitimate theater or movie palace in many a Metro picture. It was a key setting for all those backstage musicals in MGM's--and Hollywood's--Golden Era, during which Kelly helped revolutionize the movie musical with his masculine, athletic dancing and choreography.

Kelly, now 80, figured he hadn't worked on Stage 5 since it was decorated to resemble the interior of Grauman's Chinese for the finale of the 1952 "Singin' in the Rain," the movie most often cited as the greatest musical of them all. He was back to appear as one of the hosts of "That's Entertainment! III," yet another of MGM's sampling from its musical treasure trove.

" . . . In the words of Irving Berlin, the song is over but the melody lingers on," remarked Kelly, finishing the first take of his speech. "Have you got a clearance from Irving Berlin?" he kidded co-producer-directors Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan.

The first "That's Entertainment!" (1974) was a terrific, highly popular compilation of scenes from more than 100 musicals, and was followed two years later by an almost-as-good sequel, which included clips from comedies and dramas as well.

"That's Entertainment! III" will include yet more musical moments, plus never-before-seen outtakes. It is to be released in 70mm late this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of MGM. Other Metro musical alumni serving as hosts are June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams.

Kelly made light of the passing of the years and was the model of polite professionalism, instantly sensitive to all that was going on behind the camera as well as in front of it. Recovering from a cold, Kelly discussed sound levels--"Now, I've got to go up, but I don't want to sound like a castrato !"--and, after a perfect take, good-naturedly did it over because the lights were reflected in his glasses. The sense of camaraderie was very much like that on his own sets, recalling one's memories of watching him direct Henry Fonda and James Stewart in "The Cheyenne Social Club" on location in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1970.

Having been loaned out to Columbia to star in the 1944 musical "Cover Girl" opposite Rita Hayworth, Kelly returned to MGM for "Anchors Aweigh," which won him a best actor Oscar nomination. With Stanley Donen he co-directed the landmark "On the Town" (1949), as well as starred in it, and they teamed again for "Singin' in the Rain" and "It's Always Fair Weather."

Vincente Minnelli directed him in the stylish "The Pirate" (1948) opposite Judy Garland and in the landmark "An American in Paris" (1951), which he also choreographed. As a dramatic actor he appeared in such diverse films as "The Black Hand" (1950), in which Kelly is impressive as a young man intent upon avenging his father's death in turn-of-the-century Little Italy in Manhattan, and "Inherit the Wind" (1960), in which he played a pundit based on H. L. Mencken.

Kelly, who continues to live in Beverly Hills, has been taking it easier in recent years.

"I haven't been back here for so long, or before a camera for such a long time," said Kelly, relaxing in his warm dressing trailer parked outside Stage 5. "It's half nostalgia and half tristesse for me. I must have been on Stage 5 thousands of times. If you had done a list of every MGM musical, you would find it probably had been shot there--at least part of it." ("That's Entertainment! III's" executive producer Peter Fitzgerald confides that Sony may tear down Stage 5 because nobody does backstage musicals anymore.)

Kelly said that it was on Stage 5, where under the direction of George Sidney, he danced with the cartoon mouse Jerry in "Anchors Aweigh," a moment Kelly considers a favorite in a favorite film because it's the one where "I got to teach Frank (Sinatra) how to dance." Interestingly, it was not Mayer but his son-in-law David O. Selznick who brought out the Pittsburgh-born Kelly to Hollywood from Broadway, where he had become a star in the original 1940 "Pal Joey" and won acclaim as a choreographer for "Best Foot Forward." Although Kelly admitted a mutual dislike between Mayer and him, Mayer soon bought out his contract with Selznick.

"The producer here was king," Kelly explained. "Both Joe Pasternak and later Arthur Freed backed me up very much. We could talk to Freed about bringing out people from New York--people like Comden and Green. Freed would go out on a limb for you and go plead your case to the 'college of cardinals.' Freed could always get Mayer to say yes--he was very simpatico .

"With Freed, I got to dance with Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron. Romantic dances are the heart of the musicals. Musicals were always based on romance, and you don't have that kind of music anymore. We thought the musical was an indigenous American art form. A musical is the hardest kind of movie to do, the most difficult genre to conquer. Before the MGM musicals there were two guys who really knew how to do them, (directors) Rouben Mamoulian and Ernst Lubitsch.

"I get lots more mail today than when I was a movie star--from Germany and Japan, from nations that have been flooded with VCRs. I get mash notes from 14- and 15-year-old girls! I don't really like being an actor, I love dancing and choreographing. On my first picture, 'For Me and My Gal,' Judy Garland helped me and pushed me, and I am in her debt eternally. But I hate having to put all this stuff on my face! It's really what I charge for: putting on makeup!"

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