POSTED November 12 2009

The Great Debate: Fred Astaire v. Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly (left) and Fred Astaire rehearsing a number for The Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

They are thesis and antithesis. Fred Astaire defies gravity; Gene Kelly is earthbound. Astaire is spirit; Kelly flesh. Astaire is the embodiment of grace, Kelly of athleticism. For Astaire, dance is the vertical expression of horizontal feelings for another; for Kelly, it is the expression of self. Astaire made dancing look easy; Kelly made it look like a workout. Astaire begot Michael Jackson; Kelly begot Patrick Swayze.

Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? The eloquent Paula Marantz Cohen (Drexel professor, author and Astaire advocate) and the learned Andrew Douglas (Bryn Mawr Film Institute education director and Kelly partisan) will make their cases on November 18 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street) at 7 pm. At the event sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Exhibit A is Top Hat (1935) and Exhibit K Singin’ in the Rain (1952), both of which will be shown, enjoyed and argued.

Flickgrrl stands firmly in the Astaire camp, while noting the paradox that though Astaire is the best screen dancer ever, Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain is the best dance musical. Though she admires Kelly — especially in An American in Paris, Singin’, The Pirate and On the Town — she cannot say that she likes him. Because however superb Kelly’s choreography and artistry, his aggressive muscularity suggests that he thought there was something sissy about a man dancing.

Of Astaire, whom she loves most in Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, The Bandwagon and Funny Face, she has only one word: Perfection. To those who argue he wasn’t a great actor, Flickgrrl retorts, maybe not, but no screen personality is a better argument that action is character.

Of course, the only possible resolution to the eternal question of Astaire v. Kelly is why either/or, why not both/and? On screen, the two danced together only once, in the 1946 revue musical The Ziegfeld Follies. The accompanying photo is of them rehearsing their number, “The Babbitt and the Bromide.” Note how Kelly is conscious of the camera. Note how Astaire is conscious of conveying the sense of floating.

So, Astaire or Kelly? And in which movie(s)?


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