We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Cynthia Brideson discusses He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly she co-wrote with Sara Brideson.
Read Mary Contoni Gordon’s review of He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly online and in issue 47.1 of OHR.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
“He wanted to democratize dance. He wanted to bring it to the whole world.”
The above words were spoken by Betsy Blair about her longtime husband, Gene Kelly. Today, most audiences know Kelly simply as the man swinging on a lamppost while singing in the rain. It’s difficult to fathom how this man, jumping in puddles and using an umbrella as a dance partner, completely upended the Hollywood musical. Kelly was a great admirer of Fred Astaire but argued that Astaire danced for the wealthy. Kelly, on the other hand, said he danced for the proletariat. He turned everyday settings into his playground, designing spectacular numbers around them that transported audiences into a different world even without the aid of top hat, tails, or shimmering ballrooms. In Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly’s onscreen friend, Cosmo, says of obnoxious costar Lina Lamont, “She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. A triple threat.” Fortunately for the film world, Kelly was not like Lina Lamont. A consummate actor, singer, dancer, and an astounding choreographer to boot, his influence can still be seen today in musicals such as La La Land. And, it’s hard to imagine that shows such as Dancing With the Stars would exist if Kelly had not accomplished his goal of democratizing dance.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
My late co-writer and twin, Sara, and I were fortunate to have access to the Oral History Program conducted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The transcripts from the program are housed at the Margaret Herrick Library. We found the interview with Lela Simone, producer Arthur Freed’s steadfast assistant, quite illuminating (virtually all of Kelly’s films were produced by Freed). Simone gave lengthy interviews for this project. As someone behind the scenes and completely out of the spotlight of MGM’s publicity machine, she did not feel the pressure to maintain a façade and whitewash reality. Simone had an intimate knowledge and viewpoint of those with whom she worked. Her stories were both surprising and touching. The most valuable bit of oral history in the book, however, was that of Kerry Novick, Gene Kelly’s eldest daughter. She was kind enough to grant Sara and I a phone interview and related stories about her father that showed him to be the intense, complicated, sweet, and thoughtful man so many filmgoers idolized onscreen. We also got in touch with Sally Sherman, assistant to Kelly’s co-star Kathryn Grayson, and she had quite a few anecdotes to share that brought to life how it was behind the scenes of films such as Anchors Aweigh and Thousands Cheer. Finally, Sara and I utilized interviews Kelly gave via television, radio, and print. We found television interviews most helpful as they were unrehearsed and most candid.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
Oral history invites much more honesty than any other medium. Memoirs and autobiographies are fabulous; indeed, Sara and I found books penned by those who knew Kelly including Debbie Reynolds Leslie Caron, Arthur Laurents, and Betsy Blair, to be treasure troves. However, the written word can be edited, revised, and erased altogether. It is heavily filtered. With oral history, there is more spontaneity and truth. Also, if you have the honor of being an interviewer, it is great fun to chat with your subject and hear his/her unique way of speaking. So much can be said just in the tone of one’s voice—another reason oral histories can speak a thousand words with as little as one or two words!
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
Sara and I endeavored to let the subjects in our book speak for themselves. We avoided making assumptions or offering pretentious analyses of interviewees’ words. In this sense, I hope oral historians will value the book for its straightforward yet reflective use of interviews. A few have criticized this book for not being “juicy” enough, but Sara and I did not want to infer anything the interviewees didn’t suggest themselves. I believe our book is honest and well-balanced and full of entertaining, revealing stories from those with behind the scenes knowledge of Hollywood’s golden age.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
I’d like readers to remember the pure joy Gene Kelly brought to screen. He turned the ordinary into a symphony of color, sound, and movement. If you ever yearn to again have the awe of a child first discovering his/her world, watch one of Gene Kelly’s dream ballets or simply his iconic “Singin’ in the Rain” number, and you’ll likely reactivate that sense memory of thrill and wonder again.