Kosher Gene Kelly

Gene is a teen dream, a foxy little devil and my first screen crush.  Oh yes.  You see, I didn’t care that he seemed to be wearing grey eyeliner in the opening scene of Singin’ in the Rain (or as we call it in my Italian class Cantando Sotto la Pioggia) I just thought  – and still think – he was lovely with his muscular shoulders and alarming buttocks which seemed to be sculpted from steel.  Here he is looking dastardly handsome while choreographing snazzy dance routines in his pretty little head:

But this blog entry isn’t about Singin’ in the Rain, as that deserves a whole blog of its own at a later date.  In fact, it isn’t even about the dancing talents of the man who may have single-handedly introduced and popularised ballet dancing to the American mass market.  This is about a far, far odder concoction called Marjorie Morningstar which Kelly made in 1957 playing off that plank of wood which occasionally did some acting, Natalie Wood.   Although most of Gene’s films grace my DVD shelves, I had never seen this one until last week.  A Jewish Gene Kelly?  I almost fell off my sofa in excitement at the thrill of it all, and imagined him wearing nothing but a kippah and a smile.  But, dear readers, it was quite the worst load of balderdash I’ve ever seen in centuries, a film with sets that move and the kind of sloppy continuity that sees Natalie Plank-of-Wood extinguish the same cigarette three times in four seconds.  Marjorie Morningstar lasts for two and a half hours.  I mean, Gene doesn’t even dance with a tallit or anything.  I was expecting Fiddler on the Roof meets On the Town. (“Fiddling on the Town?”) None of it seemed to work  as a narrative, and the script was criminally bad, but still I could not pull myself away from it.  That’s probably because Gene is S.E.X.Y.

The book of Majorie Morningstar was written by a man who sounds like a kitchen implement; Herman Wouk.  When not masquerading as kitchenware, Wouk wrote this story of a middle-class, conservative, Jewish girl who spends 565 pages battling with expectations of convention, class and creed during a love affair with a small-town theatre director called Noel.  It’s a bloated story of reactionary crap.  Noel is hip.  We know this because he wears white socks and black shoes.  He is also a fundamentally athiest Jew, sleeps with lots of dancers, directs plays, and is adored by the teenage girls who listen to him play the piano nightly in a summer camp bar.  What with him being a bad Jew and a good drinker, this is naughty Gene.  Cor.

Here is Gene dressed as a Spanish matador (Wowzers) claiming Marjorie is seeking vengeance on him with her non-existent God.  Seriously.  But she’s well confused because she thought she was just going outside for a snog and a bit of a feel with one of Hollywood’s finest.

“Hmmm,” the casting directors thought, when this pile of tosh landed on their desks in about 1955.  “Who can carry off the athiest, male, Jewish-ish slut look to perfection?  Call Gene!  He’s already got the hip clothes and sexy scar!  Never mind that he’s actually second generation Irish and has a foreskin.  BOOK HIM.  The man’s box office gold.”

The entire book is questionable; Marjorie desires a life of the stage and Noel, but ultimately he turns out to be a bit of a slapper and she – having had her well-brought up fingers burned by the amoral depravity of the stage –  gives up a fairly promising acting career to retire into Jewish housewifery with a doctor who hath no hair.   She finds comfort and sanctuary in the traditions of her faith, although in the film this ending is discarded and she ends up alone.  Gene / Noel fails in New York when he cannot sell his play to producers because he insults them over cocktails whilst wearing wide-necked 1950s shirts.  He returns to the small town where we first met him and continues sleeping with the daughters of men who own dry-cleaning franchises.

For two hours, Marjorie and Noel have silly arguments, in which Noel claims he’s up against Moses (er…is this a threesome?)  which is tough because you can’t argue with a dead prophet.   At least when “Moses Supposes His Toes-ies are Roses” came up in Singin’ In the Rain Gene and Donald O’Connor stepped up to the plate and performed the most energy-busting, amazing tap routine ever on film.  But the dancing that Gene does do in this film is moody and tortured – no doubt tap dancing wasn’t hip or beatnik enough for Noel and his black T-shirts.  Basically, Noel, having de-Judaised himself is pissed off with Moses or something – frankly, I found it hard to follow.  But the worst bit is when he tells her what no Jewish girl wants to hear : “Marjorie – you are your mother!”  Jeez, Gene you bitch.  And then its downhill all the way and we have close-ups of Natalie Plank-of-Wood shedding glycerine tears.

Natalie is called to Gene’s trailer, where he keeps his famous collection of V-necks to show off his pectorals.  “Have you READ this script of garbage, Natalie? – have you?!”  he asks as he clutches her.

For two hours they dance a bizarre negotiation of their relationship, in which sex (or the moral implications of a nice girl getting involved in all that stuff) is dealt with but never mentioned.  Instead, we have to rely on Gene’s eyebrows as a kind of shag-o-meter to let us know when he is thinking about it.  Then we watch Marjorie battling with her inner morality to decide on what is basically a no-brainer – whether or not to jump into bed with Gene.  Instead she tries to introduce him to her Mum and Dad, which acts as a kind of parental cold shower.

“I don’t care if you were in Singin’ In The Rain, there’s no way your showing me your special dance moves, sonny.  I’m saving myself for a dentist with a double garage.”  Marjorie tells Gene the score.

With nothing left to lose, a desperate Gene pulls his nautical look out of the bag and tries to show Natalie Wood his Anchors Aweigh.

The most attractive Gene moment is when he has been drinking for three days and is slurring in a very attractive way and has two days growth of beard.  That was terribly beatnik for 1956.  What would Debbie Reynolds say?  Either way, he is hot stuff and gets to do some dancing at the beginning as audience compensation for having to watch Natalie Wood.  The two issues that this peculiar film raised were firstly, why was the first Hollywood mainstream film for thirty years about Jews featuring hardly any Jewish actors?  And, secondly, Eleanor Bergstein, my friend, you have been rumbled.

Eleanor Bergstein was the brains behind the oestrogen-driven phenomenon that was Dirty Dancing, in which millions of dollars were made by the sight of Patrick Swayze sweating in a vest.  The first half of the plot is practially identical to Marjorie Morningstar: nice Jewish girl arrives at summer camp in the Catskills (Tamarak, as opposed to Kellermans, although – freakishly both camps have a similar-sounding song), meets surly dance teacher who charms her with his foxy moves and bewitches her with his zinging sex appeal. She must negotiate tensions between what her parents want and what she wants, before going to visit him in his cabin for shenanigans etc.  Replace Swayze’s sweaty vest for Gene Kelly in a cardigan and you have  Dirty Dancing 1950s style.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if Natalie Wood had propelled herself out of a lake into Gene Kelly’s arms and sung about how she was having the time of her life (after she’d had some acting lessons).

Gene was so tough and quite unkind in this film I had to open a beer and watch On the Town on where he is nicer and has a smart sailor suit on.  Ultimately, despite his acting skills, any film that has Gene Kelly in it but has no tap dancing is a waste.  So, next week, fellas, less of the serious whisky drinking Gene who lets down nice Jewish girls and shags about.  We shall return to something a little more life affirming, and Gene-related next Thursday……with the tap shoes back on.  Oh yes.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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