How far would you go to watch a Gene Kelly movie? — BY MARC ORR
I was mischievous and cheeky as a child. Although not apparent at the time, those attributes are why my father was so strict with me. At Christmas, however, he loosened the leash from a strangulation to a mild throttle—thanks mainly to his love of film musicals.
As Harinder points out in her story, it is hard to convey to successive generations just how big a deal the screening of films on television was in 1970s Britain. With only three channels and several years before the invention of video recorders, cable or satellite, the TV film was a see-it-or-miss-it event.
Over the festive period, the BBC filled its schedule with classic musicals featuring Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and, of course, Gene Kelly. In the Christmas week of 1979, "the Beeb" ran a late-night short season of Gene’s films called Kelly at Christmas:
At ten years old, I was already a Gene Kelly fanatic. Gene had been a constant in my young life—like God, the Pope, and Paul McCartney. My memories of watching Kelly movies prior to that point are vague, but I will remember every detail about that Christmas, how I felt watching Gene dance, and the bombshell the old man dropped on Christmas Eve.
Singin’ in the Rain didn’t start until 11:00 PM, which meant its running time would take it over into Christmas morning. And although I had been allowed to stay up for Anchors Aweigh and On the Town the nights before, it was forbidden in our house for any child to be awake for the transition from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day (i.e., Santa Claus had to deliver gifts).
I had seen clips of Gene’s "Singin’ in the Rain" number, and I had books with stills of the number that I pored over for hours. I had the soundtrack record that I played until it was literally unplayable. Being told I wasn’t allowed to stay up to see that number was, to me, tantamount to a kid 10 years earlier being sent to bed before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I needed to find a way into that living room. And I did.
Let those without sin throw the first snowball.
Every neighbourhood has one house whose inhabitant has been identified as the enemy of all children. He'll glower at you if he passes you in the street, complain to your parents about the most innocuous slight, or stand at the window and stare if you stray within 25 yards of his property.
In response, maybe you chap his door at night and then run away or rip the occasional flower out of his garden. Or maybe you buy a set of toy binoculars and then send it to him in the mail with a note that reads, "This is so you can see us better." In our neighbourhood, this man was Mr Lamington, a retired English lecturer with a shock of frizzy grey hair that matched his frazzled personality.
Snow fell heavy on The Great Christmas Eve Gene Kelly Deprivation of 1979. Snowfalls from previous years had revealed Lamington’s pathological hatred for snowballs of any description, particularly the ones we lobbed at his window with the ferocity of medieval sieges. He chased us down every time.
I had become wonderfully adept at sneaking downstairs and creeping out the backdoor over the years—a master really. The first snowball missed the window by a great distance; but in my defence, it was the first Lamington-ball of the season. The second and third disintegrated against the wall with pathetic little “putts.” I gathered a significant amount of snow in my hands and began moulding it into shape: "grenades" we called them, gently patted-down and unfeasibly large snowballs that detonated loudly on window-impact.
Everything in the next few moments happened quickly. My grenade hit Lamington’s window with a dull thud. An upstairs window opened moments later, accompanied by a screeched, “I see you! I see you!” I darted back in the house, raced upstairs, and fell in bed, my heart beating like a Geiger counter. Mission accomplished.
A frantic knock at our front door signaled the commencement of Phase Two. Muffled discussions became louder and clearer as people neared the front door. In the ensuing chatter, I made out my mother's “Calm down, please" and parts of Lamington’s blurting: "Son. Snowballs. Pyjamas. Footprints in snow.”
That said, I could hear everything from the old man: “If you don’t get him down here, I will. It must have been him. Terrorising the neighbours at Christmas!"
Gently rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I descended the stairs and scanned the doorway:
“Why did you do it? What do you have against us?”
“Um... Huh?” I retorted.
“Answer the man,” snapped my father.
“Where I’m standing the sun is shining all over the place,” gushed Gene. Oh. My. God. It’s happening. It is happening.
“I didn’t mean to, I mean... it wasn’t me.” This was desperately inadequate material.
“I saw you. There are footprints in the snow!”
Caught between the tractor beam of the old man’s seething gaze and something miraculous in the corner of the room, I braced myself.
“What do you know about these footprints?” asked my father.
I’m singin’ in the rain, just singin’ in the rain. What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again.
“Maybe... Maybe they’re Santa’s?” I offered, excitedly. Lamington was becoming increasingly agitated, throwing his hands in the air and turning to my father.
Dancing in the rain.
“Son, I’m going to ask you one last time in front of Mr. Lamington. Did you throw the snow?” (Did you throw the snow? How much less childlike the act becomes when you remove the word ball from the equation. That is not accidental. That is classic old man.)
Umbrella-swinging, puddle-splashing, curb-stepping splendour.
“No.” I squealed, at an octave that must have registered with all the dogs in the west of Scotland.
My father drew his eyes off me with the disgust that only a father can muster when his firstborn has brought shame on the family name. Lamington shook his head and saw himself out. My father followed him to the door.
Alone with my mother, I blurted out the reason why I did what I did. When she told me that they had both intended to wake me for that number, I was overwhelmed with sadness and guilt. My mother gently raised my head, "Do you have anything to say?”
I mulled this over. “I suppose ‘Broadway Melody’ is out of the question?”
We Still Watch
Mr. Lamington never forgot what happened that night. When he tutored me for my first English literature lesson several years later, he placed a plate of snowballs—i.e., Scottish coconut-flavoured baked delicacies—on the table. When he showed me the first draft of his reference for my university application, he had scored out my name and written Snowy.
Of the protagonists that evening, only my mother and I remain. We still watch Kelly at Christmas—those three films, in that order, on those days every year. And we have done so in the four decades since.
On Christmas Eve, right about the time Don Lockwood kisses Kathy Selden goodnight, my mother will lean across and whisper, “Did you throw the snow?” And we’ll laugh, and maybe cry a little. Then, I’ll raise a glass to departed friends and Gene fans all over the world whose childhood memories are interwoven with the immortal renderings of a song-and-dance man with joy in his heart and magic in his heels.
Images courtesy of the author.