In the forms of play and gaming, community, unpretentiousness, and innovation burst from the walls of Gene Kelly's Beverly Hills home. — BY KELLI MARSHALL
The classical Hollywood musical represents many things: utopic sensibilities, the myth of entertainment, a dual-focus narrative, sex, spectacle, whiteness, queerness, nationalism, and home. Plenty of evidence, academic and cinematic, support these messages and themes. 
But the classical film musical—particularly those produced by MGM’s Freed Unit and starring Gene Kelly—also represents community, unpretentiousness (or the appearance thereof), and innovation.  Fittingly, each of these traits bursts from the walls of the two houses in which Kelly lived during his time at MGM.
Indeed, Gene Kelly’s Beverly Hills home serves as an extension of the classical film musical.
Part 1: The Houses
In 1942, MGM moved Gene Kelly and his wife, actress Betsy Blair, from their tiny one-bedroom cottage in Laurel Canyon into a much roomier house in Beverly Hills, at 506 North Alta Drive. For two years, the couple—and eventually their newborn daughter, Kerry—would live in this home, leased from Yip Harburg, perhaps most famous for writing the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
In 1944, the small Kelly family bid farewell to 506 North Alta Drive. At the end of that year, Gene Kelly joined the Navy, and Betsy and Kerry moved to New Jersey to live with Betsy’s parents. More than a year would pass before the couple would find their next Hollywood home.
Shortly before Gene Kelly’s discharge from the Navy in 1946, Betsy Blair discovered a farmhouse located at 725 North Rodeo Drive. In her memoir, Blair describes the Eureka moment:
[The realtor and I] had only seen three houses when we walked into the old wooden New England-style farmhouse—it had actually been a farmhouse, and was one of the oldest houses in Beverly Hills. I knew it was for us. I’d been on the phone to Gene reporting everything, and when he heard my description and my enthusiasm, he said, "Go ahead.” I wrote and signed the check for $42,500, and it was ours. I felt pretty important and grown up. I was not yet 22. (Blair 125)
Gene Kelly is equally as enthusiastic about his Rodeo Drive home in interviews:
It’s the first farmhouse in Beverly Hills! We bought it after I got out of the Navy because we thought it was high time we had a home of our own. […] It’ll never win a Pulitzer Prize in the Architectural Digest but we like it. (Movieland, 1954)
This farmhouse at 725 North Rodeo Drive—with its white living room, light-blue master bedroom, and red front door—would be Gene Kelly’s home until his death in 1996.
Not even a fire could prevent Gene Kelly from abandoning his beloved Beverly Hills farmhouse. In 1983, the Kelly house nearly burned to the ground after a Christmas tree caught fire. While the family was unharmed (except for a burn on Kelly’s hand), the fire destroyed, among other things, valuable papers and Hollywood memorabilia, collections of art and antique furniture, and home movies of the kids’ birthday parties. The following year the 72-year-old Kelly rebuilt his house from the original blueprints.
Part 2: The Game(s)
In each of their Hollywood homes—at North Alta Drive and North Rodeo Drive—Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair hosted parties that lasted entire weekends. Blair recalls, “the volleyball games were a fixture on Sunday at noon. They were serious, as were all the games we played” (128). Lois McClelland, Kelly’s secretary for nearly 50 years, also writes about weekends on North Rodeo Drive:
Sundays the Kellys entertain in earnest, for that’s volleyball day and it takes a crowd to play that game. The first group to arrive gets into the first round, then they go upstairs to shower while the next thirty people take the second shift. And so on, all through the day. Dinner is buffet style with plenty for all, and everybody helps with the cooking. (“Busy Busy Busy,” Movieland, 1954)
One fan magazine calls the Sunday afternoon volleyball games at the Kellys “an established ritual. The refrigerator is stocked, for a help-yourself basis. After everyone has had plenty of good exercise and good food, Gene sets up the projector and home screen—and everyone sinks blissfully into a chair to watch a movie” (1954).
Saturday nights, as Betsy Blair tells it, were devoted to six activities: Ping-Pong, drinks, supper, The Game, the piano, and song and dance. Those who wanted to take part in Ping-Pong tournaments arrived at 5:30pm, Blair reminisces. “It was deadly serious. If we played doubles, Gene and I won more often than not.”
After rounds of ping-pong, everyone ate and drank. Then came The Game, a fast-paced and sometimes heated version of charades:
Our version was a racing version of charades. Two opposing captains—usually Gene and me, because the others claimed that if we were on the same team, we were unbearable—chose up sides. Someone made a list of 20 quotations, sayings, titles of films or books, lyrics, puns, headlines, anything at all. […] The listmaker sat in the hall; the teams were in separate rooms. The captains got the first clue together, and raced to act it out for their own team. Whoever guessed it would race back for the next clue. We ran and screamed and shouted, tempers were lost, we occasionally collapsed on the floor laughing. (93)
Actor Hume Cronyn, a frequent guest to these open houses, remembers, “It was nearly impossible to beat the Kellys, who shared a ‘radar-like communication’” (Architectural Digest, 1992).
Likewise, the Saturday Evening Post reports, “Gene […] is indefatigable at this kind of mental exercise. His team once acted out a sentence written by Freud in one of his more puckish moments: ‘Dementia praecox is very unfortunate hanging on the family tree.’ Gene got it in just 40 seconds…” (June 1950).
Other recollections of The Game are a bit more unfavorable. Charlie Chaplin, for example, remembers “the savage competitiveness of Betsy and Gene.” Chaplin writes, “It was scary watching our easygoing hosts turn into veritable storm troopers right before our eyes. […] It was as if we had suddenly been translated into a house of horrors.” And on at least one occasion, when guests played a trick on Kelly by purposely shouting out incorrect answers, “Gene became so enraged that he pounded the floor” (qtd. in Bridesons 159)
The same has been documented about Kelly’s turns on the Ping-Pong table and volleyball court. Choreographer Bob Fosse once remarked, “I’d never seen anyone so fierce about a so-called friendly game in my life—before or since. He had a competitive streak in him that was quite frightening” (qtd. in Bridesons 174). Betsy Blair affirms the couple’s ruthlessness for gaming: “Ping-Pong, charades, volleyball—they were played and fought as full-bloodedly as [Gene] danced. And I was the same” (133).
After The Game, guests would sit around the piano “for hours” while Saul Chaplin or Lennie Hayton played showtunes. “Sometimes Gene would dance; if Judy [Garland] were there, she might sing” (Blair 94-5).
Aside from Hume Cronyn, Saul Chaplin, Lennie Hayton, and Judy Garland, who else would’ve taken part in these weekend ventures? Lena Horne, Phil Silvers, Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein, Van Johnson, Stanley Donen, Maurice Chevalier, Frank Sinatra, and Rita Hayworth to name a few. On these nights, the farmhouse’s red front door was always open, and people would come and go as they pleased. From Modern Screen magazine (1950), “No one ever rings the bell or knocks on the Kelly door […] People just walk right in.”
Now that we’re familiar with the creative and physical work/play that took place inside Gene Kelly’s homes at 506 North Alta Drive and 725 North Rodeo Drive, let’s consider three ways such labor serves as an extension of the integrated MGM film musicals in which he starred.
Part 3: Home, Work, and Developing the Film Musical
Community: A Musical House, a Fun House
First, as Gene Kelly notes in 1985, his “was a musical house, a fun house.” Some of the most talented directors, pianists, composers, singers, and movie stars “practically lived here at my house” (Rochlin; Fuller, Projections 281).
We’ve already noted some of Kellys’ frequent guests. Others were Betty Comden and Adolph Green, writers of the lyrics and screenplays to On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s Always Fair Weather. “A lot of Comden and Green stuff was tried out here for fun; we didn’t do it purposely,” Kelly says.
The same goes for houseguests Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, who composed songs for Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. “We would hear the songs here before they would do them at the studio,” Kelly remembers. Indeed, the collective work and play within these two homes helped to produce some of the most enduring film musicals of the classical era.
Unpretentiousness: Middle-Class People Who Lead Middle-Class Lives
“We were just a group of local entertainers amusing ourselves,” Gene Kelly claims (1985). This modest mentality about labor is the foundation of virtually every musical in which Kelly stars and many of those produced by the Freed Unit in general. Thus, a second way the Kelly home serves as an extension of the classical film musical, particularly those starring Kelly, is its veritable unpretentiousness.
Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper writes for the LA Times about her experience at 705 North Rodeo Drive: “As I drove up to Gene Kelly’s home in Beverly Hills, a companion […] remarked, “Strangers would never guess that a couple of movie stars live here. It’s so unpretentious” (9 October 1949).
Modern Screen magazine (1950) offers a similar perspective: “Friends of the Kellys insist that they get along so beautifully because they live in Beverly Hills as if they were living in Pittsburgh. They are middle-class people who lead middle-class lives” (April 1950; October 1950).
Anyone who studies Gene Kelly, even on a surface level, knows he prided himself on representing the working- or middle-class Joe—as opposed to Fred Astaire’s upper-class one. On his dancing style, Kelly says, for example, “I try to base mine more on the common things, the things that are happening or what happened to a kid coming from Pittsburgh. I was born and raised in that idiom” (Dec. 1958, Columbia University).
Growing up during the Great Depression, Kelly supposedly “hated the rich because [his] father was out of a job and everyone in [the] family was working to try to get food on the table and literally pay the rent.” Moreover, he disliked (or perhaps was jealous of) his classmates “who could drive a car to school and spend $0.25 on lunch” when he and his four siblings could “only spend a nickel or a dime” (Rochlin; Fuller, Projections 284).
This upbringing is one reason Gene Kelly’s dancing style and onscreen persona “came out of the idea of the common man,” as he puts it (Rochlin; Fuller, Projections 286). Rather than playing elite characters in top hats and tuxedos, Kelly embodies those who physically work: baseball players, sailors, soldiers, painters, theater directors, and nightclub owners.
Moreover, his characters’ costumes—t-shirts, jeans, khakis, white socks, and loafers—reflect this ideology. They also, notably, are the clothes he wore while entertaining guests and family at his modest Beverly Hills home.
Innovation and Competition: Citizens of the (Freed Unit) Cinema
We can locate a final way the Kelly home serves as an extension of the classical film musical by reconsidering the games played therein. “The Game was played by the cinema citizens,” Family Circle magazine reports in 1944. “There’s no secret about the reason for the popularity of this sport. It calls for histrionics—in a big way. And you know how actors love to act.”
Based on the accounts of those who played it, The Game required its participants to be innovative and competitive. Not only did they have to come up with the list of 20 sayings, book titles, puns, or headlines they thought would best stump the other team, but also, under a deadline, players had to be quick and creative enough to act out these things so their teammates would correctly guess the answers. A sufficient amount of mental and creative labor was involved, as it were.
Several of the film musicals in which Gene Kelly starred succeed because of Kelly’s and his colleagues’ innovative and competitive spirits—which, for better or worse, were on display most every weekend on North Alta Drive and North Rodeo Drive.
First, Gene Kelly along with his co-director Stanley Donen and his longtime choreographic assistants, Jeanne Coyne and Carol Haney, perfected the look of dance onscreen. For instance, Kelly refused to choreograph musical numbers like his predecessor, Busby Berkeley, who generally filled his films’ frames with visual spectacles and geometric patterns requiring little movement from actors. Rather, Kelly wanted to make the camera movements serve the choreography, to create something one could not on a theatrical stage.
Thus, comes the term cine-dance (cinema + dance), or, as Kelly defines it, “any dancing choreographed specifically and particularly to be filmed or televised.” This meant, then, that for every number involving dance, Kelly and his colleagues had to devise not only the dance choreography (the staging of dances and the dancers’ physical movements), but also the film choreography (the coordination of camera movements in relation to the musical number). Changing the look of dance onscreen requires creative labor, technical know-how, and ambition.
Second, Gene Kelly and his co-creators broke new ground with their use of special effects. For example, in Cover Girl (1944), Kelly's character picks a fight with himself after worrying that his fiancée is falling out of love with him. This internal struggle leads to a tricky solo dance called the "alter-ego number," in which two Gene Kellys simultaneously dance alongside and against each other onscreen. Created with Kelly’s co-choreographer Stanley Donen and frequent houseguest, the alter ego number made Kelly a star and secured him a contract at MGM.
Kelly also made cinema history when he danced alongside Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945). In the film musical, Kelly’s character sits before a roomful of school children and reads them a story. But the viewer experiences the tale through a mixture of live action and animation. This memorable segment of Anchors Aweigh only lasts four minutes but took months of mental and physical labor to complete.
Third, Gene Kelly’s innovation and desire to advance the film musical can be seen in On the Town. Kelly and Donen wanted to shoot On the Town outside the studio—and outside Hollywood, in fact. This was generally unheard of in the 1940s, especially for a big-budget MGM musical, all of which were filmed on soundstages, backlots, or nearby.
Consequently, to get his wish to travel to and shoot in Manhattan, Kelly had to put up a fight with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who could not visualize the effect that Kelly and his creative team were after. He thought the idea was indulgent and a waste of money. "Why not just do it on the backlot—like everyone else?" Mayer asked.
As he often did at volleyball, Ping-Pong, and rounds of The Game, Kelly won the argument. On the Town was the first big-budget color musical from MGM’s Freed Unit to be shot on-location, and it prompted other directors to do the same. It was highly successful, earning over three times its budget on first release.
Each of these innovations for MGM’s film musicals derives from Kelly's physical and mental labor along with his fierce competitive desire to do something onscreen that could not be done onstage and that had never been done before.
After Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair divorced in 1957 and Kelly married his choreographic assistant Jeanne Coyne in 1960, “the Kelly residence was no longer the open house it used to be” (Hirschhorn). According to Kelly’s biographer,
Once a year there would be a large gathering the day after Christmas, when the Kellys would invite their friends and their friends' children. An early dinner for the children was prepared, after which they would be taken home. Their parents returned and the party would then continue into the morning.
Once again, even here, Gene Kelly’s home and home-life reflect the status of the classical film musical: just as the Kellys’ lively open houses throughout the 1940s and 1950s came at the height of the MGM musical, by the mid-1950s, this genre—at least as Kelly and the Freed Unit knew it—was making its way out the red farmhouse door, so to speak.
 See Altman, Cohan, Dyer, Feuer, Recchia, Tellotte, and Tinkcom.
 On community specifically, see Altman on the folk musical.