You Write Just Like a Man: Gene Kelly, Virginia Van Upp, and the "Compliment" Heard 'Round the World
Gene Kelly once praised the screenwriter of Cover Girl. Or did he?
While visiting the Sony Pictures lot in Los Angeles, filmmaker Nancy Meyers posted this picture to Instagram. It's of a placard describing an exchange between Hollywood writer-producer Virginia Van Upp and rising musical star Gene Kelly.
Based on the replies, several of Meyers' Instagram followers were confused—and with good reason. Sony's tribute to Virginia Van Upp contains at least three mistakes:
So by all accounts, the placard at Sony should read
Cover Girl’s (1944) male lead, Gene Kelly, told Van Upp of her screenplay, ‘You write just like a man.’ Unimpressed, she responded, 'Writers of either sex are writers. They have to know people.'
Considering the inaccuracies in the original description, Gene Kelly's fans are right to wonder (as they did on Facebook) if Kelly or Gilda's Glenn Ford said that to Van Upp about her screenplay for Cover Girl or Gilda.
Long story short? Gene Kelly said that to Van Upp about her script for Cover Girl. But the full story is a tad more layered—as these things usually are.
UPDATE (8/5/2019): Thanks to an astute employee at Sony, the Virginia Van Upp placard has been corrected!
Cover Girl and Seeing Red
In May 1944, Hollywood journalist Robbin Coons profiled Virginia Van Upp in conjunction with the release of Cover Girl. While Van Upp was proud of Columbia's new Technicolor musical—which evidently everyone and their "next-door neighbor [were] taking the bus to go see"—she was not initially keen on taking the writing gig.
By 1943, Virginia Van Upp had written more than a dozen screenplays, many of which rely on the generic formula "Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Gets Girl" to tell their story. This is the same formula most Hollywood musicals use, but Van Upp stayed away from musicals because she felt they "lacked stories." In fact, before Cover Girl, Van Upp said she generally "saw red when somebody suggested that she should write a musical."
With this backstory in mind, we might conclude that Virginia Van Upp's concept of the Hollywood musical, at least initially, was rather prejudiced. Gene Kelly's so-called compliment to Van Upp could be read similarly. Or not.
Sexism or Appreciation?
In his profile, Robbin Coons also reports that after Gene Kelly read Cover Girl's script, he paid Van Upp what he thought (but she didn't) was a compliment. Coons writes,
'You write just like a man,' [Kelly] told her. Miss Van Upp sniffs at that. To her notion, writers of either sex are writers. They have to know people — both men and women.
We can interpret Kelly's quote a couple of ways. First, plenty of evidence—documented and rumored—suggests Gene Kelly, like many men reared in the early twentieth century, maintained rather sexist views. Here are a few examples:
Second, while we can read Gene Kelly's words to Virginia Van Upp as sexist, we might also regard them as appreciative ones.
J.E. Smyth points out in Nobody's Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood, at the time of Cover Girl, “the industry was dominated by films catered to women audiences—musicals among them.” So with his comment "You write just like a man," Kelly could have been sincerely grateful of Van Upp's ability to create, finally perhaps, "a good man's part in a female musical" (241).
However you look at Van Upp, Kelly, and the supposed "compliment," one thing is for certain: the Sony Pictures lot really needs an editor.