Dancing for Godot

An Irishman’s Diary: The unlikely friendship of Gene Kelly and Samuel Beckett

‘We may have to depend on Patricia Ward Kelly  for further enlightenment when she visits Ireland next week to introduce a live-orchestrated presentation of Singin’ in the Rain.’ Above, Patricia and Gene Kelly. Photograph: Albane Navizet

‘We may have to depend on Patricia Ward Kelly for further enlightenment when she visits Ireland next week to introduce a live-orchestrated presentation of Singin’ in the Rain.’ Above, Patricia and Gene Kelly. Photograph: Albane Navizet

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 12:58

Among the conversations I’d love to have eavesdropped on are those, of unspecified date, in which Gene Kelly and Samuel Beckett drank “Paddy’s Irish Whiskey” while discussing “metaphysics”.

Sadly, the dialogue seems to have escaped Beckett’s biographers. Or at least I can find nothing about it in the combined 1,300 pages that Anthony Cronin and James Knowlson wrote about the man.

The intriguing details come instead from Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward. So we may have to depend on her for further enlightenment when she visits Ireland next week to introduce a live-orchestrated presentation of Singin’ in the Rain .

Singin’ in the Rain was released in 1952, the year, coincidentally, that Beckett published Waiting for Godot . And those starkly contrasting works, which came to define both men, would suggest the pair were very odd conversationalists.

But maybe not. Like Beckett, Kelly was a Francophile and fluent French speaker. Indeed he was the first American invited to create a ballet for the Paris Opera. Both men were agnostics, too. And then there was the Irish thing, which they also shared, albeit from very different angles.

Beckett escaped his homeland at the earliest opportunity. Whereafter, the older he got, the less he wanted to return. Kelly, by contrast, was raised in Pittsburgh, by a mother who apparently did her best to hide the family’s Hibernian DNA, which had not yet become fashionable.

Later, like many Irish-Americans, he may have felt the need to over-compensate. His other communions with the Diaspora included “singing Irish rebel songs in the White House with John Kennedy”. And unlike Kennedy, he may on occasion have gone further than singing.

According to a newspaper report published after his death, Kelly once met Cathal Goulding, then IRA chief of staff, to whom he was introduced by Dominic Behan. The meeting happened in 1970, allegedly, and involved the Hollywood star giving Goulding money “to buy guns”.

His film legacy is somewhat less controversial. On the influential Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates the reviews of movie critics, Singin’ in the Rain is one of those rarities with a 100 per cent approval rating.

In the collective opinion of the American Film Institute, it edges out West Side Story as the greatest Hollywood musical. But it has also escaped that ghettoised genre, to be loved even by people who might normally cross the street to avoid a film where the actors burst periodically into song.

Thus, in the AFI’s list of the 100 best American films, Singin’ in the Rain is ranked No 5, behind only Citizen Kane , The Godfather , Raging Bull , and Casablanca .

Its most famous scene, featuring the eponymous song-and-umbrella-dance, was shot when Kelly had a 104-degree fever. It took three days to complete and, thanks to all the rain, shrank his suit. Yet he dismissed his now-immortal footwork afterwards as “just a simple Irish clog dance that anyone can do”.

His co-star Debbie Reynolds was not so blasé about her part in the film. For her main sequence, she had to dance until her feet bled. And years later, she recalled that “ Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do”.

Still, if only as a young boy in Pittsburgh, sent to dancing classes by his mother, Kelly had suffered for his art too. He learned something about boxing in the process, because the taunting landed him in so many fights. In fact he gave up classes for a time until, as a teenager able to look after himself, he could return on his own terms.

It was a cause of much annoyance to him, always, that male dancing should be associated with effeminacy. He thought it a perfectly masculine pursuit. There was a big difference, he insisted, between being graceful and being soft. John Wayne was one of his favourite examples of a macho man who could move well.

In fact, another thing Kelly shared with Beckett was that, behind the comedy, he was deeply serious and thoughtful about his art. He would not have agreed with a much-repeated quotation from Waiting for Godot , “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.”

But then, despite the quote’s fame, Beckett didn’t actually write that. It’s an edited version of a longer exchange that has no such imperative tone. Perhaps, indeed, this is one of the metaphysical issues he and Kelly discussed over bottles of Paddy.
Singin’ in the Rain , with introductions by Patricia Ward Kelly and live accompaniment from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, will be screened at the National Concert Hall on April 27th at 3pm and 8pm.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com