Movie News & Reviews

Gene Kelly's widow recalls his final big MGM musical, 'Les Girls'

'Les Girls' (1957) starring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg.
'Les Girls' (1957) starring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg.

After 15 years as MGM's top dancing star, Gene Kelly in 1957 made his final movie musical for the studio, Cole Porter's "Les Girls."

"He was severing his ties with MGM," his widow, journalist Patricia Ward Kelly, told the Miami Herald. "It was really a deal made to get out, to extract himself. He, of course, loved Cole Porter and the interesting thing is that Gene’s first show on Broadway was with Cole Porter (“Leave It to Me” in 1938) and “Les Girls” was Cole Porter’s last film. Gene felt a kind of arc between the two of them."

Warner Archive, which distributes the old MGM film library, recently released a newly remastered, high definition Blu-ray of "Les Girls" ($22), directed by George Cukor and also starring Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall (Rex Harrison's wife, who died two years later at age 33 of leukemia) and Taina Elg.The romantic musical comedy is set in Paris during the late '50s and told in flashback. Kelly plays cabaret performer Barry Nichols and the three co-stars play the women in his act, "Les Girls."

Journalist Patricia Ward Kelly, widow of Gene Kelly. Frederick M. Brown Getty Images File

By the time Kelly worked on "Les Girls," he had starred in nearly 20 major musicals for MGM, including three opposite Judy Garland ("For Me and My Gal," his movie debut in 1942; "The Pirate" (1947); and "Summer Stock" in 1950). He also starred in, co-directed and choreographed "On the Town" (1948); starred in and choreographed "An American in Paris (1950), which won the Best Picture Oscar; and starred in, co-directed and choreographed "Singin' In the Rain" (1952), arguably the studio's greatest Golden Age musical.

Kelly and Ward met in 1985 when he hosted a TV special she helped write. Later, they collaborated on his memoirs, and in 1990 Kelly and Ward married. He was 77; she 31. Gene Kelly died in 1996.

When Kelly made "Les Girls," he was angry with MGM, which for several years had delayed distribution on his pet project, a film titled "Invitation to the Dance."

"They put it on the shelf and held it because they didn’t know what to do with it. He said they reneged on all their promises," Patricia Kelly said. "To him, it was to be just an homage to dance and dancers around the world. It’s interesting. Today, you can turn on the television and see dance 24 hours a day. Some dance program is on. But in those days, you couldn’t see it unless you went to the major cities: Paris, New York or Russia. He wanted to showcase the major dancers so that people had access to that."

MGM finally released the movie in 1956. Kelly said her husband "felt a great betrayal with 'Invitation to the Dance'" and negotiated to get out of his longtime studio contract. That deal included starring in "Les Girls."

Despite knowing "Les Girls" would be his last starring role at MGM, Kelly enjoyed making the film, he later told his wife.

"He had worked with Porter and they became friends. Gene always said he was able to arrange the numbers to fit what Gene thought was his very limited vocal range. So he had great respect for Porter for that," Kelly said. "Cukor was the director for 'The Women.' They loved him. The thing about 'Les Girls' is the choreography. Gene doesn’t get credit for the choreography and yet he choreographed much of it because Jack Cole became sick and had to leave the production."

Patricia Kelly says she "forced" Kelly to watch "Les Girls" with her: "He said, ‘I like myself in that show, when I usually don’t.’ He usually would be cringing when he watched himself, but he said ‘I don’t mind myself in this picture. I’m not a bad actor. I grew up.’ "

After "Les Girls," Kelly returned to Broadway — where he first became a big star in 1940's "Pal Joey" — and in 1958 directed Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song." Eleven years later, he directed Barbra Streisand in the film version of "Hello, Dolly!" Kelly remained busy in theater, TV and movies through the mid 1980s.

The athletic dancing star was 45 when he made "Les Girls" and left MGM.

"He always said he bowed out when he could no longer jump over the tables and do what he did. He wanted to get out of the musicals because he didn’t want audiences to see him in decline like that," Patricia Kelly said. "In many ways, that was a very smart move. As a result, he remains pretty evergreen. His audiences see him very young and vibrant, and very athletic. Kind of on top of his game. That’s how he wanted them to remember him."