Movie musicals and kung fu epics rank low on the realist’s list of favorite types of film. Nobody breaks into song and dance in everyday life, let alone whole crowds of jubilant, synchronized, and coordinated citizens. Likewise, when a group of guys in the real world want to cause you harm, they attack you en masse instead of thoughtfully permitting you to elegantly dispatch them one by one. But to gripe about vérité is to entirely miss the point. The pleasure of both martial arts and dance movies comes from seeing the human body at work. Nobody understood that more than Gene Kelly and Bruce Lee, two performers whose legacies occupy a middle ground that’s not quite dance and not quite violence.
Both Lee and Kelly were small, powerfully built men, each five foot seven inches of hard-earned muscle. Both were incredibly competitive, natural athletes with an insatiable thirst for exertion, and both were blessed with the kind of charisma equal parts looks, joie de vivre, and damn-I’m-good confidence that transfers easily to celluloid. Both were also intensely masculine personas working against a stereotype of sexual passivity (Kelly because dancers were suspected of being twinkletoes, Lee because he was Asian), misconceptions they battled with every resource available, including shamelessly exploiting their own sex appeal.
Standards of studio decency probably prevented Kelly from stripping to the waist like Lee did on the flimsiest of pretenses (ripped the neckline of your black bodysuit? Too hot to fight Chuck Norris at the Coliseum? Well, that shirt’s just going to have to come off!) , but the nude bodysuit Kelly wears in An American In Paris (1951) leaves nothing to the imagination. Dressed or not, Kelly had a sensual, blue-collar, unpretentious demeanor that took all the starch out of dance and made enjoying his films an acceptable enterprise for regular Joes.
But aren’t we forgetting someone? It’s impossible to talk about movement on film without mentioning Fred Astaire, and rightly so. To watch Astaire in action especially at his prime in films like Swing Time (1936) or Top Hat (1935) is to experience a vicarious weightlessness unrivaled by anything NASA can cook up. But he’s an affable neuter, a perfect gentleman who’s probably as blank as a Ken doll beneath his top hat and tails. Gene Kelly, the self-described Brando of dance (to Astaire’s Cary Grant,) was physical, prowling and pacing in proletarian getups (like the very Stanley Kowalski t-shirt and jeans he wears to waltz with a mop in Thousands Cheer (1943)) with an undercurrent of animalism. He could dance just as well as Astaire and he telegraphed the same unabashed joy when he did, but his very he-man style carried a tinge of sex and violence that places him closer to Bruce Lee.
Maybe it’s easier to hop, skip, and jump from family-run dancing school to Broadway to Hollywood if you’re born in Pittsburgh (as Kelly was) just as it’s probably easier to end up in kung fu films if you’re born into a family of actors and grow up in Hong Kong like Lee. But if the circumstances were switched, Lee and Kelly would have done okay in each other’s genres. Watch Kelly in the barroom fantasy number in Words and Music (1948), where he’s a tough guy in a tight purple t-shirt out for a good time with a blowsy blonde (Vera Ellen). This is their time to paint the town red, and Kelly expresses his (not entirely chaste) excitement by thrusting and leaping and rolling on every surface like a parenthesis of muscle. When a rival shoots his girl, Kelly allows himself a moment of tender shock before his face hardens with thoughts of vengeance. He paces the room, sizing his opponent, throwing balletic kicks and punches (and a chair) at the murderer with enough force to know the real thing might do more than sting.
It’s a musical number, but shave off a few layers of gentility and you’ve got all the ingredients of a kung fu battle: a grudge, some choreography, and the plausible threat of real violence. Similarly, at the conclusion of the “Alter Ego” dance number in Cover Girl (1944), a tour de force of timing and camera tricks where an indecisive Kelly dances with his own reflection in a storefront window, he regains his singularity by smashing the glass with a well-thrown trash can. Astaire would never commit such vandalism, but Lee does practically the same thing at the conclusion of Enter The Dragon (1973), shattering every surface in a hall of mirrors in order to free himself from his looking-glass doppelgangers.
If Lee had forsaken martial arts for dance (not an impossible hypothetical: at the age of 18 he’d won the title “Crown Colony Cha-Cha Champion of Hong Kong”) his movement style would be somewhere between Astaire’s and Kelly’s. He’s light and quick like Astaire, blinkingly swift with footsteps so weightless it’s as if he’s suspended like a marionette. After incapacitating Enter The Dragon nemesis Oharra (Robert Wall) with his devastating one inch punch, Lee capers a cocky half-circle around his benumbed opponent. The move is reminiscent of an effervescent snippet of soft-shoe Astaire might toss in just to show how happy he is.
But what Astaire lacks, and Lee and Kelly share, is unadulterated power. Astaire was strong you’d have to be, to do what he did but he wore it in a way that was unobtrusive, all his horsepower subsumed into a fissure-less illusion of untroubled elegance. Kelly and Lee wore their fortitude visibly. Even though the essence of their might was very different Kelly smooth and robust like a thoroughbred, Lee tight and swift like the tip of a whip only fools and masochists would try and take their lunch money. And the threat of damage wasn’t just theoretical. Cyd Charisse, one of Kelly’s frequent dance partners, remarked that her husband could always tell who she’d been with at the studio. If it was Astaire, there wouldn’t be a mark on her. But dance with Kelly and she’d be covered with bruises.
In kung fu movies and dance musicals, it’s all who you’re paired with or up against. Gene Kelly’s partners had to be competent dancers, either already blessed with technique, grace and discipline (like Charisse or Leslie Caron) or willing to be forced into competence under Kelly’s draconian watch (like Debbie Reynolds or Frank Sinatra). They needed to dance just well enough, neither subtly worse nor stellarly better, so as not to overshadow their top-billed partner.
The only performer exempt from this rule was Astaire, who partnered with Kelly only once, in Ziegfeld Follies. Astaire was granted the rare dispensation to dance as well as he liked, perhaps because, like the notoriously perfectionist Kelly, his motor only ran at the speed of excellence. Besides, their styles were so apples-and-oranges that there was no danger of one showing up the other. When Astaire and Kelly perform the same choreography together in the “The Babbitt And The Bromide” number, it’s light and meringue-y Astaire vs. beefsteak-on-a-black-eye Kelly. Kelly’s a bruiser, throwing himself around with a hoofer’s heavy, thigh-powered footfalls and a wrestler’s low stance, whereas Astaire skitters and skips the same steps, keeping his center of gravity up in his shoulders instead. When they both kick high and slap their hands against their foot, there’s a little kung fu in Kelly’s swipe. And when both men shake their hand out in mock pain afterwards, Kelly’s not hurting half as much as the more delicate Astaire.
Lee never paired up with anyone delicate if anything, at an ectomorphic, snake-hipped 128 pounds (at his lightest), he was usually the slighter combatant but any other body type was fair game. Whether against the carpet-chested Chuck Norris in Return of the Dragon, or stilt-man-without-stilts Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death, Lee paired off with opponents whose sometimes freakish dissimilarity brought his own gifts into sharper relief.
Consider the opening sequence of Enter the Dragon, where Lee spars with a pudgy martial arts student (Samo Hung, later to become a Hong Kong action hero in his own right). Seen in long shot, the men look evenly matched. But when it cuts from the doughy Hung to a medium shot of Lee, Lee’s already impressive physique looks extra ripped in contrast, every ripple in his musculature tight under fatless tan flesh. He looks as if he was sewn together from rawhide dog chews. He moves like a mantis, effortlessly flipping his lardy opponent like a big fat dumpling until Hung, humiliated, taps out.
It’s fun to hypothesize what a pas de deux between Lee and Kelly would look like. I imagine a lost sequence from Anchors Aweigh (1945) where Kelly, a sailor on sojourn in Manhattan (“New York, New York! It’s a wonderful town!”) makes a side trip to Chinatown. There’s Lee, teaching kung fu on the sidewalk, a marvelous excuse for the two to improvise a back-and-forth dialogue of their respective styles, ending in a jubilant dance journey down Canal Street, full of kicks, punches, and powerful grace. I imagine the two in rehearsal, fascinated by each other’s body of knowledge and having the time of their life doing what they love best. Someone’s always the loser in kung fu movies, but I think both men would have walked away from their collaboration feeling they had won. I know the audience would share their triumph as well.