“Fred Astaire represented the aristocracy, I represented the proletariat.” – Gene Kelly
When people think of musicals, two of the first names that immediately spring to mind are Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, two giants of one of Hollywood’s most distinctive genres. Without question, both men played an instrumental role in popularizing and sustaining the musical from the 1930s through the 1950s, the final decades of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Although they did collaborate on two occasions, in many ways Gene Kelly’s rise to popularity in the 1940s amounted to a changing of the guard. For film historians and fans of the musical, however, even if they weren’t contemporaries, Astaire and Kelly will forever be viewed as rivals, with each having left an indelible stamp on the genre that defined their careers.
While it is true that a comparison between Astaire and Kelly is indispensable to any study of Kelly’s life, much can also be gained simply by focusing mostly on his life and career. What made Kelly unusual for actors of that era is that he did not actually arrive in Hollywood until he was nearly 30 years old, so his early life and work before film had a crucial influence on his star image. Furthermore, given that he came to prominence after Astaire, Kelly’s career offers a valuable lens through which to chart the evolution of the musical genre, as well as a look at the prevailing standards of masculinity within Hollywood at the time.