Along with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly was the most successful song-and-dance man in film history, a towering figure in the development and enduring success of the movie musical. Born August 23, 1912, in Pittsburgh, PA, he initially studied economics, funding his education by working alternately as a soda jerk and a brick layer. With brother Fred, he also gave dancing lessons. In 1937, the Kelly brothers both unsuccessfully sought choreography work in New York. A year later, however, Gene was cast in the chorus of Leave It to Me, and in 1939 he graduated to a small role in the revue One for the Money. A more prominent performance in the drama The Time of Your Life caught the attention of Richard Rodgers, who cast him as the titular Pal Joey. Kelly left Broadway for Hollywood when David O. Selznick offered him a contract, immediately loaning him to MGM to star opposite Judy Garland in 1942's For Me and My Gal. At the insistence of producer Arthur Freed, MGM bought out the remainder of Kelly's Selznick contract, and cast him in the 1943 war drama Pilot No. 5.
After the musical Du Barry Was a Lady, Kelly appeared in the all-star Thousands Cheer. The Cross of Lorraine, a Resistance drama, quickly followed. MGM then loaned him to Paramount for the Rita Hayworth vehicle Cover Girl and also allowed him to share choreography duties with an up-and-coming Stanley Donen, who continued on as his assistant; the result was a major critical and commercial hit, and while the follow-up, Christmas Holiday, passed by unnoticed, 1945's Anchors Aweigh -- which cast Kelly opposite Frank Sinatra -- earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, confirming his brilliance as a dancer and choreographer as well as solidifying his increasing power at the box office. In 1944, Kelly had starred in Ziegfield Follies, but the picture did not see the light of day until two years later. In the interim he served in the Navy, and upon returning from duty starred in 1947's Living in a Big Way. For 1948's The Pirate, Kelly teamed with director Vincente Minnelli, followed by a turn as D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. Next, in the 1948 Rodgers-and-Hart biography Words and Music, he teamed with Vera Ellen for a performance of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."