Can we arm-twist comparisons between the shiny-smiling, all-American song-and-dance man, Gene Kelly, subject of PBS's American Masters, and the imperious, Lear-like, Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurasawa, whose story is told on PBS's Great Performances, March 20 at 9 pm? One, an Irish Catholic kid from Pittsburgh, who referred to himself as a blue-collar performer? The other, born into Japan's samurai class and most content at his mandarin country retreat looking out on Mt.Fuji?
Actually, the small-bodied Kelly's loafers-and-a-t-shirt informality and Kurosawa's imposing frame and elitist visage mask some interesting comparisons. As we learn from the video bios above, both were self-absorbed film artists (Kurosawa: "Subtract movies and I am zero"), who drove their casts hard with athletic, physical demands (Kelly: "If they aren't professional, they shouldn't be around"), and neither suffered fools. Both had left-wing, film union pasts, and also a disastrous fallout with their key artistic collaborator (co-director Stanley Donen for Kelly, actor Toshiro Mifune for Kurosawa). Each had his most transcendant cinema moment in a downpour: Kelly, of course, dancing and splashing about in Singin' in the Rain, and Kurosawa staging perhaps the greatest movie battle of all, in a ferocious deluge at the climax of The Seven Samurai.
And the posthumous TV bios? Both are lucky to have located a long on-camera career interview with their subject, conducted in the 1980s with Kelly and in 1990 with Kurosawa, while the filmmakers were lucid and in a mood to talk. Both supplement the long-ago interview with recent interrogations of the deceased filmmaker's surviving family, friends, and collaborators, and with commentary by film historians. Both end, quite touchingly, with an octagenarian filmmaker's fading, stooped body, and death.
The Kelly American Masters is the more conventional work, hardly stretching beyond talking heads and film clips. Happily, many of the clips are luminous: MGM true Technicolor, as beautiful as color gets, with Kelly kicking up a storm in scenes from such musical delights as On the Town, An American in Paris, and It's Always Fair Weather. The interviews with others tell an easily accomplished success story of a kid from a large, happy Catholic family who floated from home to New York to the Broadway lead in Pal Joey to being courted by Hollywood.
Gene's "manliness" was never in question, neither earlier nor later. It made perfect sense that, in the 1950s, he hosted an episode of TV's Omnibus situating dance among other professional sports. He tossed a baseball with Mickey Mantle and (not in the documentary) tapdanced with boxing's Sugar Ray Robinson. A guy's guy. Many of his dance numbers are buddy-buddy items, teaming him with Sinatra or Donald O'Connor or, famously, with Jerry, the cartoon mouse. Only once did he dance with Fred Astaire, a non-buddy buddy kind of male.
Seemingly, there was no rivalry between Kelly and Astaire. They swung so differently. Kelly: "Fred represented the aristocratic when he danced. I represented the proletariat." As we are told by experts, Gene liked to dance low, Fred high. Gene dug in, while Fred skimmed and floated. Fred was about the heart, Gene about muscles and the body. Fred made the most difficult steps easy and graceful. Gene made every dance turn seem an athletic feet. Says Cyd Charise, who wrapped her leggy legs about both:"If I didn't have a mark when I came home, it was Fred Astaire, black and blue, it was Gene Kelly."
The Kurosawa Great Performances is a more cinematic effort, and told with some visual flare. It's also a bit pretentious, with not one but two narrators: Sam Shepard offering voice-over, and Paul Scofield doing a royalist BBC-voiced reading of sections of Kurosawa's memoir, Something Like an Autobiography. What's best about this documentary are interviews with some unexpectedly still-living stars (the female leads of Rashomon and Throne of Blood) and with Kurosawa's grown son and daughter, and peaks into Kurosawa's summer home and into the humble Kyoto bed-and-breakfast room which he rented to write his screenplays.
Again the clips are fabulous, and, as the documentary argues, the films often autobiographical. Remember the dying old cancer-ridden man in Ikiru (1952), spurned by his conventional adult son? How prescient of Kurosawa's 1971 suicide attempt, in which his son lectured him in his hospital bed (so Hisao Kurosawa recalls without shame), "Pull yourself together. Stop making trouble for other people."
(Boston Phoenix, February, 2002)