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In May 1944 LIFE magazine published a series of photographs by the Albanian-born technical virtuoso Gjon Mili—images featuring a hugely talented young actor, dancer and choreographer named Gene Kelly as he danced, in his own inimitable way, around Mili’s studio.
“Gjon Mili,” LIFE noted, “who would rather photograph dancing than almost anything else in the world, recently trained his high-speed camera on the nimble feet and lithe body of MGM’s brilliant dancing star Gene Kelly.” What’s wonderful about Mili’s work in these pictures—made, it’s worth stressing, seven decades ago—is the technical brilliance and economy that he brings to bear on Kelly’s explosive artistry.
Here, LIFE presents a series of Mili’s photos—many of which were not published in LIFE—deftly capturing Kelly at a pivotal point in his career. He had appeared in half-a-dozen movies by 1944, and had choreographed sequences in several of those films, but the starring roles and legendary performances for which he’s remembered and celebrated today were still a few years down the road.
But there’s no doubt that, whether or not he was a bona fide star at the time, Kelly not only knew what he was doing: he knew where he was going.
In fact, perhaps the most significant and engaging aspect of these pictures is not Mili’s masterful technique and his facility with “trick” photography, but rather Kelly’s charm and, above all, his confidence evident in every frame. Very few American movie stars of the 20th century can lay claim to an immediately recognizable persona of their own making—James Cagney, of course; Jimmy Stewart; Steve McQueen and a handful of others. And right up there with them is Gene Kelly, whose playful, clever and yet, deep down, hopelessly romantic characters propelled the action of classics like On the Town, An American in Paris and, of course, the greatest Hollywood musical of them all, Singin’ in the Rain.
While Kelly never won an Oscar for any of his specific roles or for his directorial efforts, he was presented with an Honorary Academy Award in 1951 “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” Not bad for a Pennsylvania boy who always claimed that his dream in life was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.