While Singin' In the Rain can help put a smile on anyone's face today, almost 70 years after its release, making the film was no easy task for everyone involved, especially Debbie Reynolds. The actress, who died in 2016 at 84, was only 19 when she made the movie. She had starred in a handful of movies before, but she never had to dance on screen before, and perfectionist Gene Kelly was the last person a first-time dancer should be paired with.
In her 2013 memoir Unsinkable, Reynolds wrote that Kelly, who co-directed the film with frequent collaborator Stanley Donen, "criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement." But eventually, Kelly started to warm up to her. When they filmed their first kiss, Kelly "shoved his tongue down my throat," Reynolds claimed. She pushed him away and started yelling for Coca-Cola to wash her mouth. "It was the early 1950s, and I was an innocent kid who had never been French-kissed. It felt like an assault," she wrote. "I was stunned that this 39-year-old man would do this to me."
Although they became friends during filming, Kelly pushed Reynolds as far as possible while filming the "Good Morning" dance number. "My feet were bleeding from hours of abuse," she wrote. "I couldn't move."
Thanks to a chance encounter with Fred Astaire, who was also making movies at MGM at the time. He found her crying under a rehearsal piano. "You’re not going to die," Astair told her. "That’s what it’s like to learn to dance. If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right." Reynolds watched Astaire rehearse and was "in awe" at how hard it was for even a seasoned pro like Astaire to dance. "I realized that if it was hard for Fred Astaire, dancing was hard for everyone."
There was a longstanding rumor that Kelly and Donen did not want Reynolds in the movie, but Kelly's widow, Patricia Kelly, told Newsday in 2016 that was not the case. She noted how it was producer Arthur Freed who suggested Reynolds for the part of Kathy Seldon. The directors liked the idea.
Reynolds was not a trained dancer, but Kelly was not intimidated. "Frank Sinatra was not a trained dancer, and he had taught so many young people how to dance, so he basically applied the same techniques," Patricia explained in 2016. "You hear Gene was a perfectionist, and he was absolutely demanding, but he demanded the same thing of everything and of himself. And I think trained dancers are used to that type of discipline."