Gene Kelly is remembered by film fans for his dancing, for his choreography, and for directing for some of the most beloved musicals of all time. But, while his movies will put a smile on anyone’s face, what was happening behind the scenes wasn’t as smooth and effortless as the final product appeared to be. During the making of one of his most beloved and influential films, Kelly was exceptionally tough on his co-stars, including one young newcomer who had never danced before. The dance legend later said that he was surprised the star “still talked to him” after they worked together. Read on to find out who Kelly was referring to and why their working relationship was so strained.
In 1952, Kelly starred in Singin’ in the Rain alongside Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. The movie, about the early days of Hollywood and the transition from silent movies to “talkies,” was a hit at the time and is now considered one of the best films in history.
At the time that she made the movie, Reynolds was only 19 years old. She didn’t have any dance experience and was starring alongside two professionals. On top of that, Kelly was not only her co-star, but the movie’s co-director and choreographer.
“I worked really, really hard, because I didn’t dance. I wasn’t a dancer, so I had to keep up with Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly, so you can imagine trying to do that,” Reynolds said at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. “I mean, after all, Gene Kelly is one of the great dancers of all time.”
According to TCM, Reynolds had to train eight hours a day for two months before filming even began. When the movie did start shooting, it didn’t get any easier. Of the “Good Morning” song and dance scene, Reynolds told TCM that by the end of filming, her feet were bleeding.
“[Kelly] shot it like 40 times, but he printed the first take,” Reynolds said. “He was a very exacting man … We started that number—‘good morning, good morning’—and it was nighttime when we finished. And we were really finished. I had blood in my shoes. It was very difficult to do those numbers as fast as they wanted them and as long as they wanted over and over and over and over”
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In her 2013 memoir, Unsinkable, Reynolds wrote about working with Kelly and understandably didn’t have many positive things to say about their time on Singin’ in the Rain.
As reported by Country Living, she called him a “cruel taskmaster” and wrote, “He came to rehearsals and criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement.”
The biography He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly by Cynthia and Sara Brideson, also talks of Kelly being tough on other actors and having a temper. “Throughout his career Gene pushed people to their limit. Whether he did this out of a need to exert power or to test a person’s character is debatable,” the authors wrote, according to Express.
It wasn’t just Kelly’s directing that was an issue. During a scene in which the two actors had to kiss, Reynolds wrote that he “shoved his tongue down [her] throat” without warning.
“‘Eeew! What was that?’ I screeched, breaking free of his grasp and spitting,” Reynolds wrote in Unsinkable. “I ran around frantic, yelling for some Coca-Cola to cleanse my mouth. It was the early 1950s, and I was an innocent kid who had never been French-kissed. It felt like an assault. I was stunned that this 39-year-old man would do this to me.”
Kelly is widely quoted as once saying of Reynolds, “I wasn’t very nice to Debbie. I’m surprised she still speaks to me.”
As for Reynolds, she later said of Kelly (via his New York Times obituary), “I learned a lot from Gene. He is a perfectionist and a disciplinarian: the most exacting director I’ve worked for. And he has a good temper. Every so often he would yell at me and make me cry. But it took a lot of patience for him to work with someone who had never danced before.”
Kelly died in 1996 at age 83; Reynolds passed at 84 in 2016, the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher, 60, died.