“Making Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I’ve ever done,” Debbie Reynolds wrote in her 2013 memoir, Unsinkable. “The movie was actually harder, because it hurt me everywhere, mostly my brain and my feet.” Although Reynolds, who died on Wednesday, was only 19 when she was cast alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in what would become one of the greatest Hollywood musicals, she’d already racked up some impressive achievements, including a No. 3 hit with “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” from the 1950 movie Two Weeks With Love.* But she had no training in dance, and she was about to share the screen with two of Hollywood’s greatest hoofers. “I wasn’t a dancer,” Reynolds wrote, “and I had three months to learn what Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor had been doing for years.”
Reynolds’ preparation was arduous, and Kelly, who co-directed Singin’ with Stanley Donen, was a stern and unforgiving taskmaster who had opposed Reynolds being cast in the part. At one point, according to Unsinkable, she wound up crying under the piano in one of MGM’s rehearsal rooms, where she was comforted by no less than Fred Astaire. “You’re not going to die,” Astaire told Reynolds. “That’s what it’s like to learn to dance. If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right.”
Reynolds’ most formidable task—and her greatest achievement—was “Good Morning,” which required her to hold her own opposite Kelly and O’Connor at the same time. The scene took an entire 15-hour day to shoot; by the time they were finished, Reynolds’ feet were bleeding, and she had to be carried to her dressing room. Kelly, naturally, chose the first take for the finished film. (The shoot was tough on everyone: Kelly spent three days filming the title number with a fever of 103 degrees, and after the athletic exertions of “Make ’Em Laugh,” four-pack-a-day smoker O’Connor needed several days to recover.)
From the moment the three of them start tapping their feet until they collapse in a laughing heap on an overturned couch, there are only nine cuts in more than three minutes—nine unforgiving head-to-toe shots that left no room for error. I’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain many times, but I’ve watched “Good Morning” closer to a hundred—it was one of the things I used to teach my daughter how to watch movies when she was too young to watch anything longer—and it’s as close to perfection as movies get.
My favorite stretch comes a little over a minute and a half in, when “Good Morning” shifts from a song-and-dance number to pure dance. At this point, Donen and Kelly have twice contrived to have Reynolds stand on a makeshift platform while Kelly and O’Connor dance around her, and you think they’re going to keep finding ways to take her out of the action while the veteran dancers do their thing. But once Reynolds jumps down off that bench, she’s no longer a spectator. The three dancers strut toward the camera in unison, and then they’re off, moving side to side, up and down a flight of stairs, and clear on into the next room in one unbroken 30-second take. The camera doesn’t even cut when it moves through a wall. As they move toward the stairs, Reynolds’ lips part in astonishment as if even she can’t believe what they’re about to do.
A friend who uses “Good Morning” in her intro film classes likes to point out the moments when you can see Reynolds stealing a furtive glance to make sure she’s hitting her marks, and it’s true she didn’t entirely follow Gene Kelly’s command: “Smile! Don’t look at your feet!” But Reynolds was an actor as well as a singer and a dancer—a true triple threat—and what she lacks in polish she more than makes up in the infectious delight she conveys. Her character, Kathy Selden, is a formerly anonymous voice artist who suddenly finds herself hanging out (and, oh yes, in love) with one of the movies’ biggest stars; she’s swept away by the only-in-Hollywood improbability of it all, and we’re swept right alongside her. In the midst of this most artificial of movie genres, and through the veil of a highly stylized comic performance, Reynolds still makes Kathy real. It’s not unlike what her daughter, Carrie Fisher, did for Star Wars, adding a dash of no-nonsense pragmatism to an utterly outlandish story.
In a passage from François Truffaut’s journals that the New Yorker’s Richard Brody translated and posted to Twitter, he draws attention to an almost imperceptible gesture Reynolds makes at the very end of “Good Morning”:
In the three thousand films I've seen, the most beautiful shot is in Singin' in the Rain. In the middle of the film, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, after a moment of discouragement, regain their taste for life and start singing and dancing in the apartment. Their dance leads them to leap over a sofa on which all three of them have to land seated side by side. During this dancing stunt over the sofa, Debbie Reynolds makes a determined and rapid gesture, pulling her short pink skirt down over her knees with a deft hand, so that her panties can’t be seen when she lands seated. That gesture, quick as lightning, is beautiful because in the same image we have the height of cinematographic convention (people who sing and dance instead of walking and talking) and the height of truth, a little lady taking care not to show her thighs. This all happened just once, fifteen years ago, it lasted less than a second, but it was imprinted on film as definitively as the arrival of the train at La Ciotat station. These sixteen frames of Singin' in the Rain, this beautiful gesture by Debbie Reynolds, which is almost invisible, well illustrates this second action of films, this second life, which is legible on the editing table.
That “second life” is all we have left of Reynolds now. But if any movie is joyous enough to lift our spirits in the face of such tragedy, it’s Singin’ in the Rain, and “Good Morning” never stops giving no matter how often you watch it.
*Correction, Dec. 29, 2016: This post originally misstated that Debbie Reynolds died Tuesday. She died Wednesday, Dec. 28.