Debbie Reynolds — who died December 28 at age 84 — was 19 years old when her life changed forever.
After cutting her teeth on cabaret performances and winning the Miss Burbank pageant in 1948, Reynolds landed the part of Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 classic that would launch her career. She was to sing and dance opposite Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly, lauded Hollywood mainstays with decades of performing experience, while she had almost none, and zero dancing experience to speak of.
That’s why, as Reynolds would later tell it, Kelly wasn’t too thrilled about her casting. Speaking to the UK’s Sunday Express in 2013, Reynolds wryly recounted how Kelly dismissed her lack of experience and showed little sympathy when she danced so much during filming that her feet bled:
"My feet were bleeding from all that dancing and when I pointed it out, Gene would say 'Clean it up!' He was very sentimental like that!”
But Reynolds wasn’t scared of Kelly, nor of the prospect of starring in a huge musical with a scant résumé. “You know, I was so dumb,” she said to the American Film Institute in 2012 with a self-aware smile, “that I didn’t feel you could fail. I felt [the part] was me, and I marched straight ahead.”
There’s no better scene from Singin’ in the Rain to illustrate Reynolds’s natural talent and hardworking nature — she’d only been learning to dance for three months when the movie was filmed — than the exuberant number “Good Morning.” Reynolds literally goes toe to toe with O’Connor and a 37-year-old Kelly, matching them step for kick-ball-change’d step as she tip-taps around the set with a perpetual grin.
Between Reynolds’s natural charisma and the two men dancing on either side of her in virtually identical outfits, it’s hard not to focus squarely on her, a brilliant performer who willed her inexperience into submission with sheer determination and skill.
“To dance with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in three months — well, anyone else should’ve passed out,” Reynolds told AFI. “But I didn’t. I just thought, ‘Well, let’s get started.’”
You can watch the full clip of “Good Morning” above. Singin’ in the Rain is currently available to rent on Amazon.