You can’t be sad or cynical watching “Singin’ in the Rain.” I dare you to even try.
Those rich Technicolor hues; those dashing jawlines and cherubic smiles; the wry choreography; those soigné dyed-fox gowns and drop-waist, fringed flapper skirts; the goofball slapstick; those infectious show tunes, sung with bouncing trills and bright vibrato: They will always buck you up, with or without your consent.
This 1952 masterpiece remains my favorite film, and for decades has been my go-to pick-me-up whenever I’ve felt down. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and the magnificent, recently passed Debbie Reynolds have nursed me out of seemingly intractable funks, whether born of teenage moodiness, ugly breakups, career setbacks, family fights or the mourning over a lost friend. And unlike other works of art that have soundtracked difficult periods of my life, this film somehow never became tainted by any gloomy feelings harbored while watching it.
It’s just too darn relentlessly joyful.
To be fair, it isn’t only the cheerfulness of the film that buoys me and provides newfound emotional strength. It is also the story of the film’s creation, and Reynolds’s own indefatigable, improbable rise.
Which is fitting, in a way. “Singin’ in the Rain” also tells the story of the making of a film, and the indefatigable, improbable rise of an ingénue. Set in the 1920s, it follows two silent film stars struggling to transition to talkies, a transition particularly challenging for the stunning but screeching leading lady, Lina Lamont (a spectacular Jean Hagen).
Out of nowhere comes Kathy Selden (Reynolds), a plucky aspiring actress. After insulting and then inadvertently charming matinee idol Don Lockwood (Kelly), Kathy gets roped into dubbing her dulcet tones over Lina’s squawks in an upcoming picture. And meanwhile, of course, Don, Kathy and their pal Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) tap-dance their way across Hollywood.
I always felt a strange affinity for Reynolds in this role, and not only because we’re about the same petite size and the character’s name is similar to mine. It’s also because she was unusually young (in her case, teenage) when taking on a terrifyingly high-profile job, in which she played alongside the best and most famous in her business, while, at times (if we’re being honest) feeling underprepared and unequipped for the task at hand.
In her case, specifically: She didn’t know how to dance.
That’s right. A gymnast, Reynolds had actually “never danced” when she was cast to hoof alongside virtuosos Kelly and O’Connor, as she told the American Film Institute. But she was unafraid, she said, in part because “I was so dumb that I didn’t feel you could fail.”
The rehearsal process soon wised her up.
She endured tongue-lashings by an impatient Kelly, a perfectionist twice her age, who had preferred to cast a trained dancer; grueling, 15-hour dance rehearsals that left her feet bleeding; and frequent doubts of faith in herself and her talents.
At one point, she hid under a piano, sobbing about how the work was too hard and she’d never succeed. Softhearted star Fred Astaire spotted her and invited her to sit in on one of his (usually very private) rehearsals. There he spent an hour sweating and panting and turning red in the face, as he tried to string together the steps he would later make look so effortless on screen.
“You see how hard it is?” he told her. “It never gets easier. This is the way it is. You go learn it.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. And she did.
Like Astaire, Reynolds never showed her exhaustion or pain onscreen. (Nor, for that matter, did Kelly, who famously filmed the rain-soaked title song while sporting a 103-degree fever.) And across subsequent decades of film, stage and public life, Reynolds always comported herself with grace and unsinkable spirits, even in the face of great personal and financial hardship.
Many fans will remember Reynolds for her campy turn on “Will & Grace” (among many of the maternal roles she played), or her “Aba Daba Honeymoon” rendition, or perhaps the conditions of her passing a day after her daughter’s death this week, when she came about as close to dying of a broken heart as any human possibly could.
But to me — and perhaps to others who have sometimes suffered imposter syndrome, or who think they’ll never ever learn the things that seem to come so easily to those we admire (or, if we’re still being honest, sometimes resent) — she will always be the teenager who crept out from under the piano. The one who dried her eyes, saw what she had to do and how hard it would be, and then cheerfully told the world “Good Mornin’. ”