Like what you see?
Late March, 1951 • M-G-M Studios, Hollywood
“Debbie, Mr. Mayer wants to see you in his office right away.”
I was a few days short of nineteen as I sat in the MGM Studios Schoolhouse, staring at my literature textbook, but far more interested in blowing bubbles with my gum. I glanced up at Miss McDonald, the principal, and popped the bubble coming from my mouth. I cocked my head slightly. “Mr. Mayer wants to see me?” Elizabeth Taylor, my best friend, was sitting next to me, and looked just as shocked as I was. When I looked at her for answers, she just shrugged.
“Yes, Debbie, he does,” Miss McDonald replied drolly, “And perhaps it would be wise to not keep him waiting. You’ll find him in his office. Third floor of the Thalberg building behind the big doors and stern secretary. Can’t miss it.”
I closed the textbook. Grabbing my Helene Berman jacket, I cast another nervous but excited smile at Elizabeth, and quickly left the school room.
What on earth could this be about? I wondered as I dashed down A Street toward the Thalberg. With slightly shaking fingers, I ran through my hair, pulling it back into a ponytail, pausing for a second to check my reflection in a window in the Makeup Department.
In the noisy foyer of the Thalberg, there were a few gawking tourists, glancing between the pamphlets in their hands and the architecture. But most of the people hurrying around were business men and women on their way to meetings. My eyes bulged when I recognized a handsome, black-haired movie star across the room, strolling toward the elevator. Gene Kelly!
Suddenly realizing that my mouth was hanging open, I closed it and darted up the stairs. The large doors on the third floor, I reminded myself. Pausing at the top of the stairs, I caught my breath and smoothed my skirt. Lifting my chin and putting on a smile that I hoped looked confident, I marched toward Mayer’s office.
A sour faced woman with a studio-wide reputation sat at the secretary’s desk outside of Mr. Mayer’s office. “M-Mrs. Koverman?” Still hyperventilating a little, I swallowed as the older lady’s cold brown eyes turned to me. “Um… I-I’m Debbie Reynolds. I, uh, have an appointment to see Mr. Mayer.”
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Koverman said. “Go right in, Miss Reynolds.”
“Thank you,” I gasped and pushed open the massive door. My eyes widened as I glanced around the stark white room for the first time, ringing my hands slightly. It’s big enough to host a premiere after-party in here! On the other side of the room was a desk about the size of a small helicopter pad on a raised platform. At it sat a balding man engrossed in a stack of papers. “Mr. Mayer?” I ventured.
“Hmm?” The man looked up. “Ah! Miss Reynolds. Please, take a seat.” He rose and walked around the desk, holding a chair for me.
I nodded, hoping that I didn’t look like I was shaking as badly as I felt. How long is this room? Quarter of a mile? I thought sarcastically as I crossed to Mr. Mayer. “Thank you, sir,” I said as I sat, eyeing the plaque on his desk. Louis B. Mayer, vice-president.
Mr. Mayer leaned against his desk and eyed me kindly. His gaze steadied me as I watched him. “Debbie… May I call you Debbie?”
“Gosh, sure you can, Mr. Mayer.”
“Swell. Debbie, you are a very talented little girl, and I have a surprise for you today. You are going to make a movie with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.”
My jaw dropped. “I– me? You mean…”
“Yes, Debbie. You’re going to star in Singin’ in the Rain!”
The door opened and Gene Kelly strode in, his hands returning to his pockets as soon as the door closed again. “You sent for me?”
“Why yes, Gene, I did. Have a seat.”
Gene sat and nodded absently at me, my heart flipping a bit when our eyes met. Then he turned to Mr. Mayer. “What’s up, L.B.?”
Mr. Mayer smiled proudly and gestured at me. “Meet your leading lady.”
Gene turned to me with a smile. “Whaaat?” He ran an assessing gaze over me then stuck out his right hand. “So you’re Debbie Reynolds. Pleased to meet you.”
Feeling my face grow hot, I shook his hand. “Likewise, Mr. Kelly.”
He grinned, the crescent moon shaped scar on his left cheek fading into laugh lines. “Oh, don’t be so formal. Call me Gene.”
“Say, I was really impressed with your performance of Abba Dabba Honeymoon in your last picture. As soon as I saw it, I knew you were the perfect fit for Singin’ in the Rain.”
I smiled and glanced down at my folded hands resting on my lap. “Aw, it was nothing. It was a pretty easy waltz clog. Practically a jitterbug.”
“Yeah, but you performed it with energy and pizzazz. That’s the kind of thing that your part will need. Hey, while you’re here, would you mind showing me some more dance moves?”
My heart leapt into my throat, but I stood anyway, moving to the side of the desk where there was a little more room. “I can’t really sing or dance,” I stammered. “Abba Dabba Honeymoon was a smash only because it was simple and folks like that.”
“Never mind, Debbie. It’s not what you can do,” Mr. Mayer encouraged. “It’s what you’re going to do. Right, Gene?” He winked at me. “Gene’s also the co-director of the piece, just so you know.”
“You bet.” Gene crossed his legs and looked up at me like a director used to being obeyed. “Okay Debbie, we’re going to do a lot of tap in this piece, so can you do a time step?” He snapped his fingers in a four-four beat.
I grinned, relief washing over me. At least he wants to see something simple! “Why, sure.” I tapped out the rhythm a couple of times, not daring to look at either Gene or Mr. Mayer. When Gene stopped snapping, I stopped dancing. Squaring my shoulders, I smiled back at him.
He was frowning at my feet. “That was a waltz clog.”
My shoulders slumped. “Oh.” I cocked my head at him. “What’s the difference?”
Gene joined me. “Here, this is a time step.” He tapped it out. “And this is what you did.” He turned to the right and repeated the step, then turned left and did it again. “See the difference?”
I blinked. No… Nonetheless, I grinned up at him. “Well, that doesn’t seem too hard. I’m sure I’ll pick it up in no time.”
Gene’s eyebrows raised, an approving smile spreading across his face. “She has spunk, L.B. I like that.” As Gene returned to his seat, I sighed, looking up at the ceiling. I can do this. It’s just a flick. I’ve been doing this for a full year, and I haven’t been asked to do anything too hard yet. I looked back at Gene and smiled.
“Can you show me a maxie ford?” Gene asked, snapping his fingers again.
My smile faltered. “No sir. I-I never learned that one.”
“That’s all right,” Mr. Mayer said, rounding the desk to stand in front of Gene. “She’ll learn.”
Gene nodded as he stood. “Yes she will. Debbie, I won’t lie to you. This will probably be the most difficult picture you’ve done so far. But I know you’re the best one for the job. Are you up for the challenge? You’re not scared are you?”
“Scared? Not me!” I smiled confidently, believing it with all my heart.
Gene and Mr. Mayer exchanged a look. “That’s good,” Gene said to me. “You’ll start rehearsing next Monday with my personal choreography staff. You’ll get a memo in the next couple of days telling which rehearsal hall you’ll be in.
I grinned. And my birthday’s Sunday! Talk about a birthday gift!
Gene looked back at Mr. Mayer. “You need her for anything else, L.B.?”
“Nope. Thanks for coming down, Debbie.”
I shook their hands. “Thanks, Gene. Mr. Mayer. You won’t regret this!” I started walking toward the door then turned back to the two men. “What’s my character’s name?”
“Kathy Seldon.” Gene replied, a twinkle in his eye.
“Swell!” I shrugged happily and walked out of the office. Closing the door behind me, I leaned against it and took a deep breath. Mrs. Koverman spared me a brief glance before returning to her typewriter.
Golly! I’m going to be a movie star. A giggle escaped me. Just wait ’til Elizabeth hears this!
June 23, 1951 • Rehearsal Stage B
“One and two and three and one and two and three and,” Carol Haney, one of Gene’s choreographers called to me, clapping the beat as Lela Simone played the piano. “Come on, Debbie, try again!”
Sweat beaded my forehead and dripped down my neck. I huffed angrily and waited for the one-beat. Step right. Shuffle left. Step left. Toes. Back on left. Step right. Shuffle — I was on the floor, my knee throbbing painfully before I realized I had fallen. “DARN IT!” I screamed. “Oh, these shoes! I hate them! I just hate them! The metal on the soles makes them impossible!”
“Cool it, Debbie. The maxie ford is a fast step, but you’ll use it a lot in this number. You have to get it down!” Carol said sternly as Lela Simone, the pianist, stopped playing.
“But Carol! These shoes are–” I searched for an appropriate word but I was too angry to come up with anything. I swore instead. “I can’t do this anymore!” I yanked off the heels, remembering just in time not to throw them. A few days before I had, and ended up breaking a mirror. Heat flooded my face as I thrust them at the floor with another expletive. I stormed to the sofa across the room and curled up in a miserable ball.
“Debbie, you’ll never learn the maxie ford pouting on the sofa.”
“Oh, lay off, Carol,” Ernest Flatt, another dance instructor, said, walking over to me with a cup of water. “Here, Debbie. We need to keep you hydrated.”
“Thanks, Ernest.” I mumbled, accepting the glass.
“Cheer up, kid. Dance is hard, and your job is harder than most.”
I huffed. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
Jeanne Coyne, my third instructor, joined me on the sofa. “It should at least put things into perspective. Doing a picture with Gene is never easy.”
“It would be easier if he complimented me every now and then. It wouldn’t have to be much, just ‘good work, kid,’ or ‘nice work, Debbie. You actually got the step that time.'”
Jeanne ignored me. “And you have to go from basically no dance experience to Gene and Donald’s level in one flick. You gotta let yourself make mistakes. If you relax, you’ll find that you misstep less.”
Yeah right. Glaring at the glass, I grumbled, “Sure.”
“Hey,” Jeanne crooned, putting a hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay to not get it yet. Take five and we’ll try it again.” She looked up at Carol who shrugged and walked away.
As my dance instructors and Lela grabbed some water for themselves, I stared at the shadow my glass made on the floor and tried to not cry. Never in my life had I faced such a difficult challenge. I’m so dumb! I’ll never get it! I thought morosely, squeezing the cup until it shook.
The door opened and Gene stepped in. “Hey, fellas. How’s it going?” He asked the choreographers, glancing at me surreptitiously.
“We’re just taking a little break,” Jeanne said with her normal Gene Kelly blush.
If he noticed, he didn’t let on. “Oh? Is everything okay? She hasn’t hurt herself, has she?”
“Oh, no. And don’t worry, Gene,” Carol said. “She’ll be ready to shoot Good Mornin’ on schedule.”
Sure I will, I thought with a humph.
Gene nodded. “Good to hear. Hey, if you’re taking a break anyway, could you be an audience while Donald and I figure out the choreography for Make ‘Em Laugh? He says that especially Jeanne and Carol are easy to play off of.”
Jeanne giggled. “That’s because he’s so crazy funny! All he has to do is say ‘hi’ in the morning and I’m on the floor.”
Carol grinned. “It’s true.”
Gene smiled. “Yeah, there’s a reason why we wanted him for this part. Well, we’re going start pretty soon in sound stage 8.” With that, he turned to go.
“So, Gene, is that where you’ll be filming Make ‘Em Laugh?” Lela asked as she, Carol, and Ernest, followed him.
“No, we’ll be filming the number on stage 12. We just couldn’t get it today because they’re filming one of Vera-Ellen’s scenes for The Belle of New York.”
Jeanne turned to me before she walked out the door. “Come on, kid! This will be a hoot!”
It won’t work. I’m too depressed to laugh. But I forced myself to smile at her. “Sure, I’ll be there in a bit.”
A chorus of laughter met me as I opened the door of sound stage 8. The sound only made me feel worse.
“Oh, that was great, Donald. We should put that in,” Gene said, sitting in his director’s chair. Donald stood directly before me, surrounded on three sides by wooden backdrops. Everyone else, including Gene’s co-director, Stanley Donen, and a few crew members stood around or sat on piles of props. Everyone was smiling. Carol was even wiping tears from her eyes.
“Come on, Gene, that wasn’t anything! All I did was screw up my face,” Donald argued, wiping perspiration from his forehead.
“It’s called gurning. It was still enough to make people laugh, and that’s what we want for this number.” Gene scribbled something on the script on his lap. “Stanley, what do you think? Should he run into the hallway backdrop or the brick wall?”
Stanley crossed his arms and eyed the scene critically. “Definitely the brick wall. It will be funnier that way.”
“For the love of–” Donald shook his head, an amused-flabbergasted look in his blue eyes. “If this number gets any funnier, I’ll have to commit suicide to make a dramatic enough finale.”
Jeanne laughed. “Can you do that and still come back to work the next day?” Donald stuck out his tongue at her. She just laughed all the harder, clutching her stomach.
“Okay, Donald, do it again. We’ll play the prerecording, so all you have to do it act it out,” Gene ordered, his eyes twinkling.
“Oh, sure, the easy part,” Donald muttered with a lopsided grin as Stanley put the needle back on the record. Donald’s singing filled the room. “Make ’em laugh! Make ’em laugh! Don’t you know everyone wants to laugh?” Donald assumed a comical expression and lip synced the words. Then he ran into the backdrop on his right. Bang! When he stepped away, it looked like half his face wasn’t working right. I grinned in spite of myself as I watched him rearrange his face at least a dozen ways while the music continued rolling. I moved a couple steps closer to get a better look. The more faces he did, the harder everyone laughed.
After a few minutes, Gene, wiping tears from his eyes, chortled, “Okay, that’s enough!” He turned to Stanley. “I want a close up of the gurning. Jeanne? Take a note. We’ll have to re-record the song to include this.”
“Yes, sir!” Jeanne giggled, scribbling on the notebook in her lap.
“Hey Donald!” A prop man passed me carrying a life-sized headless doll. “What do you think of this?”
Donald eyed the doll with mock seriousness. “Dunno, Phil. It has symmetry, but she might make the wife jealous.” I found myself giggling with everyone else.
“Fortunately, there’s no face to kiss,” Phil replied, grinning.
“But it could still slap me,” Donald picked up the doll and held one arm, cradling it like they were ballroom dancing. He lowered it into a dip and looked at me specifically, all suave and debonair, one eyebrow higher than the other. I giggled again with everyone else. All seriousness, he rose and maneuvered the doll through a lindy hop dance. “So a few months ago, I was in Brooklyn, New York and the stranger sitting next to me put a hand on my thigh.” He plopped down next to Carol on a stack of boxes, putting the doll on his other side. Ever so casually, he draped the doll’s handless arm on his thigh. “Like so.”
“No…” Lela gasped, her eyes bulging. “Was it an adoring fan?”
Donald shook his head. “Couldn’t have been. I was wearing dark sunglasses.”
“What did you do to deserve it?” Ernest said, an incredulous grin on his face.
“Nothing! I was minding my own business, trying to use public transportation in a big city without being mobbed!”
“That’s New York City for you.” Gene shook his head. “Say, do you think you could you mimic that with the doll? Sit down next to her on a sofa or something. Then kiss her and she can slap you.”
Donald grinned. In the minutes that followed, he entertained us with the doll’s puppeted antics and his “attempts” to get away.
Feeling much lighter than I had thirty minutes before, I quietly slipped from sound stage. Watching Donald had given me enough energy to try again.
Step right. Shuffle left. Step left. Toes. Back on left. Step right. Shuffle —
“NO!” I screamed as I fumbled again. “It’s always that step! Why I can’t I get that step? All I have to do is brush my foot on the floor! What is wrong with me?” I burst into tears as I kicked off my tap shoes. The left one skittered across the floor as I glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes. My laughter-induced resolve had lasted a quarter of an hour. I swore as I yanked the needle off the vinyl record. Belatedly, I thought about the fragile 45 on the player. I hope I didn’t scratch it. Tears streaming down my face.
The thought of ruining one more thing sent me to my knees. Jeanne or Carol or Ernest may come in… Or Gene. I shuddered. Crawling under the grand piano, I gave in to the frame-shaking sobs. Normally, crying helped me feel better. This time, the more I cried, the worse I felt.
“I can’t do it! It’s too hard!” I pounded the floor with my fists, my tears puddling on the studio floor. “I just can’t!”
Then the door opened. ” Hello?” Oh please, not Gene. Not Gene! I was so blinded by tears that I didn’t bother to turn to look at the door.
Footsteps crossed the dance floor until pant legs and brown suede oxford shoes appeared before me. A male voice asked kindly, “Who’s under there?”
Thank heaven, it’s not Gene. “It’s n-nobody. I-I-I just need to rest.” I blinked and held my breath. For a moment, the tears stopped.
A hand appeared before me. “Give me your hand.”
Sniffling, I took his hand and crawled out from under the piano. When I looked up at him, my eyes widened. The man had a long, narrow face with brown hair slicked back to cover his bald spot. He had large ears, but what caught my attention was his empathetic brown eyes. “Fred Astaire?” Heat flooded my face. Great, Debbie. First you can’t dance, then you’re caught blubbering by the best actor in Hollywood!
“Why yes. And you must be Debbie Reynolds. What’s bothering you, Debbie?”
His face instantly swam before my eyes. “Oh, Mr. Astaire, It’s too hard! I’ll never learn any of it. I think I’m going to die!”
“Oh, you’re not going to die,” Mr. Astaire crooned. “Learning a new number is always hard.”
“Even for you?”
He chuckled. “Oh, yes, especially for me. And I’ve been dancing since I was five. You’ve been dancing for– what? A year?”
I sniffed and forced a grin. “Well that depends on who you talk to. Gene Kelly still doesn’t think I can dance.”
Mr. Astaire chuckled. “Oh, Gene. He’s a perfectionist and that makes him grumpy when things don’t come out exactly the way he wants. We all are like that to some extent or another.” I just shrugged. “Yes, Debbie, you too. Otherwise, you be getting ice cream with friends right now instead of drowning yourself in tears after practicing on your own time.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“You still don’t believe me, do you?” He cocked his head. “Come with me. I’m scheduled to rehearse a number for The Belle of New York this afternoon. I want you to see how hard it is for me.” Taking my hand with a fatherly squeeze, he led me out of the room.
Down the hall, Mr. Astaire nodded to a burly security guard outside of Rehearsal Hall A. The guard held out a hand of warning as Mr. Astaire opened the door. “I’m sorry, miss, but you can’t go in.”
“It’s all right, Kenneth. She’s with me.”
Kenneth blinked. “If you say so, Mr. Astaire.”
“I say so. Come on in, Debbie.”
Inside the hall, a black-haired man with a long nose was leaning against a wall next to a drum, smoking a cigarette. “Hi, Fred.”
“Hey, Hermes.” Mr. Astaire said, then gestured to me. “This is Debbie Reynolds, the gal that’s playing Kathy Seldon in Gene’s picture. She’s going to watch rehearsal today. Debbie, this is Hermes Pan. He’s my double, rehearsal accompanist, first audience for all my numbers, adviser, co-choreographer… basically he’s my right hand and more.”
“Charmed,” Hermes said, extending a hand to Debbie.
“Well, let’s get started. Debbie, take a seat.” Besides the drum bench, there was only one chair, and that was next to the door. Mr. Astaire approached the mirrored wall. “Hermes, give me a four-four.”
Hermes picked up the drumstick and pounded out a simple rhythm. Mr. Astaire, bobbing his head to the music, waited until the next one-beat and began dancing. Except he didn’t get very far before he fumbled. I blinked when he stumbled again at the exact same point. The third time through, he got it, but didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. Watching himself in the mirror, he ran through a few different variations of the move, then settled on one.
Then he started again, moving through the two-measure sequence four more times. Then he spin-jumped and fell. I gasped and leapt from my chair, ready to run over and help him. When he rose, his normally clear complexion was redder than a sunrise. “Oh, no Debbie. Stay put,” he ordered me. I sat back down. He jumped again, and just barely caught himself from falling.
His shirt collar drenched with sweat but he kept on working. “Hey, Fred, try putting that front Irish step in,” Hermes suggested.
Mr. Astaire, gasping for breath, nodded and ran through the sequence, but paused too long before the front Irish. He was out of step and knew it. “Shoot!” He shouted angrily. He huffed, then danced again.
I lost track of time as I watched him figure out one painful dance move after another. He’s dying! I thought. He’s creating something beautiful, but it’s killing him! My thought wandered over all of the flicks I had seen him in, and how effortless he made it look every time. I shook my head as he gasped for air, hands on his knees. And he’s not quitting, either.
He straightened and looked up at the wall clock. I followed his gaze, my jaw dropping when I realized I had been there for an hour. “That’s enough. Do you see how hard it is, Debbie?”
“And it never gets easier. Now, head back to your hall and learn it.”
I stood and twisted the doorknob. “Yes, sir.”
April 11, 1952 • Pantages Theater, Hollywood
“Golly, Debbie, that flick was great,” Robert Wagner said as we left the theater on opening night. “You make those dances look so easy.”
I coughed to cover a sarcastic snort. “Glad you liked it.”
The valet brought our car around, a 1920’s era Chevy like the one in the movie. Robert opened up the car door for me. “Didn’t you?”
“I thought I would hate it. I never felt like I measured up while we were filming, but I actually liked it a lot. I was sitting in the theater thinking, ‘Hey, I’m actually good! I really did hold my own with Gene and Donald.'” My mind flitted back over all those hours of pain and struggle. All worth it.
Robert sat next to me and shut his door. “You sure did. So do you think you’ll do another musical sometime soon?”
I laughed. “Well, when we finished filming, I didn’t want to. I just wanted to sleep. But Mr. Mayer insisted that I get more voice training for other movies.” I looked at him coquettishly and put some extra twang in my voice. “They say that I got me a Texas accent that can cut cake.”
Robert laughed. “Cut cake, Debbie? Really?”
I shrugged. “Okay, so I exaggerated a bit. Apparently I also sound like a high school doll.”
As we pulled away from the theater, Robert put an arm around my shoulder. “Well, you do… kinda.”
“Anyway, I’m working with Gertrude Folger at the studio, and I signed a contract for a role in I Love Melvin. It’ll come out sometime next year.”
“That’s wonderful, Debbie.”
“The studio’s also going to give me a national publicity campaign. You never know, some day you may tell your kids, ‘I knew that doll once. More than that, she knew me! We even went on a date or two!'”
Robert laughed. “Well, before you get too famous and forget your old pals, want to grab something to eat? I’m starved and there’s a drive-in around the corner.”
I smiled. “Sounds great.” We lapsed into silence and Robert began humming Good Mornin’. I grinned and hummed the harmony along with him.
Like what you see?
Although I couldn’t find a complete rehearsal and filming schedule for Singin’ in the Rain, I think that the conversation between Fred Astaire and Debbie Reynolds took place in mid-to-late April. The filming for Good Mornin’ began on June 25, and finished a few days later. Make ‘Em Laugh does not appear on the assistant director’s schedule until June 29. I decided to take creative license with the timing of these scenes to help with the story’s flow and so I could include the shenanigans from rehearsing Make ‘Em Laugh.
For Further Exploration
Astaire: The Man, The Dancer by Bob Thomas
M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bigen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan
Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar
Singin’ in the Rain, produced by MGM Studios, 1952