In Hollywood’s golden age, no dancer rivaled Debbie Reynolds’s high-stepping joy

Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds had no dance training before being cast, at 19, in “Singin’ in the Rain.” But she did have something even more valuable on a Hollywood lot: purity.

Reynolds didn’t strive to be complicated. She knew who she was – an earnest, happy, hard worker. And so she bore a physically punishing rehearsal schedule, presided over by the uncompromising tap maestro Gene Kelly, and through it all she never lost the shining sense of joy that made her an iconic dancer in Hollywood’s golden age of musicals.

There’s no magic to how Reynolds outshone her “Singin’ in the Rain” co-stars, Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in the blistering tap dance to the song “Good Morning.” Kelly drilled her day after day until her feet bled, and even the great Fred Astaire, who happened to visit the set, pitched in to help her.

Reynolds had been a gymnast, and you can feel the muscular snap of her athleticism in that dance. It’s obvious in the galloping swiftness of her feet and her apparent ease in keeping up with her two supremely accomplished colleagues. But Reynolds wasn’t just a quick study and a natural talent.

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She had that purity, that happy rectitude, zinging through her performances. Even in the final moments of the “Good Morning” number, as the three dancers jump onto a couch and land, breathless, side by side, Reynolds has instinctive presence of mind. While laughing and gazing adoringly at her partners, she flips down her gray pleated skirt so it covers her thigh.

It’s a gesture that film director and critic Francois Truffaut called “the most beautiful shot” out of the thousands of films he’d seen. Reynolds’s action, he raved, was “the height of truth, a little girl being careful not to show her a–.”

As a dancer, Reynolds wasn’t always so modest. In “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” she has an exhilarating, freewheeling dance in a glittering ballroom, where she hikes her gown up and whips her legs around and tears across the floor. She may not have been known primarily as a dancer, but her dance sequences are so full of energy and appetite for living that they endure alongside those of other Hollywood masters.

Joy was so prized in Hollywood musicals. There were dancers who were cool and mysterious (Cyd Charisse), openhearted and sensuous (Ginger Rogers), whip-fast and strong (Eleanor Powell). But silvery joy was Reynolds’s own quality. It’s sad and ironic that her death comes just as the transporting magic of movie musicals has been rediscovered by “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s superb new film set in contemporary Los Angeles but inspired by “Singin’ in the Rain” and other films of that era.

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Reynold’s purity inspired Kelly’s magnificent tap dance to the title song in “Singin’ in the Rain.” She plays Kathy Selden, an aspiring actress, whose career becomes enmeshed with Kelly’s Don Lockwood, a silent film star. After the “Good Morning” dance, Don walks Kathy home in the rain, and they kiss on her doorstep. She’s wearing a yellow slicker and an adorable cloche hat, and she smiles up at him with uncomplicated joy, like he’s an angel on Earth.

That’s the smile that launched a thousand sloshy steps, sending Kelly into his rain-soaked reverie as a man hopelessly in love.

It was Reynolds who put the sun in his heart, and put the sun in that movie. She comes across as so open and unaffected that it aches a bit to watch her – especially now.