By Samuel Moore-Sobel
“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” – a simple phrase uttered in an acclaimed musical that helped birth a star. The movie’s Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) catches his attention so completely that Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) pursues her. He works his way into her heart; and the rest is history.
With her recent passing, Debbie Reynolds has proven that Don Lockwood wasn’t the only one whose heart had been stolen. The moment seems historic not only because of her storied life, but because of what her performance represented in Singin’ in the Rain. The era of dancing featured in film has been long over. Reynolds was a living symbol of that seemingly modest time.
Reynolds big start at the tender age of 19 turned out to be much harder than expected. “Making Singin’ in the Rain, and childbirth were the two hardest things I have ever done,” she often said. The famous scene involving dancing on couches and singing, “Good Morning, Good Morning” caused her feet to bleed. Reynolds was not the only one struggling with physical ailments. Gene Kelly reportedly had a 103-degree fever when shooting commenced on the unforgettable “Singin’ in the Rain” sketch. Perhaps the largest challenges help reap the biggest rewards.
When moments of doubt enshrouded her, it was Fred Astaire who calmed her anxious nerves. “That’s what it’s like to learn to dance,” he told her. “If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right.” I guess my great-grandfather was right when he often described Astaire as “smooth.” Years later, Reynolds reflected on the challenge. “I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it. So, I did it, and I was terrific,” she said.
Terrific she was – dancing her way into the hearts of millions of Americans, including my own decades later. My grandmother introduced me to many classics through her collection of old movies. My love of the song “Just the Way You Look Tonight” came from watching “Swing Time” dozens of times. Fred Astaire was always my favorite, for his elegance appeared effortless. In the words of my great-grandmother, Gene Kelly possessed more athleticism, but Fred Astaire exuded “grace.’’
There is something about watching Gene Kelly dance in the rain. The expressive joy seen on his face is contagious. Magically, something often viewed in our everyday lives as an inconvenience becomes something to be celebrated. The “child-like wonder” exhibited over a natural occurrence captured my imagination. Rain was no longer something to be dreaded, but rather, longed for.
For my brother and me, acting out scenes from this gem was a constant throughout our childhoods. “Make ‘em Laugh” made quite an impression on me, especially Cosmo’s (played by Donald O’Connor) thrashing about as he brought forth laughter from the audience through physical acting. I even went so far as to attempt his routine, continually throwing myself down on the floor, leading my parents to express concern for my future health.
As the final chapter of Debbie Reynold’s life closed, it caused me to reflect upon movies of the past. What was it that so completely drew me to love a film captured in a time from long ago? Things have undoubtedly changed since 1952. No longer does an audience member visit the movie theater to be entertained primarily by dancing and singing. Dialogue plays a much more important role now. Sex and violence do as well. Love stories are no longer acted out; the man, wooing a woman who almost always shuns him at first. Hearts and emotions are exposed, while skin is kept concealed.
A sense of purity emanates from these older love stories, something lost in modern translation. When was the last time you went to a movie where the most physical contact between two lovers was kissing? It would be naive to think that this is how all sitting in those 1952 audiences acted in their own personal lives. One could argue that entertainment today is more true to reality; but, do we go to the movies to be reminded of reality, or to view and enjoy a simpler, more idealistic version of human existence?
This isn’t to say that all old movies are masterpieces. Admittedly, many Fred Astaire movies, while featuring wonderful dance scenes and compelling music, failed to deliver when it came to plot and character development. The beauty of “Singin’ in the Rain” is that it combines the two, delivering a well-rounded picture. Not to wax nostalgic about an era I did not experience, but it is hard to imagine many of the movies churning out of Hollywood in our present day being able to stand the test of time.
Movie theaters around the country are showing this movie, honoring the life of Debbie Reynolds, and commemorating the 65th anniversary of its making. I hope it marks a moment in which the old can be infused with the new. Perhaps it already has – “La La Land” made some unmistakable references to this classic, and Hollywood reportedly has many more in the offing. Either way, I’ll still smile when watching movies that helped form precious childhood memories. And you can guarantee that if raindrops begin falling from the heavens, there will be at least one young man in Northern Virginia who will be “singin’, and dancin’, in the rain.”
Samuel Moore-Sobel is probably one of the few of his generation who appreciates old movies. He plans on forcing his future children to endure hours of watching this classic film.