Gene Kelly's reputation is about as spotless as any figure of his era. He had none of the uncomfortable allegations that plagued Bing Crosby, nor the supposed mob connections of Frank Sinatra. By contrast to many of his peers, Kelly embodied postwar American optimism. He's remembered as a phenomenal singer, dancer, and an all-around stand-up guy.
But Kelly undoubtedly had his flaws. Look no further than his relationship with Debbie Reynolds, who was cast in the beloved musical Singin' in the Rain at 19 years old. The 39-year-old Kelly allegedly intimidated her to the point of tears. This behavior was apparently typical of Kelly in the rehearsal room, where he was rumored to be a tyrant whose punishing work hours and complicated choreography stymied even professional dancers.
Off set, Kelly could be insecure, temperamental, and competitive. He had relationships with younger women, and his paternalistic streak reportedly made him a loving but overbearing partner. According to Hollywood lore, a number of his personal and professional relationships fell apart due to his relentless drive.
In the end, the very qualities that made Kelly one of the greatest entertainers of all time also made him a dark figure in the lives of his collaborators.
He Was Incredibly Insecure About His Own Acting
Although it's easy to see Kelly as a poster child of confidence and optimism, he had serious reservations about his abilities as an actor. Despite his confidence as a dancer, he loathed watching his movies because he hated seeing himself act.
According to the authors of the biography He Got Rhythm, Kelly said:
I would have loved to have been as good an actor as Spencer Tracy or Marlon Brando. I was a very good stage actor, but in films, I never was quite as good, just passable. My main fault is I still act as if I were on the stage. I’m still too broad in gestures and facial expressions. Same with the voice. I hit the back row in a close-up, keep forgetting there’s a microphone that catches every whisper.
He Made Debbie Reynolds Cry, But Fred Astaire Comforted Her
During Singin' in the Rain, Kelly’s strict discipline reportedly became so bad that the young Debbie Reynolds often broke down crying. On one particularly rough day, Reynolds retreated to an empty rehearsal room to sob under a piano. Fred Astaire, who was working on another film on the lot, found her there.
The older movie veteran gave her encouragement and valuable advice: "You’re not going to [perish]. That’s what it’s like to learn to dance. If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right."
He Reportedly Performed 'Singin' In The Rain' With A High FeverVideo: YouTube
Kelly was as hard on himself as he was on his costars. The task of directing, choreographing, and starring in a movie is hard enough as it is, but imagine doing it with a fever of 103 degrees.
Stories differ as to whether Kelly had a high fever on the day he was set to shoot the title sequence for Singin' in the Rain, but he was definitely overworked. The number called for him to perform a complicated solo dance on a soaking wet soundstage, but rather than postpone, Kelly insisted they go ahead with the shoot.
The whole shoot took a day and a half, mainly because of delays caused by the pipes responsible for the "rain."