Gene and Debbie (Not) Sitting in a Tree: That One Kiss Debbie Reynolds Cannot Forget

Last Saturday night, a slew of Gene Kelly fans from across the country tuned in to Turner Classic Movies to watch and live-tweet An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951), the lavish MGM musical which earned Kelly an honorary Oscar and which Alec Baldwin and Robert Osborne introduced as one of The Essentials. Here’s Osborne on the film: “It’s joyous, it’s fun, it’s Technicolorful. It’s why people went to the movies.” Moreover, Osborne beamed, “it’s the perfect Gene Kelly movie. All that Kelly had — that smile, attitude, average Joe — he brought to the screen.”

Baldwin went on to discuss the film’s cinematography, in particular the long shots and long takes which Gene Kelly often used to frame his (as well as his co-stars’) body: “When you can do what Kelly can do — a god of contemporary dance — I wouldn’t let them cut the camera from me either,” Baldwin quipped. Yes, An American in Paris is an essential indeed.

And now, to the evening’s events…

Several portions of An American in Paris brought about an onslaught of tweets, especially the ballet dream sequence (you know, because of “dat ass“). But so did a random comment I made as Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) kissed Lise (Leslie Caron) the first time; see tweet at right. My Tweetdeck lit up immediately with responses:

  • Whaaaa? He did??
  • NO!!!!! He slipped Debbie tongue?!?!!?
  • If I were her, I wouldn’t be able to keep quiet if he did.
  • Me either. And that was Debbie’s FIRST kiss? Ever? What a first one to have.
  • I would melt. Or spontaneously combust or something.

Yes, according to Debbie Reynolds, her “more experienced” co-star unexpectedly French-kissed her while shooting the final shot of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), shown below. Much to the chagrin and sheer dismay of Kelly’s current fans, Reynolds quickly recoiled at the act, ran off the set, and gargled her mouth with Coca-Cola. Excerpts from Reynolds’s interviews, conducted in 2002, 2009, and 2011, are featured below.

 

Come on, Debbie. Just go with the flow.

“A Very Mature Kiss”

Only 17 — and completely innocent, which was why, when they were shooting the last scene, she ran off to her dressing room in tears after the 40-year-old Kelly gave her a big French kiss. “He gave me a very mature kiss,” she said demurely. “I was a young girl, and I was shocked and stopped the scene and pulled away and wouldn’t go on, you know, and finally he had to kiss me square on the lips or I wouldn’t do it,” she added, laughing — no, guffawing at the memory. “He was a little upset with that, but I was a very inexperienced young girl.” (Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

The French Connection

And there’s that fade-out kiss between 40-year-old Kelly and 19-year-old newcomer Debbie Reynolds beneath a movie billboard. The kiss that many moviegoers saw but few know about. The one that Kelly put extra effort into.

“I was taken totally by surprise,” says Reynolds, speaking by phone from California to mark the 50th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain, which premiered in April 1952. The “surprise” wasn’t the kiss, which was in the script. It was the French connection.

“It was a great shock,” Reynolds says. “I knew he was going to kiss me, but I didn’t know there was anything else involved.”

The French kiss was such a shocker to Reynolds that she had to leave the set to gain her composure. “Filming was held up for about an hour while I drank Coca-Cola and gargled,” Reynolds says. She was eventually persuaded to return and reshoot the scene. This time around, an embarrassed Kelly promised that it would be a “simple kiss.” “I don’t know why he wasn’t aware that I had never had a French kiss. I was such a young girl. . . . I was really upset. Yes, that was an embarrassing moment.” (The Orlando Sentinel)

Gagging, and Shrieking, and Crying, Oh My!

She had never danced before Singing in the Rain, and she had never kissed, either.

She had to be shown how to kiss and be kissed, she recalls, and I won’t tell that entire story, because I don’t want to steal the thunder of the Hollywood legend whose memoir I am currently writing. Instead, that legend gave her a lesson, she said it took just a few minutes, and he claims that it went on for hours in how to kiss. Thus she was ready, or so she thought, for the moment when Gene Kelly would embrace her. To her shock and horror, Kelly not only kissed her once the cameras rolled, but jammed his tongue down her throat, which she had never expected or heard of. Disgusted, and outraged, she backed off, gagged, shrieked, and ran crying all the way to her dressing room.

Production halted until someone could coax her back to the set. She says that if you take a look at the last scene of the film, you’ll see a mightily annoyed Gene Kelly giving her the tiniest of unromantic, closed-mouth smooches at what should have been the happy triumph of a couple over all manner of Hollywood adversity. (Michael Levin)

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  • Michelle

    Ok, so why are we hearing about this NOW??!! As if this is such a HORRIBLE thing; WHATEVER!

  • It isn't the first time I've read this, but I still find Debbie Reynold's reaction hilarious. Perhaps Gene figured when is he going to get to kiss a teenage girl again and just went for it? Gene Kelly, middle-aged letch… Who knew?!

    • Katie

      Given that it was supposed to be super-romantic etc. etc. etc., one could argue that a 'passionate' kiss was entirely called for. That said (given Kelly's penchant for marrying much younger women), I'd be very, very surprised if dirty old man syndrome wasn't a factor.

    • Dude, you have got to get on The Twitter. You'd be genius!

  • Well, if she wasn't expecting it, then yeah, that could be traumatic. No, *would* be traumatic. We say now, "oh, I'd love to be Frenched by Gene" and "I wouldn't have done that" but we know what happened now and hell, many of the lovely ladies that comment and post here would enjoy it.

    If I wasn't expecting Gene to jam his tongue down my throat, yeah, I probably would have had the same reaction, especially at the young age of 17 (no, I had no experience in that then either).

    And Marc, if you could make out with a 17 year old and it totally be legit, wouldn't you? 😉 I don't blame Gene for enjoying his, uh, role. Heh.

    Amy

  • I'm probably in the minority on this, but if I were only 19 and Gene Kelly was essentially my boss and had yelled at me and made my feet bleed and whatnot, I probably wouldn't like him sticking his tongue in my mouth, either. I know it's veritable heresy to some of you, and it doesn't reflect the way I would respond if I were to meet him at, say, the age I am now, particularly if I were single… but that being said…

    This was someone who was old enough to be her dad and who hadn't been particularly nice to her (if we can believe the stories she tells). So I don't blame her for her reaction and I don't find it surprising. It is one of the more unromantic kisses I've ever seen on film, and it would almost mar the film's finish, except that there is something so wonderfully contrived, campy, and purposely artificial about the whole movie (given its subject matter) that the fake (non)kiss almost seems appropriate. I've never been a big fan of most of his kisses, to be honest. I can tell Leslie Caron gets into it a little bit more, but there's still not a ton of chemistry there.

    But then… there's Judy.

  • Debbie definitely wasn’t the first – watch a number of Gene’s films. His kisses with Judy in the Pirate, Vera Ellen in On the Town and Gloria DeHaven in Summer Stock (probably the most obvious), showed that Gene was a fan of “mature kissing” haha

  • Susan

    I had some creep do that to me at age 15, so I am right there with her! But I do feel rather stupid; I always thought that in *those* days, movie kisses were, indeed *movie* kisses; where you place your lips not quite against the other person’s mouth & pretend! So it’s no wonder she was so shocked, the poor thing!

  • Mackenzie Carpenter

    I am the author of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story (“mature kiss”) and I have to tell you that I conducted that interview at home. I remember thinking I can’t believe I am sitting in my dining room thinking talking to Debbie Reynolds about this (my kids were impressed because she was on their favorite Disney channel movie Halloweentown). She told me that Gene Kelly often reduced her to tears during rehearsals (he later described her as being as strong as an ox) and she worried every minute she would be fired. The studio was an hour-long bus commute from her home and sometimes after a long day and late night she’d find some corner on the sound stage to sleep on. She was very grand, if a bit spacey. Loved it…

    • Ah, thanks for sharing, Mackenzie. As with some of Reynolds’ other tales from the era, I too take this one with a grain of salt. It does make for fun storytelling though. 🙂

      • Charlotte Eyers

        I agree, I think Debbie likes to embellish! If it’s all true, I guess she was shocked- being so young and all. Still, as a mature woman, my reaction would have been to rip his clothes off and have him right on the set! But I guess that would be pretty inappropriate!

    • K. Kaneiwa

      Mackenzie Carpenter,

      I was very surprised reading about Debbie Reynolds reaction on the kiss because it was the exact same reaction I did when a man (older man) kissed me off guard. I was in my teen as well. I ran to the bathroom and started to gargle my mouth with clean water. That was also my first kiss in which I wish to forget.