Actress, singer, dancer, mother, Hollywood royalty and icon are but a few of the appropriate words that enter my mind when I think of the late Debbie Reynolds. The actress, who captivated audiences for several decades, tragically passed away a mere day after her daughter, the equally talented Carrie Fisher, died on December 28, 2016. It was yet another sad end to a truly turbulent year. While I confess to only a basic knowledge of Reynolds’s career and life, I had always possessed an awareness of her. As a child I had uncovered a grainy, recorded copy of Singin’ In The Rain from my grandparent’s VHS collection. It became a favorite, which is perplexing, as I never was a chronic watcher of musicals or decades-old films at that point. However, it occurs to me that as a child I was made aware of Singin’ in the Rain’s faint relation to my constant childhood staple: Star Wars.
At some point early on as my five-year-old self became familiar with Singin’ in the Rain, my mother took a moment to point out that the actress playing Kathy Selden was in fact the mother of Princess Leia. When you’re a young Star Wars obsessed child yearning for toys that are no longer manufactured, (for which many will bankrupt themselves to obtain!), any tangential connection—at least for me—was invaluable. Of course it also didn’t hurt that Singin’ in the Rain was a fun entertaining film.
And yet, even as I grew up to attend film school, I barely paid attention to the career of Debbie Reynolds. But upon viewing Fisher Steven’s excellent HBO documentary Bright Lights shortly after the pair’s passing, it dawned on me how big of a career I had overlooked. While the daughter I had been fairly familiar with, I realized it was time to give due attention to the mother’s career. As I dove into Reynolds’s career for this retrospective, it quickly became clear to me that the actress was just as talented as her daughter, albeit in her own way. For her era, Reynolds was a rather groundbreaking actress. Debbie Reynolds was anything but a run-of-the mill Hollywood starlet. Decades before her daughter illuminated the movies with bold women, Reynolds herself did the same! The women that Debbie portrayed were strong, persistent and thought for themselves. Beautiful, bold and strong, Reynolds helped infuse tenacity into the silver screen in her multi-decade career.
The following four films show the late Debbie Reynolds at her very best:
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952, directed by Stanley Donen)No look at Debbie Reynolds’s career is complete without a look at the now iconic musical Singin’ in the Rain. Set in 1927 Hollywood, the film offers a light-hearted satirical take on the industry’s transition from silent films to talkies. A Douglas Fairbanks-like movie star, “Don Lockwood” (Gene Kelley), quite literally falls into the life of chorus-girl aspiring stage actress “Kathy Selden” (Debbie Reynolds). Having escaping a horde of fans, Don falls into the passenger seat of Kathy’s car. While the two are initially at odds, Don becomes fond of Kathy, preferring her to his shallow and vain leading lady, Lena Lamont, despite his studio Monumental Pictures romantically linking them for publicity -- Lena believes the two to be in a genuine romance.
Meanwhile, when groundbreaking talking picture The Jazz Singer becomes a sensation, every movie studio begins to follow suite. Monumental Pictures decides to hastily turn Don and Lena’s latest film The Dueling Cavalier into a talkie, which proves enormously challenging, partially due to technical challenges of sound recording, but also due to Lena’s very distinct helium-like voice. After a disastrous test screening, Don turns to Kathy and his lifelong friend, studio musician Cosmo, for help. The trio decides to convert the film into a musical, while dubbing Lena with Kathy’s voice.
As far as I’m concerned this is practically a pitch perfect film. By all accounts, a ton of blood, sweat and tears went into the making of this influential musical. Together Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's collaborative direction generated an endearing, endlessly re-watchable classic. The three leads are simply terrific. Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds each play perfectly off of each other. While Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor may have been names people recognized more when the film opened, the real breakout star of the picture is, in fact, Reynolds.
A mere 20 years old when she was cast, Reynolds shines the way few “up and comers” do. While an accomplished singer, Reynolds did not have dance background, and was subject to grueling training and even constant insults from Kelley. She later called her work on Singin’ in the Rain as one of the most difficult and painful experiences of her entire life. (The other being childbirth). However you’d never know any of this watching Reynolds dance and act her ass off throughout the entire film. Furthermore, both the film’s script and Reynolds performance give us a female character that has stood the test of time. Kathy Selden is smart, independent, and spunky. She thinks for herself, and is unafraid to speak her mind. When she sneers at silent-film acting, it acts as a major blow to Don’s ego, and when Don in turn mocks her, she is unafraid to show her resentment. Additionally, once Don begins to win her over, both Reynolds and Kelley continue to have wonderful chemistry and I found myself completely sold on their romance.
Of course, I must give a shout out to the films many other positives. The aforementioned Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor each are great in their respective roles. Kelly’s film star Don Lockwood is endlessly contradictory, as we see him spin a rather amusing story for the paparazzi at a red carpet premiere about his background (only to watch flashbacks detail how phony it is!). It’s also satisfying to see the somewhat egotistical Lockwood get put in his place by Kathy. And of course how can I not mention Cosmo? Although even as a kid I knew Gene Kelley was the star, I secretly always enjoyed Donald O’Connor a little more as Don’s sweet, wisecracking musician friend Cosmo. While my five year-old self wanted very badly to recreate his marvelous acrobatic dancing famous “Make Em’ Laugh” number, thankfully my mom intervened before I could attempt such a thing - otherwise I may have ended up in the hospital just as O’Conner allegedly didl!
With an excellent cast, as well as catchy musical numbers, Singin’ in the Rain overtime has become a deservedly loved film, whose influence can still be felt to this day, from its disturbing use in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange to Damien Chazelle’s 2016 love letter La-La Land. But it also set young Reynolds career on fire. This was but the first of many wonderful things to come for her!
HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962, directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway & George Marshall) Adapted from a series of LIFE magazine articles, this epic western tells the story of the “Prescott” family. Beginning with the family’s two young daughters, it closely follows three subsequent generations spawned by the two women. Through these four distinct segments, several key events in American history are dramatized, from the California Gold Rush to the Civil War.
While I am sure I could devote an entire piece to the sprawling epic that is How the West Was Won, I will spare you trying to do a complete summary here, as this film’s ensemble is bigger than a Robert Altman flick! Debbie Reynolds is but one piece of a stunningly lengthy ensemble of actors including Karl Malden, James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Russ Tamblyn, John Wayne, and Eli Wallach among many, many others! Over four distinct chapters, each linked by the soothing narration of the great Spencer Tracey, we follow the various personal stories of the Prescotts and their descendents.
For her part, Reynolds portrays “Lilith Prescott”, one of two daughters of pioneer/farmer “Zebulon Prescott” (Karl Malden), and she excels just as magnificently as she previously did in Singin’ in the Rain. We are introduced to Lilith during the first segment “The Rivers”, directed by Henry Hathaway. While this part is focused more on the budding romance between Lilith’s sister “Eve” (Carroll Baker) and mountain man “Linus Rawlings” (James Stewart), we learn some key information about Lilith. Eve, the more traditionally beautiful of the two, is a chronic dreamer, and waiting to be swept off her feet. Lilith by contrast wishes to make a life for her own. Early on she admits to her sister that she will break away from the family the first chance she gets, aspiring to be a performer. When the Prescott girls subsequently lose both their parents in an accident when trapped in intense rapids, each deals with it in a different way. While Eve goes off with Linus, Lilith indeed goes her own way.
In the subsequent segment, which was also helmed by Hathaway, the character becomes the focal point. Lilith is working as a stage performer in a St. Louis dance hall. After learning she has inherited a gold mine in California, Lilith decides to make her way there via a wagon train, lead by “Henry Morgan” (Robert Preston). Also joining her on the journey is professional gambler “Cleve Van Halen” (Gregory Peck), who hitches a ride after learning of her inherited mine. Both Van Halen and Morgan romantically pursue Lilith, but she initially refuses them both.
When it comes to be Reynolds turn to be the film’s main focus, she does not disappoint, perhaps even outshining her impressive breakout in Singin’ in the Rain. While the character of Lilith Prescott is very distinct from Kathy Selden, she possesses a similar wit, strength and independence. Already wonderfully written, Reynolds does a fantastic job bringing her to life, and takes every opportunity to showcase both her acting and musical talents, albeit very differently from the prior film. Again, Reynolds is not a damsel in distress, nor here to look pretty. If the Kathy Selden character was strong for 1920s Hollywood, then Lilith Prescott is that much stronger for prevailing in the 19th century American West, and Reynolds successfully conveys that. Additionally, Reynolds shares a wonderful chemistry with both Gregory Peck and Robert Preston, and it greatly amused me watching the love triangle unfold. Though arguably a bit predictable by today’s standards, Reynolds and her co-stars make this little subplot damn fun to watch nevertheless. While Reynolds is but one piece in this spectacle of a film, she ranks amongst the strongest cast members.
In addition to the incredible mile long ensemble, How the West Was Won is towering technical achievement. Handled by three directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall), the film features some of the most gorgeous photography I’ve ever seen—period. Several breathtaking locations throughout the American countryside are utilized to the fullest by various cinematographers. Weather it’s quite vistas, or elaborately-staged action sequences, not a frame of the film’s four parts is wasted transporting the viewer to another time and place. And of course, Alfred Newman’s rousing, bombastic musical score doesn’t hurt the film either! Every i hear the overture segue into the larger-than-life main title cue, a chill goes down my spine. To put it simply, both Reynolds and other performers push this far into the great category, and I strongly recommend anyone who wishes to see Debbie Reynolds and several others both in front and behind the camera here at their very best to seek this timeless epic out—pronto!
THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (1964, directed by Charles Walters) Based on the successful Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown loosely chronicles the life of real life philanthropist Margaret “Molly” Brown. Initially raised on a Colorado mountain farm by Irish immigrant “Shamus Tobin” (Ed Begley), the restless, illiterate Molly becomes determined to educate herself and move up through the ranks of society. Along the way, she meets “Johnny Brown” (Harve Presnell), a mountaineer whom she marries. After striking gold, John and Molly move to Denver, where Molly becomes even more hell bent on integrating herself into the upper class eventually traveling to Europe, becoming fluent in several languages and befriending various important members of society, which begins to drive a wedge between her and homesick Johnny.
Perhaps because the real-life Margaret Brown was a significant figure in history (famously earning her name “unsinkable” for surviving and aiding others in the wreckage of the Titanic), or the fact that Debbie Reynolds snagged an Academy Award nomination for her performance, I went into Unsinkable with high hopes. Unfortunately, it only took about 10 minutes for those to be dashed. Which isn’t to say that Unsinkable is bad per se, just a notable drop in quality from the previous two films.
Debbie Reynolds herself is very good throughout the film. With as intense of passion as ever, Reynolds belts, dances, and acts her way through the entire film. She is very fun to watch, and is clearly giving it everything she has. It’s pretty apparent Reynolds is having a wonderful time. Acting wise, Reynolds not only nails an accent but very convincingly goes from rugged tomboy to pretty socialite over the course of two hours.
Unfortunately, once you get past Reynolds, there’s little else to champion here. With the themes of perseverance and independence (throughout the film the phrase, “Nevertheless, She persisted” danced in my head), I feel as though Debbie Reynolds may have been better served by a more serious take on the story. Unsinkable often goes over the top, even for a musical, and the non-Reynolds numbers are neither particularly catchy nor memorable. Debbie Reynolds’s energetic performance makes this otherwise uneven film worth a look.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN (1971, directed by Curtis Harrington) In this eerie horror thriller, two depression-era Iowa women plagued by personal tragedy attempt to begin again, only for their pasts to haunt them in ways they never imagined. “Adelle Bruckner” (Debbie Reynolds) and “Helen Hill” (Shelley Winters) is subject of threats after both of their sons are convicted of murder. After a haunting, anonymous phone call traumatizes Helen, musically-talented Adelle proposes the two relocate to Hollywood to begin a dance academy for aspiring starlets. But even as the pair follow through on their plans, each remains haunted by the past, with Helen becoming fanatically religious, paranoid and protective of Adelle. Soon a wedge is driven between the two friends and the more unhinged Helen becomes, the more dangerous she is
Released in 1971, What’s The Matter With Helen is a rather unique little combination of drama and psychological horror. And while many of the aspects (fast-crossing cutting, gore, implied lesbian undertones) are tame by today’s standards, the film is still very engaging thanks largely to the two leads. Although Reynolds plays a somewhat musical role – teaching tapdance to Shirley Temple wannabes – this is a much darker film in contrast to Reynolds’ previous efforts. Here she proves she can easily handle heavier material. Adelle is the more carefree of the two women. Helen’s mental deterioration puts her on the defensive, and it becomes clear that Adelle would rather sweep both the past and Helen’s distress under the rug. One cannot help of wonder if Helen’s paranoia will derail the good things in her life.
Speaking of Helen, let’s talk for a minute about the late Shelley Winters. In a career that consisted of several amazing performances, this ranks amongst her very best. Adelle and Helen are both haunted by their backgrounds, being the mothers of two convicted murderers, something that follows the women in their attempts to start over. Winters does a near-perfect job of giving us a psychologically fragile character whose mental state begins gradually deteriorating. With each passing scene, even as the pair has changed their names and successfully established new lives, Helen begins to hallucinate, frequently reliving the accidental death of her late husband in a gruesome plowing accident. Things take a turn for the worse when Helen receives seemingly the same anonymous phone calls as she did in Iowa. Helen also becomes increasingly jealous and possessive of Adelle, as she begins a romance with the rich “Lincoln Palmer”.
Both Reynolds and Winters play amazingly off of each other. The duo not only create a very believable friendship, but completely sold me on it’s crumbling state. Reynolds and Winters chemistry helps to create a slow impending sense of dread, and It soon becomes clear that not only is something not right, but this ordeal will not end well for either woman. A standout for both its time and in Reynolds career, What’s The Matter With Helen is a unique outing worth checking out.
MOTHER (1996, directed by Albert Brooks) Neurotic science fiction writer “John Henderson” (Albert Brooks) has become depressed after his second divorce. Distraught and perplexed as to why none of his relationships have ever worked, John comes to the conclusion that the answer lies in his strained relationship with his widowed mother “Beatrice” (Reynolds), whom he believe favors his younger brother “Jeff” (Rob Morrow). As an experiment John decides to move back in with Beatrice. From occupying his childhood room to tagging along to the supermarket, John painstakingly recreates his childhood. However, as the experiment progresses, John discovers the answer may not be as simple as he thinks.
Right off the bat, in several things distinguish Mother from other Reynolds films appearing here. First off, I was alive and can remember the ads for this film when it hit theaters in 1996. Secondly it’s not a musical (Okay, technically neither were How the West Was Won and What’s The Matter with Helen, but Reynolds still sang and danced in it), and most significantly Debbie Reynolds is at a much different point in her career here. Mother was in fact, at the time, her first leading film role in over two decades. Whereas I have mainly looked at Reynolds in her prime, here she’s settling into maturity and I’m happy to say she’s aged very gracefully. It also helps that she’s teamed with another great force of creativity in the great Albert Brooks.
Brooks and the late Monica Johnson have concocted a wonderful story of creativity, neurosis, and the ever-complicated relationship between a mother and son. The resulting film is a multifaceted fable in which an artist tries to creatively solve a personal problem. Here Reynolds is perfectly cast as the slightly quirky, amusing Beatrice. While she can get under one’s skin, she clearly loves John. Reynolds readily proves that not only that she can act without the aid of music but she can also ace comedy like a pro. Reynolds and Brooks both do a fantastic job selling me on their complex, strained relationship. Not many people can make drawn out quarrels about such minor things as food or Oedipus jokes funny, but Brooks and Reynolds pull it off effortlessly! And while most of the film is laughs, there comes a late dramatic edge, in which we come to learn more about the past of Reynolds’s character. The film takes a slight turn from laughs to become rather touching, as we a vulnerability in Beatrice is exposed. With this Reynolds also does a wonderful job. While I admit to wondering just how Reynolds would fit into a more contemporary piece, she delivers a funny, nuanced and pleasant performance.
The themes of familial relationships, the performances, and the wonderful direction make this a highly recommendable film, for fans of both Reynolds and Brooks.
BOTTOM LINE: Debbie Reynolds spent several decades gracing the silver screen with unforgettable characters, many of which were inspirational, strong and held their own. It has often been said that people aren’t really gone when they die, and thankfully Reynolds incredible talent is preserved for countless generations to discover.
© Jarrod Emerson (1/30/18) FF2 Media
Featured Photo Courtesy of MGM: Singin' in the Rain (1952), Debbie Reynolds (as Kathy Selden), Gene Kelly (as Don Lockwood)