Debbie Reynolds: Perky, Pretty, Petite Performing Powerhouse

Yesterday we learned the tragic news that Debbie Reynolds had passed away one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. Here is a tribute to Reynolds, who leaves behind an incredible legacy.

Debbie ReynoldsThe perkiness and poise of this pretty, petite (5’2″) performer made Debbie Reynolds one of the last stars of the Hollywood musical’s heyday and an ever-welcome presence on stage, screen and television in the decades since. A native of El Paso, Texas, Mary Frances Reynolds was born in April of 1932 and was seven when the family relocated to Burbank, California. Maturing into a fresh-faced 16-year-old, she entered the Miss Burbank beauty pageant with the hopes of winning a blouse and scarf; not only did she claim the crown, but contract offers from Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer followed. Mary Frances accepted the former, but her two-year stint with the studio produced only two roles: an uncredited part in 1948’s June Bride and her first credited screen turn–under the new name Debbie Reynolds–in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), opposite June Haver.

She thereafter signed with MGM and found herself immediately getting plum bits in the studio’s storied musical output, portraying ’20s songstress Helen Kane in Three Little Words (1950) and, later that year, playing Jane Powell’s little sister in Two Weeks with Love, where her duet of “Aba Daba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter would become a pop hit.

Her stardom was sealed for all time in 1952, however, with her casting as young showgirl Kathy Selden, tapped to dub shrill and shrewish silent film actress Jean Hagen’s voice, in the beloved Old Hollywood homage Singin’ in the Rain. The 20-year-old novice dancer proved herself wholly capable of keeping in step with veteran hoofers Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, and MGM found itself a light that would carry their musical unit through the next half-decade. Years later she would reminisce, “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.”

Her effervescent efforts continued in 1953 with I Love Melvin, a light and funny musical romance also starring O’Connor; The Affairs of Dobie Gillis,  a collegiate songfest which brought Debbie together with Bobby Van and (luckily for her fans) would turn out to be Debbie’s only black-and-white musical; and the Broadway-based effort Give a Girl a Break, which also starred dance legends Bob Fosse and Marge and Gower Champion.

As her MGM tenure waned, Reynolds also proved herself adept at light comedy on a 1954 loan-out to RKO for Susan Slept Here, where she played a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent who is taken in on Christmas Eve by Hollywood screenwriter Dick Powell and falls for him. Athena (1954), a somewhat unusual MGM musical extravaganza,  followed the romantic adventures of seven daughters, all named for Greek mythological figures (Debbie was Minerva), of a fitness-crazed family. The next year’s Hit The Deck co-starred her with Ann Miller and Jane Powell as they meet up with sailors Tony Martin, Vic Damone and Russ Tamblyn, who use their leave in San Francisco for sightseeing, family visits, romance, and music, music, music.

Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher in Bundle of Joy (1956)

Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher in RKO’s Bundle of Joy (1956)

In 1955, she starred in The Tender Trap, a quintessential Fifties romantic comedy with Frank Sinatra as a hip bachelor who has his ways with the women… until he matches wits with Debbie, that is. Her dramatic talents were evident in the 1956 fan favorite The Catered Affair, based on a TV play by Paddy Chayefsky, where she co-starred as the dutiful daughter whose upcoming wedding leads to economic and familial problems for parents Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine.

By this time, Reynolds had married Philadelphia-born pop singer Eddie Fisher, and her efforts for other studios included their co-starring RKO vehicle Bundle of Joy (1956), a musical remake of that studio’s 1939 Ginger Rogers comedy Bachelor Mother. Her next movie, Universal’s Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), was a surprise crowd-pleaser whose theme song provided Debbie with a number-one single and spawned two sequels about the backwoods beauty for the studio — neither of them, though, with Debbie.

As the ’50s drew to a close, Debbie was on a career high, fueled in no small part by public sentiment after Fisher left her and their two children for Elizabeth Taylor. She busied herself with such vehicles as This Happy Feeling (1958) with John Saxon and Say One for Me (1959) with Bing Crosby. 1959 also saw her play The Mating Game with IRS agent Tony Randall, who comes calling to investigate the unique barter-system lifestyle that keeps Reynolds’ dad (Paul Douglas) from paying any income tax.

It Started with a Kiss (1959) cast Debbie opposite Glenn Ford in a frothy romantic romp about a showgirl who falls for a penniless Air Force sergeant. Trivia fans will remember the red Lincoln Futura seen in the film was later used as the Batmobile in the Batman TV series. Glenn and Debbie made another film together that same year; The Gazebo, an inventive comedy with darkly humorous touches about a TV writer targeted by a blackmailer who has naked photos of his Broadway actress wife taken years earlier.

She sailed into the sixties in The Rat Race (1960) with friend Tony Curtis and with Fred Astaire in The Pleasure of His Company (1961), and her momentum would continue with the winsome comedy-western The Second Time Around (1961), where widow Debbie heads to territorial Arizona to carve out a new life for herself and her kids. Swiftly growing fed up with the lack of law and order in the community, she resolves to clean up the town, and starts by taking the election for sheriff!

With the advent of Cinerama, Debbie signed on to one of the biggest projects ever to hit Hollywood. How the West Was Won (1962) is a three-director, three-camera salute to the settling of the American frontier that co-starred Reynolds along with a Who’s Who of Tinseltown greats (Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, John Wayne, and more); in the breezy comedy Mary, Mary (1963), based on a popular Broadway play, divorced book publisher Barry Nelson is forced to visit ex-wife Reynolds in preparation for an IRS audit (What, another movie about IRS audits?).

Once, when Debbie was asked which her favorite movie was, she displayed her good sense of humor when she answered, “I think one of my favorite films is Dark Victory with Bette Davis. Why? She was so wonderful in that film. And… maybe I just want a good cry once in a while without having to go through a divorce.”

Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown 1964The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), a role she petitioned for and which would garner the actress her sole Best Actress Oscar nomination, is considered by many to be her best film. After that one last old-school musical, however, it was apparent that her girl-next-door phase was well past, and the returns on her output into the late ’60s were decidedly mixed. She played the ladies’ man reincarnated as a gorgeous blonde in Goodbye Charlie (1964) with Tony Curtis, and was an unhappily married woman who contemplates splitting from husband Dick Van Dyke in 1967’s Divorce, American Style.

One film of Reynolds’ that bucked the mid-’60s romcom trend and met with box-office success was the moving fact-based tale, The Singing Nun (1966). Debbie was a guitar-playing nun (based on a real-life Dominican sister from Belgium) whose cheery composition “Dominique” becomes a global sensation and lands her a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show before forcing her to reconsider her newfound fame.

In 1968, she appeared in the modern comedy How Sweet It Is with James Garner, and 1969 found her moving to the small screen for a two-year stint on NBC’s The Debbie Reynolds Show, where she was a strong-willed housewife married to L.A. sportswriter Don Chastain. 1971 found Debbie following in the psycho-shocker footsteps of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford with What’s the Matter with Helen?, a chiller co-starring Shelley Winters, while in 1973 she voiced the title role of the heroic spider in the animated treat Charlotte’s Web. She knew showbiz was always in her veins when she admitted, “I do twenty minutes every time the refrigerator door opens and the light comes on!”

Reynolds focused her energies on live performance thereafter, starting with a well-received Broadway run in Irene. She’d frequently surface on TV over the course of the 1970s and ’80s, with the short-lived series berth Aloha Paradise, telefilms (Sadie and Son, Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder), and episode appearances in Alice, The Love Boat, Jennifer Slept Here and Hotel. She’d also have another Broadway stint in Woman of the Year, and in 1980 she hosted the successful PBS series, Matinee at the Bijou. When asked about making more films, she quipped, “I stopped making movies because I don’t like taking my clothes off. Maybe it’s realism but, in my opinion, it’s utter filth,” although she would eventually return to the screen.

In 1990, when Debbie’s daughter Carrie Fisher (of Star Wars fame) was filming her 1987 book, Postcards from the Edge, Debbie supposedly lobbied for the role of overbearing mother Doris Mann, which was well-known to be loosely based on herself. That didn’t happen because Mike Nichols, the film’s director, wanted Shirley MacLaine for the part.

The ’90s were marked by her dedicated but ultimately futile quest to make a go of a Las Vegas casino/hotel bolstered by a museum display of her considerable and long-maintained collection of Hollywood memorabilia. Debbie also enjoyed her first big-screen roles in some time; as herself  in the Whitney Huston/Kevin Costner vehicle The Bodyguard (1992); as the exasperated and generic-brand-shopping widow whose  twice-divorced writer son (Albert Brooks) moves back in with her to solve his life problems in Brooks’ Mother (1996); and as the mom of “outed” teacher Kevin Kline in In &  Out (1997). During this period, she also found regular TV work in both films (Battling for Baby, Halloweentown, The Christmas Wish) and series (The Golden Girls, Wings, Roseanne).

In the new millennium, the seemingly ageless entertainer had kept her schedule full, continuing to regularly tour for appreciative audiences. She put in another big-screen appearance as herself in Connie & Carla in 2004, and remained busy on television with a recurring stint on Will & Grace, animation voice work, and telefilms (including 2001’s These Old Broads, alongside a since-forgiven old enemy Liz Taylor). She offered another big-screen performance in the 2012 Katherine Heigl actioner One for the Money, and a supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh’s made-for-TV biopic of Liberace.

Debbie will always be remembered as being one of the very few actresses to have tripped the light fantastic on screen with both dance legends, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. The other ladies who shared that distinction were Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, and Vera-Ellen.

She will be missed and remembered.