Like so many others, I first saw Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. She later said of the experience, “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the hardest things I ever had to do in my life.” You never would have guessed it from watching the film. Sandwiched between the highly acclaimed dancers Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, the five foot two inch Debbie Reynolds sang, smiled, and held her own, winning America’s hearts.
Debbie began life as Mary Frances Reynolds, born April 1, 1932 in El Paso, Texas. She grew up in Burbank, CA as a tomboy among eight boys – a brother, four uncles and three cousins. She was a cut-up and a clown who entertained family and friends with imitations of radio personalities, and she admired the exuberant comedic talent of Betty Hutton.
In 1948 she won the Miss Burbank contest, and at 16 got a contract with Warner Bros. Talent executive William Orr changed her name to “Debbie,” but she would not let anyone change her last name, and for a year she refused even to answer to Debbie. She made two pictures with Warner Bros. – The June Bride (uncredited) and The Daughter Of Rosie O’Grady – but Warners didn’t seem to know what to do with her and let her go.
MGM picked her up and gave her a one-picture deal with Three Little Words, where she lip-synched flapper Helen Kane’s trademark song, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” (mimicking Betty Boop). After receiving excellent reviews, her next role was as Jane Powell’s kid sister in Two Weeks with Love. The musical number “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” sung with Carleton Carpenter burst off the screen with wit and charm, landing the song in the 1951 Hit Parade. Debbie graduated from John Burroughs High School in Burbank CA with every intention of getting a scholarship to USC and becoming a gym teacher, but luckily for us, that was not to be.
Debbie was part of the last generation of actors to be molded by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under Louis B. Mayer. She recalls, “Being at MGM was like going to a university. You could get out of college in four years, but some of us were at this university for ten and fifteen. You never stopped studying. Ballet, tap, modern dance. Placing the voice properly; how to sing; how to walk and move; how to model, how to hold your hands, how to hold your head, knowing the angle right for the camera; how to do makeup, how to do hair.”
Debbie had three months of eight-hour days to prepare herself for the dance numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. Her grueling hard work, combined with a little pep talk from Fred Astaire (who found her sobbing under a piano one terrible day and invited her to watch him rehearse) helped create what even Roger Ebert calls “the greatest Hollywood musical ever made.”
The 1950s were Debbie’s most productive time in film. Her spunky, wholesome girlishness was exactly right for the MGM musicals and comedies of the time, and from 1953-54 she made five films in fifteen months. While the scripts were not always dramatically challenging, her effortless enthusiasm transformed the roles she played into enjoyable venues for her talent, and her buoyant optimism made her extremely popular with audiences.
As clean-cut as the scripts were, however, Debbie always brought a little spice, a certain feistiness to her roles. Even as the dedicated Grainbelt University co-ed Pansy Hammer in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, she couldn’t always “work, work, work.” Her newly found affection for Dobie (Bobby Van) puts both of them more in the mood for love than English essays or chemistry labs. This fun film romp contains a reprisal of the song, “All I Do is Dream of You,” from Singin’ in the Rain (this time as endearing duet), and the dance number “You Can’t Do Wrong Doin’ Right” (with Reynolds, Van, Barbara Ruick, and Bob Fosse) is dynamite.
When she was loaned out to RKO to do Susan Slept Here with Dick Powell, Debbie played a juvenile delinquent (albeit an adorably cute one) who struggles and kicks with surprising venom. The May-December romance at the heart of the story gets an uneven reception from audiences today, but what becomes quickly apparent in watching the film is that Debbie Reynolds is a very funny comedic actress who can do bang-on impressions. Her love of imitation is still strong and is used in her stage show today, much to the audience’s delight.
The Tender Trap paired Debbie with Frank Sinatra in his first MGM movie since On the Town. While the script seems dated now, the film is still enjoyable for the actors’ performances and the décor of Sinatra’s pad. The song “(Love Is) the Tender Trap” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song and became an enduring hit for Sinatra. He offered words of wisdom about singing this song both on and off screen, and Debbie recalls Sinatra’s advice: “Remember that when you’re singing lyrics you approach the lyrics like a poem. What does it mean? What is it really about? Is it to hold the note eight bars and prove that you really have great breath control? Or is it about a wonderful, loving moment?
Bundle of Joy was a musical remake of Bachelor Mother, and her rendition of “Lullaby in Blue,” sung with then-husband Eddie Fisher captures such a feeling. Here is Debbie and Eddie appearing together as the “mystery guest” on What’s My Line? but it’s hearing Debbie sing the title song of her next movie that you realize how well she’s taken Sinatra’s advice to heart.
In Tammy and the Bachelor, bayou girl Tammy Tyree (Reynolds) nurses downed pilot Peter Brent (Leslie Nielsen) back to health. When her grandfather (Walter Brennan) is jailed for making corn liquor, Tammy goes to live at the Brent Family plantation, where it’s Tammy’s earnest simplicity against urban snobbery. Though the film opened to lukewarm reviews, Reynolds recording of the title song “Tammy” did well immediately. Universal pulled the film to allow the record to generate interest, and the song went to the Top Ten on the Billboard charts in 1957. This movie was the second Debbie Reynolds film to generate a series (the first being The Affairs of Dobie Gillis) and Debbie’s fans agree – she was the first Tammy, and she is the best.
Much of Debbie’s larger-than-her-frame physical presence undoubtedly comes from a childhood of being the only girl (and the youngest) among eight boys. She wanted to be part of their group, playing their games, but “they’d trip me, push me, twist my arms, pull my legs, pull my hair, jump on me – anything to get rid of me.” But Debbie was tough stuff, and had a temper, too. “I would wait for the moment. and then I’d retaliate. I’d push one of them, or trip him, or pull his hair, or slam him in the back of the head with a two-by-four, if it was available (and I could lift it).” She plays this same tomboy with a temper in The Mating Game, where her Mariette Larkin falls for IRS agent Lorenzo Charleton (Tony Randall).
As the 1950s progressed, all around Debbie the movies were changing. Louis B. Mayer was replaced by Dore Schary, and the studio heads at MGM became less interested in musicals and more interested in “realism” – gritty urban scripts with morally ambiguous outcomes and more explicit sexual themes. Like Doris Day and Donna Reed, Debbie had been cast in the “cute” mold, and Hollywood was unable to see that Debbie offered much more. But Debbie knew what she was capable of, and when she saw The Unsinkable Molly Brown on Broadway, she knew the part was perfect for her.
Initially director Chuck Walters didn’t want her; he wanted Shirley MacLaine, then under contract with Hal Wallis. When Wallis refused to release MacLaine from her contract, Debbie got her chance – sort of. MGM and producer Larry Weingarten wanted her, but Chuck Walters, who had directed her in The Tender Trap, wasn’t sold. “You’re much too short for the role,” he told her. “How short is the part?” she shot back.
Based loosely on the life of Margaret Tobin Brown, “Molly” (Reynolds) is rescued from a flood at birth, grows up in poverty, and at sixteen sets out to find her fortune. She soon learns that it takes more than money and marriage to Johnny Brown (Harve Presnell) to find acceptance in Denver or European society. Johnny wants to return to a simpler life, but Molly has greater ambitions, so they part. However, Molly finally realizes that, to the elite, she is only an amusement and is not truly accepted for herself. She at last admits how much she misses Johnny and returns home on the infamous Titanic. Once again she survives disaster, proving that she is truly unsinkable.
There were additional pressures, however, when MGM cut the Molly Brown budget because of cost overruns with Dr. Zhivago. Walters worried particularly about the dance numbers, because Debbie only had three days to rehearse her part and there wasn’t a budget left for multiple takes. He wanted to cut the numbers; Debbie argued that it wouldn’t be a musical without the numbers. She knew she could learn them and suggested they be shot in one take. A far cry from the three months of rehearsals she had for Singin’ in the Rain, her training and determination paid off; though they all collapsed at the end of the seven-minute number (and one dancer fainted), Debbie had triumphed. The Unsinkable Molly Brown earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1965, and she became the number-two box office draw.
Debbie Reynolds as an actress is an American icon. For her talented contributions to musical films and her first-hand memories of a Hollywood now gone, she is a priceless treasure. In addition, her body of work from the 1950s creates a character that is itself an American icon – a mid-century ideal of femininity and youth. Whether or not that ideal was reality, or even realistic, it was immensely popular with film audiences. Ms. Reynolds herself is still so appealing because the enthusiasm of her onscreen roles was real. She’s had plenty of opportunity in her life to feel sorry for herself, but she’s pulled herself up and constantly reinvented her path forward – always with the same optimism and sense of fun that captured our hearts in the first place.
Victoria Balloon is a writer, classic film enthusiast and pop-culture pundit. In addition to knitting small appliances, Victoria is currently involved in helping to bring back the Matinee At The Bijou TV series in an HD sequel to be hosted by Debbie Reynolds.