Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Late Great Debbie Reynolds

These days the word "legend" is often tossed around with regards to movie stars. It is even sometimes applied to those who have done nothing particularly worthy of being regarded as legends. That having been said, Debbie Reynolds was one of those who was truly legendary.  She was only nineteen years old when she starred in what many consider the greatest movie musical of all time, Singin' in the Rain (1952). Miss Reynolds held her own with her co-stars, seasoned song-and-dance men Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. It should come as no surprise that the film launched her on the path to superstardom. Throughout the Fifties into the Sixties she starred in a string of hits that included Susan Slept Here (1954), The Catered Affair (1956), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). In the Fifties she also had a string of hit records, an outgrowth of her roles in movie musicals.  "Aba Daba Honeymoon" (from the film Two Weeks with Love) peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard  pop chart. Her song "Tammy" (from Tammy and the Bachelor) was certified gold. She went onto a successful career on stage, and the Nineties would see a revival in her film career. Debbie Reynolds was one of the earliest people to preserve film history, amassing a huge collection of movie memorabilia. Her life was often unhappy, but through it all she remained like Molly Brown, unsinkable.

Sadly, last night Debbie Reynolds died at age 84. She had been in poor health the past few years. It was on December 27 that her beloved daughter Carrie Fisher died after suffering cardiac arrest on a flight from London to Los Angeles on December 23. Last night Miss Reynolds was rushed to hospital after suffering a severe stroke. According to her son and Carrie Fisher's brother, Todd Fisher, she wanted to be with Carrie. It would then seem reasonable to say, quite simply, that Debbie Reynolds died of heartbreak.

Debbie Reynolds was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1 1932 in El Paso, Texas. Her father, Ray Reynolds worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Her mother, Minnie Reynolds, took in laundry to help ends meet. It was in 1939 that the family moved to Burbank, California. As a little girl Debbie Reynolds dreamed of becoming a gym teacher. It was in 1948 that she won the Miss Burbank contest. Her talent in the contest had been an imitation of her idol Betty Hutton. She had entered the contest simply for the free blouse and scarf given to each contestant. As it turned out, two of the judges were talent scouts. She was soon placed under contract to Warner Bros. It was Jack L. Warner himself who gave her the name "Debbie", feeling that "Mary Frances" was too old fashioned a name. Miss Reynolds did not particularly want to be called "Debbie".

Warner Bros. would make little use of their new star. She appeared in an uncredited role in her film debut, June Bride (1948), and then in a slightly more substantial role in The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady (1950). Fortunately, 18 months into her contract with Warner Bros., MGM expressed interest in the starlet. She was loaned to MGM for Three Little Words (1950), and studio head Louis B. Mayer was impressed with her. She was soon under contract to MGM. Her first film under that contract was Two Weeks with Love (1950), which gave her the hit single "Aba Daba Honeymoon".

The early Fifties would see Debbie Reynolds become a superstar. Following her role in  Mr. Imperium (1951), Louis B. Mayer cast her in the musical Singin' in the Rain over the objections of both Miss Reynolds (because she could not dance) and star Gene Kelly (because she could not dance). Mr. Mayer's instincts proved to be right. After extensive training from Mr. Kelly, Debbie Reynolds was able to hold her own with both Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. The film launched her on the path to stardom. She proved to be one of the biggest stars of the Fifties. She played the title character in Susan Slept Here (1954), opposite Dick Powell in his last film role. She appeared in the hit Bundle of Joy (1956). Her film Tammy and the Bachelor was not only a hit at the box office, but produced the hit single "Tammy".  Debbie Reynolds starred in several other well-remembered films in the Fifties, including I Love Melvin (1953), The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), The Tender Trap (1955), The Catered Affair (1956), This Happy Feeling (1958), The Mating Game (1959), and The Rat Race (1960). In 1959 she released her first pop album, Debbie. It was followed in 1960 by her album Am I That Easy To Forget?.

Debbie Reynolds's career was still going strong in the early Sixties. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for playing the title role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). She also appeared in the all-star movie How the West Was Won (1962). Unfortunately, as the Sixties progressed her career began to decline. The sort of movie musicals and light comedies for which Miss Reynolds had been best known were going out of fashion. Regardless, she still appeared in several films during the decade, including The Pleasure of His Company (1961), The Second Time Around (1961), My Six Loves (1963), Mary, Mary (1963), Goodbye Charlie (1964), The Singing Nun (1966), Divorce American Style (1967), and How Sweet It Is! (1968).

It was in 1969 that she starred in her own situation comedy on NBC, The Debbie Reynolds Show. The show featured Debbie as the wife of a successful sportswriter. The show received respectable ratings, but would ultimately only last one season. Debbie Reynolds was unhappy that during the show's debut an advertisement for Pall Mall cigarettes was aired. She continued with the series only after NBC explained to her that banning cigarette commercials from the show would not be possible. In the end Miss Reynolds would leave the show after only a single season.  In 1970 she made a guest appearance on Pat Paulsen's Half a Comedy Hour. In 1963 she released another album, Tammy And 11 Other Great Folk Hits. That same year Debbie Reynolds made history as the first singer to appear in an American made Scopitone film. She sang "If I Had a Hammer".

In the Seventies Debbie Reynolds left movies for the stage. She made only two films during the decade. She starred in the psycho-biddy film What's the Matter with Helen? (1971)  and provided the voice of Charlotte the spider in Charlotte's Web (1973). While she made few films, she had a highly successful stage career. In 1973 she made her Broadway debut in Irene, for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Her daughter Carrie Fisher also appeared in the show. In 1976 she appeared in her own revue, simply titled Debbie. She appeared in Annie Get Your Gun in San Francisco and Los Angeles. She released two more albums, ..."And Then I Sang" and An American Christmas Album.

The Eighties saw Debbie Reynolds return to television and films. In 1981 she starred in the short-lived, semi-anthology series Aloha Paradise. She guest starred on Madame's Place, Alice, The Love Boat, Jennifer Slept Here, and Hotel. She appeared in the TV movie Sadie and Son and the Perry Mason TV movie Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder. She provided the voice of Madame in the English language version of Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). She appeared on Broadway in Woman of the Year as the replacement for Lauren Bacall. She recorded the album Do It Debbie's Way. She appeared in a national tour of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The Nineties saw Debbie Reynolds with two recurring roles on TV shows. She was the voice of Lulu Johnston on Rugrats and she played Grace Adler's mother Bobbi on Will & Grace. She guest starred on the shows The Golden Girls, Wings, and Roseanne. She provided the voice of Aggie Cromwell for the TV movie Halloweentown (1998) and appeared in the TV movie The Christmas Wish (1998).  Miss Reynolds also resumed her film career. She appeared in the films The Bodyguard (1992), Heaven & Earth (1993), Mother (1996), In & Out (1997), and Zack and Reba (1998). She provided voices for the animated film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998).

In the Naughts Debbie Reynolds was the voice of Nana Possible on the animated series Kim Possible. She guest starred on the TV shows Touched by an Angel and First Monday. She was a guest voice on Family Guy and The Penguins of Madagascar. She appeared in the TV films These Old Broads (2001), which was written by her daughter Carrie Fisher, and Generation Gap (2002). She reprised the voice of Aggie in the TV animated movies Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge (2001), Halloweentown High (2004), and Return to Halloweentown (2006). She provided the voice of the Queen in the animated feature Light of Olympia (2008).

In the Teens Debbie Reynolds appeared in the feature film One for the Money (2012) and the short subject "In the Picture" (2012). She played Liberace's mother in the TV movie Behind the Candelabra (2013). She was a guest voice on the animated series The 7D last year.

Debbie Reynolds also wrote books. Her autobiography, Debbie--My Life, was published in 1988. Her book Unsinkable: A Memoir was published in 2013. Her book Make 'Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends was published just last year.

Debbie Reynolds was a founding member of The Thalians, a charitable organisation dedicated to awareness of mental health issues. She was a Girl Scout growing up, and she continued to support the Girl Scouts of America her entire life. As most classic film buffs are well aware, Debbie Reynolds was responsible for the preservation of a good deal of Hollywood memorabilia.

I think my fellow classic film buffs will agree with me when I say that news of Debbie Reynolds's death last night was met by the classic film fan community with a combination of shock and grief.  News of her death would have brought extreme sorrow to classic film fans regardless, but the fact that she died only a day after her equally beloved daughter Carrie Fisher has made the pain all the more intense. For many of us it hurts to think that a beloved star spent her last few days worrying about and then grieving over her daughter. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say that our sympathies go out to Debbie Reynolds's son and Carrie Fisher's brother Todd Fisher and Carrie Fisher's daughter and Debbie Reynolds's granddaughter Billie Lourd. I cannot imagine what they must be going through right now.

Of course, I must say that regardless of the circumstances I would grieve over Debbie Reynolds quite heavily. I suppose to many that might seem silly, particularly given I never even met Miss Reynolds. That having been said, those of you who know me well know that I have had a crush on Debbie Reynolds since I was a kid, and I never did quite recover from it. The fact is that I cannot remember where I first saw Debbie Reynolds, it might have been her TV show or it might have been one of her movies, but I have had a crush on her for as long as I can remember. Indeed, as a boy it always seemed to me that it was inconceivable that Eddie Fisher had left Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor. In the Fifties Elizabeth Taylor was regarded as "the most beautiful woman in the world", but to a young boy in the Seventies Debbie Reynolds was, well, Debbie Reynolds.

I certainly was not alone in my adoration of Debbie Reynolds. As I said above, Debbie Reynolds was among the most beloved of movie stars. She was certainly talented. Miss Reynolds could sing. She could dance. She could act. She was one of those performers who seemed as if she could do it all. And she gave so many memorable performances. Miss Reynolds may have had no experience dancing prior to appearing in Singin' in the Rain, but one would never know it watching the movie. After Singin' in the Rain Debbie Reynolds would become one of the last big stars of movies musicals, singing and dancing in such films as I Love Melvin (1953), Hit the Deck (1955), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964).

While she was fantastic in her musical roles, it would be a mistake to think of Debbie Reynolds only as a musical star. She was also very adept at comedy. Debbie Reynolds was great in Susan Slept Here opposite Dick Powell. She proved a match for legendary comic actor Tony Randall in the sex comedy The Mating Game. She was fantastic opposite Tony Curtis in The Rat Race. She still had a gift for comedy in her later years, shining in such films as Mother and In & Out. Miss Reynolds rarely played dramatic roles, but when she did, she was quite good. She was excellent in The Catered Affair. Later, in the psycho-biddy film What's the Matter with Helen?, she gave a nuanced performance rare for the genre.

Even in interviews Debbie Reynolds's talent was obvious. Indeed, it was obvious from whom Carrie Fisher inherited her intelligence and sense of humour. Miss Reynolds was whip-smart, and could always tell the funniest stories. She never took herself too seriously, and could be wonderfully self-deprecating. She could even be irreverent and inappropriate at times. Of course, Debbie Reynolds was also strong-willed and adaptable. She survived the scandal surrounding her husband Eddie Fisher leaving her for Elizabeth Taylor. She took care of Carrie Fisher through her daughter's battles with bipolar disorder and addiction. When her film career began to fail in the late Sixties, she reinvented herself as a star on the Broadway stage. In the Eighties and Nineties she returned to television and film with a vengeance. Miss Reynolds not only played unsinkable Molly Brown--she seemed unsinkable herself.

Of course, beyond Debbie Reynolds's talent, her intelligence, her sense of humour, her strength, and her adaptability was the fact that she truly cared about her fans. I have never heard anyone speak ill of Debbie Reynolds. She always had time for her fans and would treat them warmly and with affection. It was not unusual for her to greet her fans as if they had known each other all their lives. She was from all reports a warm and wonderful woman, one of the sweetest people one could ever hope to meet. In Singin' in the Rain Debbie Reynolds sang the song "Lucky Star". I think my fellow classic film buffs will agree with me when I say that we were very lucky to have had Debbie Reynolds to entertain us all these years. Bright, funny, strong, unsinkable, Debbie Reynolds was truly one of a kind.

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