Friday, February 13, 2009

Our Funny Valentine: Debbie Reynolds

Cinema superstar Debbie Reynolds is a national treasure! Frequent Bijou Blog contributor Victoria Balloon shares our great admiration for Ms. Reynolds, so it was with extra pleasure that she produced this homage to our sweet and funny valentine:

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 sixteen 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 Bijou's favorite vamp, 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." In this wonderful clip Debbie relates memories of the experience. A trailer for this film can be seen here.

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. You can watch the original trailer here.

When she was loaned out to RKO to do Susan Slept Here with Dick Powell, Debbie plays 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. The scene in which Susan (Reynolds) watches home movies of Mark Christopher (Powell) girlfriend Isabella Alexander (Anne Francis) contains some of her best ever on-screen mugging for the camera. For Debbie, it was easy - "From an early age, from the time I used to sit on my grandpa's knee, I was a mimic. I used to copy Red Skelton. People who knew me would ask me to do these little performances for other organizations like the Boy Scouts and Job's Daughters, or even just for a group of friends. I never thought of it as entertaining because I didn't dance or sing. I didn't think of myself as a person who could dance or sing. I was just this nutty kid." 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 d├ęcor 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. Debbie recalls that "everyone was amazed because it was a sweet, simple little ballad in contrast to the hits by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Anka, and Buddy Holly." Her ability to convey sweet, simple emotion in this song is undoubtedly what has made it her signature song and an audience favorite. 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.

As Mariette Larkin, she's trying to get IRS man Lorenzo Charleton (Tony Randall) more interested in her than Pa and Ma Larkin's unpaid taxes. Lorenzo tries to maintain a distant professionalism and stick to business, but when Ma Larkin decides he's The One for Mariette, Lorenzo hasn't a prayer. This film features Debbie, 90 pounds sopping wet, being chased by the boys and swinging on a rope out of a loft to drop into the hay below. During the fight in the barn, that's really her on the pile - and although she's usually on top, she still gets knocked over and down, only to leap back into the fray. The scene where she's backed into a chair, holding off a security officer with one foot, is wonderful pandemonium.

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. "I knew exactly what they meant. They could see Shirley doing that, but not Tammy. They were wrong. I knew I was so right for the role. Molly was a really gutsy yet sensitive, vulnerable girl; and I could play it that way. I was Molly Brown and I intended to prove it." 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.

At first Walters gave her very little direction, so Debbie turned to former MGM drama coach, Lillian Burns Sidney, to help her with the role. When the rushes came back, Walters began to feel differently about Debbie's performance. "You're not too short for the part," he finally told her with a kiss. However, there were additional pressures 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. (Watch Debbie Reynolds describe her rehearsal experience with The Unsinkable Molly Brown during an episode of the Mike Douglas show from 1976 (at 7:27)

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.

It only takes a look at the user reviews and comments at the Internet Movie Database to realize that Debbie still has many fans. The Internet has given them new ways to network, from posting tributes on YouTube and selling memorabilia on Ebay to creating fan sites and fan pages. For more reasons to fall in love with our sweet and funny valentine, check out The Debbie Reynolds Official Website and Debbie Reynolds Online. Here is her 2009 concert schedule where you can see her in person, and there's also her engaging book, Debbie: My Life, by Debbie Reynolds and David Patrick Columbia.


Gloria said...

Debbie is fabulous! Nicest person you would ever want to meet!


1-4-1 said...

Long live Debbie Reynolds! And she will, so long as readers/viewers/fans continue to sustain an interest in classic films and film stars.

What a fabulous article! The gold letters on red velvet suggest the classic look of MGM musicals; the well-thought-out mix of classic Reynolds film posters and covers from movie magazines separates the informative text so that it never seems overwhelming. It's simply a great read.

And the links! I especially like the clip from The Mike Douglas Show in which Debbie talks about her legacy-making, signature role of Molly Brown in THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. I'd rather watch re-runs of shows such as these than Oprah or Dr. Phil or any of these pretentious self-help guru/interviewers today.

Articles like this one are the staple literary diet (along with autobiographies!) of the true film fan. Thoroughly enjoyable and worth the time it takes to read.

Congratulations, "Ms. Balloon!" You ain't full of hot air!

Jon Ted Wynne, Canada