Yesterday I did a brief post on Carrie Fisher and mentioned that I feel a much deeper connection to her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Which is true. And now Debbie is gone, and my farewell post will be a lot more in depth and personal. But not terribly sad, because she had a long and wonderful life.
Personal story here, my sister and I got to watch two movies every Friday night. By the time we were 10-12, that was about 500 Friday nights and a thousand movies. Which meant we had done a clean sweep of every VHS tape available in a 5 mile radius that was released before 1964 and didn’t have anyone die (our two rules). Really, we would get out the phone book and go down the listings in the Movie Rentals section, calling every store and asking if they had anything new. But the one movie we for some reason never wanted to watch was Three Little Words. I really don’t know why! It had Red Skelton, who we loved in Neptune’s Daughter, and Vera-Ellen who we loved in her Danny Kaye movies, and Fred Astaire who we just plain loved. Maybe we didn’t want to watch it because it wasn’t a very good movie and we could sense that? One of those huge composer biopics that is really just an excuse to shove their entire catalogue into one film, like ‘Til the Clouds Roll By.
But one Friday, we hit an impasse in our negotiations (I should mention that the phone calls to the stores were then followed by one-two hours in the store narrowing down the options through fervent debate). And the only solution was to toss in a wild card that neither of us was lobbying for and finally try Three Little Words. It really isn’t a very good movie, a lot of elderly Fred Astaire and anorexic (that’s not just an insult, she died of it) Vera-Ellen and Red Skelton trying to be extra irritatingly energetic to make up for his co-stars age and sickness. But then, in the middle of the movie, Fred and Red (in character as Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby, who wrote every song you vaguely remember from the 1920s) are fighting about a tune they are trying to write, and they stop on the sidewalk to play it on a piano that is sitting on the sidewalk waiting to be moved into a house. They play it and play it, trying to find the missing piece, and then there is a little voice that says “Boop boop ba doop.” It’s this tiny little woman in a tiny little hat and a tiny little dress with big eyes and a bright smile. She fills in the missing part of the song, and of course Fred and Red insist on making her the star of their next show, filling in that something special that just wasn’t there before.
And that was Debbie Reynolds. By the time my sister and I finally gave in and watched this movie, we had seen at least a dozen Debbie movies. But we didn’t recognize her here, it was before she had an official “look” and everything else. All we knew was that we loved this little actress and we had to rush to the late 90s version of the internet and find out who it was. Which was how the audience at the time felt, and the producers and the directors. Who was this adorable young woman who could fill in the missing piece of any film and where could they hire her?
Debbie got her big break in a way that would have fit a character in one of her films, she won a high school beauty contest and a contract with Warner Brothers pictures. She was 16. At 18, she got her big break in her tiny tiny part in Three Little Words.
Debbie’s first few roles were only slightly bigger than her part in Three Little Words. She played the younger sister part in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady and Three Weeks With Love. They were both period roles, as was Three Little Words. Something about her appeal just felt old-fashioned and timeless. And boy could she sell an old standard! Just like “I Want to Be Loved By You” in Three Little Words, she really nailed “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” in Three Weeks with Love.
And then, age 18, she got her big break in Singin’ in the Rain. I may have mentioned this before, my sister and I saw Singin’ in the Rain 11 times the first month we found it. Which means 5 Friday nights where our choice was to see Singin’ twice, plus a bonus time we begged our parents to allow it. To this day, I can literally recite the entire script. It really is the perfect movie.
And it is amazing that Debbie pulled it off! No real dance training, 18 years old, and she held her own with Donald O’Conner and Gene Kelly. In heels. Plus, according to legend, she damaged her ankles so much with all the jumps that she could barely walk, but insisted that she would keep dancing.
Singin’ in the Rain (as if you didn’t know already!) is about a silent film star whose voice is so terrible, she has to be dubbed in her first talking film, but wants to keep it a secret. Ironically, Debbie plays the one dubbing her but her own singing was dubbed. While Singin’ proved that Debbie had what it took to be the main lead of a film, Hollywood still wasn’t entirely confident of her talents.
Most of her films of the next few years aren’t terribly memorable. As I already admitted, I have a soft spot for Hit the Deck, but I know it isn’t really very good. Give a Girl a Break is pretty weak (the Champions were great dancers, but not that great actors). Susan Slept Here and The Tender Trap are NO NO NO!!!!! The 50s were gross and weird, is all I have to say. The first one is about a teenage runaway who is taken in by a debonair aging bachelor and then they fall in love. And The Tender Trap is about a 20 year old who falls in love with a debonair aging bachelor. In the first 22 year old Debbie is opposite 50 year old Dick Powell, and in the second, 23 year old Debbie co-stars with 40 year old Sinatra. What makes them NO NO NO!!!! is that the whole thing is treated as the best of all possible outcomes. A young woman is naturally attracted to a much much older man, and an older man would naturally be attracted to a teenager, and then the woman “traps” them into marriage, ha-ha. Here, the “Dream Ballet” from Susan Slept Here gives you an idea of what both movies are like:
What’s really remarkable from this era are the few films where Debbie collaberated with Bob Fosse. You know, Broadway legend Bob Fosse? He started as a regular dancer in Hollywood who would have bit parts with a few lines, and then go into a big dance number. Debbie worked with him twice in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (which is a really great movie all around, highly recommended) and Give a Girl a Break. Dobie Gillis has a better number.
But Give a Girl a Break has more Debbie;
I already mentioned Bundle of Joy in Carrie’s post. It’s cute, seeing her co-star with her husband, crooner Eddie Fisher. And it was part of her slow move towards more dramatic roles, instead of just the perky dancer. She also featured in A Catered Affair, which gave her the chance to play daughter to Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, which must have been worth a year of acting school right there. But her real breakthrough was Tammy and The Bachelor. She carried the movie start to finish, and they even let her do her own singing! 25 years old, and she finally broke through as DEBBIE REYNOLDS, instead of just “Debbie, that cute kid who can really dance.”
Debbie was almost 30 by now, but she still somehow just seemed like the girl next door. Again and again she was cast as just that, the girl next door. In films like It Started With a Kiss, The Mating Game, This Happy Feeling, she was the young innocent swept up in love. But by the 1960s, finally, she was being allowed to grow up a little. In The Gazebo, she was part of a murder and blackmail plot revolving around nude photos. In The Rat Race she plays a cynical failed actress.
But these cynical dark kind of “adult” roles never seemed to fit her. She was just too happy, too bright, too Debbie! And so a new formula was found, she was still bright and happy and optimistic, but now instead of a young girl living at home, she was a young mother living with children to keep her young. This is also the formula that worked for her in life.
After her “perfect marriage” to Eddie Fisher was blasted apart, there was an effort to make her into a heartbroken, and just generally broken, woman. That’s the era of The Gazebo and The Rat Race. But she just refused to be that! Instead she kept giving cheerful interviews and charming photoshoots with her two kids. And so Hollywood gave up on trying to make her bitter and angry, and instead made her a happy confident independent in film as well. Oh, and she also went blonde.
There were still a few darker roles mixed in, for instance Good-Bye Charlie, the film that inspired my header. She plays Tony Curtis’ reincarnated best friend. He was an unrepentant womanizer who comes back as a beautiful woman (Debbie). And then is killed again, and this time comes back as a dog. Like I said, it’s dark.
Everything was getting darker, this is why my sister and I refused to watch films from after 1964. The bright artificial happiness of the early years of film started to go away after that. Only, Debbie’s happiness didn’t feel artificial, it felt sincere. And her just pure joy didn’t belong in the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s.
And so Debbie went to a place that had a place for her, Broadway! Becoming a stage sensation at age 41 in Irene, a revival of a fluffy hit from 1919 about a humble shopgirl and a millionaire.
Debbie went from Irene on to her own Broadway revue based on her own songs, performing in Vegas, in touring productions, changing from a film star to a live performer in middle age. And then in the 90s, she changed again, to become everyone’s mother. In everything from the TV shows Wings and Will & Grace, to In & Out, to Roseanne, to Mother (her last title role), she played mother to grown children played by actors who had grown up watching her. And then she was introduced to a new generation in Halloweentown, an annual Disney channel hit in which she played a grandmother. But my favorite role of this later period, yes even more than her part as a Guest Judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, was her cameo as herself in Connie and Carla. It’s a fun movie in general, but Debbie showing up at the end just brings it to another level. But why I really love it is the director’s commentary about her. It was a long night of shooting, a lot of setting and resetting the scenes. And during the breaks, Debbie was up on her feet, doing her whole stage show for the extras, keeping the energy up, making people happy, like always.
And so, while I am a little sad that the one little part that seemed to make the whole better, the “boop boop ba doop” of it all, has left us, I am also happy. Because I just watched a bunch of Debbie Reynolds’ songs, and how can you be sad after you watch her?