The news of Debbie Reynolds’ passing would be upsetting – especially in cinema circles – on any given day, but it has gained a particularly tragic quality for occurring just one day after the untimely death of her daughter, fellow actor (and writer) Carrie Fisher. Reynolds’ death also represents another severed tie of the precious few remaining with Hollywood’s Golden Age, and with a lady who knew, recognised and strove to protect – long before it was popular – the historical significance of her surroundings.
Born into a poor and strict – but loving – family in El Paso, Texas, on April 1, 1932, Mary Frances Reynolds moved to Burbank, California with her family in 1939, setting the scene (unbeknownst to them) for her classic rags-to-riches Hollywood transformation. After winning the Miss Burbank beauty contest in 1948 – a competition Reynolds entered purely due to the tempting prizes on offer, of a blouse, a silk scarf and a lunch – she was invited for a screen-test at Warner Bros. and promptly became a contract player there. It was here that studio boss Jack L. Warner re-christened her ‘Debbie’.
Debbie Reynolds made her screen debut at the studio in an uncredited role that same year in June Bride, but it only took one more picture before she was working at MGM – the studio with which she is most associated. In light and bright musicals Reynolds made her mark, scoring a hit record in Two Weeks With Love with a version of the 1914 song ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’, and lip-syncing along to a Betty Boop track as singer Helen Kane in Three Little Words (receiving a Golden Globe nod too, for best newcomer). It was this effervescent performance that caught the eye of Dore Schary, the newly-installed president of the studio, and that is how Debbie Reynolds found herself cast as Kathy Selden in one of the greatest movies Hollywood has ever produced – Singin’ in the Rain.
Starring opposite lead actor and legendary hoofer (and co-director and co-choreographer!) Gene Kelly, the inexperienced Reynolds’ ‘dance bootcamp’ experiences are well-documented; from a pep-talk and rehearsal observation with Fred Astaire after he found her crying under a piano, to filling her dance shoes with blood after a day on set filming the ‘Good Morning’ routine. What a glorious feeling, indeed. Reynolds was famously quoted (and wrote in her 2013 autobiography Unsinkable), “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain“.
Upon its 1952 release Singin’ in the Rain was a bit of a disappointment, most likely overshadowed by the praise lavished on its predecessor from the Arthur Freed musicals unit, the Best Picture-winning Gene Kelly vehicle An American in Paris. MGM sold Debbie Reynolds hard, however, as the virginal ‘girl next door’ (and lifelong Girl Scout!), and her profile had been suitably raised, so off she went to work on a run of musicals and comedies including I Love Melvin, Susan Slept Here, Hit the Deck, The Tender Trap and Tammy and the Bachelor (another chart hit – No.1 – with ‘Tammy’). During this time, Reynolds conducted a chaste courtship with crooner Eddie Fisher, and the two delighted their fans by marrying in 1955 and having children Carrie and Todd soon after. The couple would unfortunately go on to delight the tabloids in an entirely different manner when Fisher began an affair with the couple’s good friend, actress Elizabeth Taylor – then a recent widow – and it was exposed. The feeding frenzy was unprecedented, and Reynolds and Fisher divorced in 1959. Reynolds would go on to marry – and divorce – twice more.
Reynolds was now a single mother but determined to continue her career. She continued with her acting, although the quality of roles on offer varied – but she did score some good dramatic gigs in films such as The Rat Race, How the West Was Won, Divorce American Style and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she was Oscar-nominated. With ’70s cinema seeming unappetising, Reynolds took herself off to continue her hard work on the stage instead. She made her Broadway debut (alongside daughter Carrie) in 1973 in a production of Irene, for which she was duly Tony-nominated. She followed that with her Debbie revue in 1976 and tours of Annie Get Your Gun, Woman of the Year and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Reynolds also kept herself busy with Las Vegas shows and residencies from the 1960s onwards, her work ethic unstoppable.
TV also eventually opened its arms to Reynolds, after a tricky start with her own show in 1970 (although she did get a Golden Globe nomination), and she began to gain a new legion of fans after appearances on The Golden Girls, Roseanne, Halloweentown and Will & Grace. Her last high-profile screen appearance was an almost-unrecognisable performance as Liberace’s mother in Behind the Candelabra: he had been a personal friend of hers on the Las Vegas circuit.
It would be unfair to consider Debbie Reynolds only in her capacity as a movie star, however. She was dedicated to mental health causes, serving as president of Hollywood-based organisation The Thalians for over 50 years, and receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2016 Oscars. She was also known for her willingness to share her opinions, although always managing to do so without seeming loud, phoney or self-obsessed, and became a celebrated agony aunt in the US for the Globe, with her ‘Dear Debbie’ page. She reasoned that she had gone through most things herself anyway: “I’m experienced at survival” (or “sur-thrival”, as her daughter Carrie would have it).
Perhaps the greatest legacy Debbie Reynolds has left to the film and historical communities, aside from her pictures and words, is, however, her foresight when it came to preserving costumes and props from some of Hollywood’s biggest movies and moments during its Golden Age. While the studios may have had a cavalier attitude towards these ‘tools’ of the trade (as well as financial difficulties with which to deal), Reynolds could see the glamour and importance they promised when linked with their starry previous owners. During the (in)famous 1970 MGM auction, Reynolds continued her already-established hobby and busied herself buying up multiple lots, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process… and this was during the days when MGM thought nothing of using its only copies of the orchestral parts to original scores and compositions as landfill for a Californian golf course.
Her long-held ambition was to open a permanent film memorabilia museum in Hollywood with her purchases, which had since formed one of the largest personal collections of its kind in the world. She wanted to share her love with the public, as long as funds could be raised to assist with the collection’s upkeep – but husbands (i.e. bankruptcy), and a lack of support in Hollywood, put paid to that dream. Reynolds was eventually forced to hold two, undoubtedly painful, auctions of her own in 2011. Lots on offer included Marilyn Monroe’s white “subway dress” from The Seven Year Itch (sold for a staggering $4.6 million), Audrey Hepburn’s “Ascot dress” from My Fair Lady and one of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic bowler hats. The auctions made $26 million.
The one saving grace of this unfortunate turn of events was that the V&A museum managed to curate a hugely successful public exhibition of Hollywood costumes, five years in the making, in London in 2012-13. Reynolds, as such a prominent private owner, was one of the first to be contacted by the museum about their plans and was also invited to write the preface to the exhibition’s accompanying guide. After all, although Reynolds no longer owned many – if any – of the treasures on display, she was responsible for the continued existence and upkeep of a huge bloody portion of them!
“”People”? I ain’t “people.” I am a – “a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.”” Lina Lamont, Singin’ in the Rain.
The unsinkable Debbie Reynolds: star of the musicals, movie legend, single mother, cabaret act, Broadway leading lady, eminent TV guest, mental health advocate, guardian of film history.
April 1, 1932 – December 28, 2016.