Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
I have always loved the great MGM musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the best known and loved of those films, and while I admire the picture, I actually prefer some others to it, especially The Band Wagon and On the Town. But there’s no getting around the fact that Singin’ is a high achievement and an always entertaining watch. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor carry the film but there is no denying that Debbie Reynolds holds her own in what was her breakout role in Hollywood. I have seen very few of her films but what I have seen I have been impressed by. She has one of those indomitable spirits that I suppose made her a natural choice for portraying The Unsinkable Molly Brown when Hollywood got around to adapting that Broadway smash to the screen. I’ve only seen a couple minutes of the film, and one of these times when it’s showing on TCM I’ll have to make the effort to sit down and watch the whole thing. The following story for the New Horizons was written in advance of Reynolds making an appearance in Omaha, Neb., where I live, for a screening of Singin. I interviewed her by phone for the piece and I found her gracious and forthcoming in answering questions she’s likely been asked hundreds or thousands of times. I found revealing a particular anecdote she shared about Fred Astaire — it’s in the story. Singin‘ was a grueling experience for Debbie and when she was at her lowest Astaire befriended her by helping her learn what it means to be a professional. That same perseverance has helped see her through many difficult times since them. I look forward to seeing this consummate trouper in person.
Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
As Old Hollywood royalty goes, Debbie Reynolds is still a princess more than 60 years since inking her first studio contract and 58 years since her star-making turn in the classic MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Reynolds, 78, is one of the last remaining stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the only survivor from this iconic musical’s principal cast. Even though she’s made scores of movies and still appears on the big screen and makes guest spots on television, she’s perhaps most closely identified with Singin’ in the Rain.
Consistently rated one of the all-time greatest movies in American Film Institute polls, the musical spoofs Hollywood’s messy transition from silent to sound pictures. Gene Kelly stars as matinee idol Don Lockwood and Donald O’Connor as writer Cosmo Brown, with Reynolds as the plucky ingenue Kathy Selden, the girl who breaks into pictures and steals Don’s heart.
Singin’ rarely gets a theater screening now, so when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford asked Reynolds to be the special guest at a November 5 charity showing, the actress and nightclub entertainer said yes. Join Reynolds for the 7 p.m. revival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee store. Proceeds benefit the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
The artist will be the latest in a long line of Old Hollywood figures Crawford’s brought to Omaha. Two past guests were Patricia Neal and Kevin McCarthy, While those recently departed stars came to Hollywood as theater and Actors Studio veterans, Reynolds was a neophyte with zero acting experience when discovered.
At age 16 the then-Mary Frances Reynolds won the Lockheed Aircraft-sponsored Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948. Her lip-synching to a record of a Betty Hutton song caught the attention of two pageant judges who just happened to be talent scouts, one for Warner Brothers and the other for Metro-Goldywn-Mayer.
Soon, Mary Frances, who was born in El Paso, Texas and lived a hardscrabble life with her family during the Great Depression, found herself making a screen test for Warners. The charmed execs signed her to a $65 a week contract. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie, but she refused attempts to alter her surname. The precocious young woman had just moved to Burbank eight years earlier. Her family had fled the Dust Bowl as part of the great migration West in search for a better life.
Attending public school, “Frannie” excelled in sports, baton twirling and music. She was a Girl Scout. She came from a evangelical Christian household yet her mother indulged her daughter’s expressive talents and love for the movies and radio. A favorite pastime was mimicking cinema stars and radio personalities.
The newly dubbed Debbie Reynolds made her motion picture debut as an extra in 1948’s June Bride. Her first speaking part came in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady. When those appearances failed to ignite with audiences or critics, Warners elected not to renew their option. That’s when MGM, whose talent scout had noted her charisma, cast her in a small part in Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skeltonl. She made enough of an impression that that most prestigious of studios put her on a standard seven-year contract at $300 a week.
In a phone interview from Biloxi, Miss., where she was performing her cabaret act, Reynolds recalled the serendipity of it all.
“Well, first of all I was very lucky to be there during that stage,” she said. “MGM was the largest studio that made the greatest musicals of all and that had the largest of roster of stars. I came in in 1949, near the very end of this wonderful era of musicals, and I was fortunate enough to be taught under all those great stars. I was a very fortunate young lady and it paid off all these years because I’m still around.”
She said she couldn’t help but blossom in the training ground that MGM presented.
“When you have great teachers and you learn under the really marvelous tutelage of all those wonderful talents and all the stories they have to say and all the teachings they have to pass onto you, why those are things that never really leave you. It’s like going to the finest of universities let’s say.”
A few more forgettable pictures followed. One, Susan Slept Here, she did on a loan out to RKO. In another, Two Weeks with Love, she created a buzz with her rendition of the “Abba Dabba Dabba” song. Then the biggest break of her fledgling career happened when cast in her first starring role, opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in Singin’. MGM mogul Louie B. Mayer ignored the wishes of producer Arthur Freed and co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen, who preferred someone with polished acting-singing-dancing skills, by giving the part to the inexperienced Reynolds.
Freed, a former song plugger and lyricist, oversaw the fabled Freed Unit that churned out the classic MGM musicals with their sumptuous production details. He packaged the creative talents behind Singin’ and such other gems as An American in Paris and Gigi. For Singin’, he brought together Kelly, Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Roger Edens and character actors Millard Mitchell and Jean Hagen.
Getting third billing in a Freed musical starring Kelly was a coup for Reynolds but it brought tremendous pressure. Her role required her to act, sing and dance. The vocals posed no major problem, but the dance numbers did for the unschooled Reynolds. She had to match, step for step, the moves of two world class hoofers after only a few weeks rehearsal. It was a trying time for the starlet. She felt overwhelmed by it all.
“I was just a young little girl who’d done just a few pictures. I had done nothing of any noteworthy dimension,” she said.
After one rehearsal she waited till everyone left the sound stage before crumpling to the floor in tears, hiding under a piano to conceal her distress. That’s when she said Omaha’s own Fred Astaire came to her rescue, not so much by consoling her as by giving her a tough love message about what it means to be a professional.
“Yes it’s a true story,” she said. “I was crying under a big grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was alone, so I could just sob away. I was only 17 and I was untrained and I felt very lost and, you know quite, miserable as a young girl out of my element totally.
“Mr Astaire was walking by because he was rehearsing right next door ,and I guess he heard me, and so he reached down and he said, ‘Who is that?’ I said my name and he said, ‘Give me your hand,’ and he pulled me out and he said, ‘Now, Debby, I’m going to let you watch me rehearse,’ which he never allowed. He always had a guard at the door and the only ones allowed were his drummer and the guard and Hermes Pan, who was his dance assistant.
“So I watched for awhile, until his face turned red and sweat was profusely coming down his face, and he turned to me to say, ‘Now you’ve seen how tough it is, how hard it is. This is the way you have to learn to be really the best. You have to work this hard. No pain, no gain. You have to go back, stop crying, and get to work.’ So I did, and I have continued to do that all these years. Don’t complain, just get better, just work harder.”
She needed to develop a thick skin and a more demanding discipline because Gene Kelly, “the creative mastermind of it all,” drove her and everybody else so hard.
“He was a taskmaster on himself more than anybody,” she said. “It was equal. This was, after all, his pride and joy, and he treated every project that way. I don’t think Gene ever did anything half way. Gene was a perfectionist. He was a creative artist, he was a great dancer, as was Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. They all worked the same. I don’t know any dancer that ever worked easy. There is no easy way to dance.”
Kelly had earlier put a non-dancer through his paces when he worked with crooner Frank Sinatra on Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The dancer didn’t cut Old Blue Eyes any slack and he sure didn’t for Reynolds.
Someone who did offer solace from the daily grind was co-star Donald O’Connor.
Said Reynolds, “Well, we were closer because we were nearer the same age. Donald was 27. Being younger, he was a bit more friendly and he had more time to visit with me. He worked with me on the dancing. He taught me how to do back flips and front flips and tumbling. He was very sweet. We had a lot of fun doing ridiculous things together and being young together and laughing together, so he was kind of my release. With him, I was allowed to be young and laugh and not be so dedicated every minute.
“And we remained dear friends. We did an act together many years later on the road called Together Again. It was very successful and we had a wonderful time.”
Perhaps an unlikely confidante was the head man himself, Louie B. Mayer, who was known to be alternately tyrannical and tender. His studio’s rather idealized portraits of Americana and the family reflected his own sentimental leanings.
“Any problem I had I just called him on the phone and said, ‘Mr. Mayer, do you know whats happening?’ He’d say, ‘You come up here and see me,’ and I was just like a little kid and he treated me like a little kid. He took care of any problem I had. He’d always sit me down and say, ‘What’s the problem?’ He always had time for me. I’m not saying he wasn’t a tough man with a lot of other people, but with me he was really very sweet. I found him to be very fatherly.”
Not even L.B. Mayer could protect her from the fallout of her failed marriage to pop singing star Eddie Fisher, who infamously left her for her friend, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal made headlines. Reynolds’ later marriages also ended badly when her business magnate husbands’ financial problems forced her to declare bankruptcy. Financial woes also dogged her dream of establishing a motion picture museum displaying her vast collection of vintage Hollywood costumes.
“I wanted to do that in my lifetime, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get it done. It’s very sad for me to say that. That was my dream. Sometimes dreams don’t always come true, even though they have written many songs that they do.”
Her collection, worth many millions of dollars, is due to be auctioned off in 2011.
But like Molly Brown, the indefatigable Reynolds keeps plugging away, just like she learned to do from Astaire many years ago. Even though Singin’ “was a very difficult picture to do,” she said it turned out to be the boost that put her over the top.
“Oh, it made it,” she said of the film’s impact on her career. She went on to star alongside such greats as Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Ford, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck and James Garner. She earned a Best Actreee Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Years later she and Molly co-star Harve Presnell recreated their roles for a national stage tour. She starred on Broadway in Irene, Woman of the Year and her own one-woman revue, Debbie. She starred in her own network TV specials and in a short-lived series.
More recently, she won good reviews for her work in the Albert Brooks film Mother and her recurring role in TV’s Will & Grace. She mended fences with Liz Taylor on the TV movie These Old Broads, written by Reynolds’ daughter, actress-author Carrie Fisher. After finding stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher struggled. Her best-selling book Postcards from the Edge became a movie starring Shirley MacLain and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter patterned after Reynolds-Fisher.
Reynolds is no stranger to Omaha, where she’s performed with the symphony and dined with Warren Buffett, whom she calls “the financial Jimmy Stewart.”
For more information, visit wwwomahafilmevent.com or call 320-1944.
- Reynolds’ Hollywood memorabilia set for auction (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Debbie Reynolds Returns To Movies To Play Katherine Heigl’s Grandmother (cinemablend.com)
- MGM film studio rescued from bankruptcy (guardian.co.uk)
- Remembering the Movies of Debbie Reynolds (omg.yahoo.com)
- Debbie Reynolds On Elizabeth Taylor: “She Was A Symbol Of Stardom” (socialitelife.com)
- Debbie Reynolds auctions off Hollywood treasures (seattletimes.nwsource.com)