Tag Archives: Singin’ In the Rain

Debbie Reynolds, 1932-2016

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I’ve been fascinated by Debbie Reynolds for as long as I can remember.

One of my earliest movie memories involves sitting in my living room at age 5, watching Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, and Gene Kelly sing “Good Morning” on our VHS copy of Singin’ In the Rain, one that seems to have been worn from overuse even in my earliest youth.

As I watched the number, my eyes constantly drifted to Debbie Reynolds. She was smaller than the boys, clearly younger, and wore a dress and high heels as she danced. But dance she did–fearlessly, confidently, keeping pace with Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do, and as if there were no difference between them and her. In the years that have passed since, I have come to realize what a significant effect that scene had on me as an impressionable young girl. Debbie Reynolds showed me confidence, and inspired me to believe in my own capabilities as a female.

Her cheery, twangy Texas accent was roundly criticized in 1950s Hollywood, and was frequently an impediment to her ability to sing her own numbers in movies, but I always especially loved listening to her speak. Her voice seemed to fit her–an imperfect, no-frills soprano coming from a spunky, rough-and-tumble personality. Her voice deepened as she aged, but her personality, on and off the screen, remained larger than life.

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She was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932 in El Paso, TX. Her family moved to Burbank when she was 7, and at the age of 16 she won the Miss Burbank beauty contest, attracting the attention of Jack Warner. He gave her a contract in 1948, and she played a few small roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When Warner Bros stopped producing musicals, she moved to MGM. There, she continued to appear in supporting roles, including a memorable part in Two Weeks With Love with Carleton Carpenter.

Her performance in Two Weeks with Love so impressed Louis B. Mayer that he cast her in Singin’ In the Rain, a big-budget production about the coming of sound in movies. It would be Reynolds’ first starring role, and she would be acting with two dance veterans, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Reynolds was not a dancer, but Gene Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen both wanted her for the role. Kelly took her under his wing and taught her about film dancing. She later said about him “He made me a star. I was 18 and he taught me how to dance and how to work hard and be dedicated.”

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After Singin’ In the Rain, Reynolds was a sure-fire hit. She made a splash in Susan Slept Here in 1954, and fell in love with singer Eddie Fisher. She married him in 1955, and their first child, Carrie, was born in 1956. Their second child, Todd, came along in 1958. After Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor in 1959, Debbie’s relationship with her children, especially daughter Carrie, became the most lasting and meaningful of her life. She was an ever-present mother, advocating for her children’s welfare even when her constant attention was undesired by her teenage children.

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Reynolds’ role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and she followed it up with The Singing Nun. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, her career began to shift toward high-profile television appearances, but in the midst of this shift she also found time to provide the voice for the spider Charlotte in the 1973 version of Charlotte’s Web.

As her career moved toward television, her daughter Carrie Fisher’s own film career was on the rise. Carrie made her film debut in 1975 and in 1977 her career skyrocketed when she landed the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars. Even as Carrie was becoming a star herself, Debbie was omnipresent. She felt personally insulted when Star Wars producer George Lucas bought coach airplane seats for Carrie and the rest of the cast, so she called him herself to advocate for her daughter procuring a first class seat. As it turned out, when Debbie called, 19-year-old Carrie was sitting right next to Lucas. “Mother,” Carrie yelled into the phone, “I want to fly coach, will you kindly f– off?” Through her daughter’s myriad issues in life, through her own stardom and addiction and struggles with mental illness, Debbie was always by her side, whether Carrie liked it or not. She was a devoted mother, and Carrie’s 1987 book Postcards From the Edge, which became a 1991 movie, was based on her own unusual but deeply loving relationship with her mother.

As Debbie aged, she continued to work in television and appeared in documentaries and in small parts in movies, but began a new career on the Las Vegas circuit and in costume collecting. She rescued a huge number of costumes from the MGM lot when they liquidated their inventory to make space, and had dreams of opening a museum. Sadly, the plans fell through and she was forced to sell the costumes at auction, in a gigantic mass sale that took several years. Among her many possessions at auction were a pair of the ruby slippers, the Marilyn Monroe dress from The Seven Year Itch, and costumes from both the 1934 and 1963 versions of Cleopatra, the latter donated by her old romantic rival Elizabeth Taylor, with whom she had long since mended fences.

Her final significant role was a recurring one, as Grace Adler’s mother on Will & Grace. Debra Messing remembered Debbie Reynolds on her Facebook page as “pure energy & light when she came on stage. She was loving, and bawdy, and playful- a consummate pro- old school and yet had the work ethic and investment in her craft of a new fiery up and comer. She was always running off to Vegas or somewhere else ‘on the road’ to be a hoofer, to sing and dance and make people laugh. She performed 340 days out of the year. An inspiration on every level.”

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I had the great fortune to meet Debbie Reynolds briefly in 2012. I was covering the Cinecon classic film festival for the blog, where Debbie gave the keynote address at the awards dinner at which Carleton Carpenter received an award. She was exactly how I expected her to be onstage–playing the crowd, cracking hilarious jokes that left everyone in stitches, and all-around stealing the show. Afterward, however, when I went up to her to introduce myself, she was entirely different. Calm, sweet, and generous, she emphasized how much she appreciated being able to be there for Carleton Carpenter, who had been so instrumental in setting her on her course toward stardom. It was an eye-opening experience into who Debbie Reynolds was. Far more than the crowd-pleasing, show-stealing star that she was, she was a gracious human being who gave back to those to whom she owed her livelihood.

Debbie lived on a large estate in Los Angeles that once belonged to Edith Head, on which there were two houses–one belonging to Debbie, and one belonging to Carrie. Debbie’s health had been declining in recent years, and the day after Carrie died of a heart attack, Debbie went to the hospital with a stroke. Carrie died on December 27, Debbie died on December 28. The loss of a child is painful enough–Debbie’s loss of Carrie was a devastation from which she could not recover.

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6-year-old Carrie Fisher watches her mother onstage.

Debbie Reynolds was a force of nature whose energy will be terribly missed in this world. I am grateful to her for showing me a confident, courageous woman who could keep up with the boys, and for modeling offscreen what a strong woman and a devoted mother looks like. Her rich legacy lives on in her movies, her television appearances, and the larger-than-life humanitarian spirit that informed all she did. She was our lucky star.

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SHOW PEOPLE (1928) and the Rise of Self-Reflection in Hollywood

Marion Davies and real-life director King Vidor in a scene from “Show People.”

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

For many decades, Hollywood has been fascinated with movies about movies. Ranging from the highest celebrations of Hollywood stardom (Singin’ In the Rain) to analyses of the most terrible tragedies of the industry (A Star is Born), the films that come out of this penchant for self-examination consistently do extremely well at the box office to this day, often winning major industry awards and proving that audiences and critics alike share this passion for “Hollywood on Hollywood.”

Singin’ In the Rain (1952), about the coming of sound to Hollywood, has earned a place as the only musical in the top 10 of “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies” list.

Argo (2012), about a plot to rescue Iranian hostages by creating a blockbuster Hollywood movie, won the Oscar for Best Picture last year.

Self-awareness in movies dates back to the earliest days of cinema.  Mack Sennett often appeared as himself in the Keystone Kops movies, acknowledging the disconnect between reality and the movies and making an attempt to sew them together to create a fluid illusion for the audience member. In “The Playhouse” (1921), Buster Keaton attends a show in which he plays all the parts. He (as his character) quips “This Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show!” This was a nudge to the audience, a peek over the 4th wall to let the audience know that Keaton is aware of himself as an actor.

Building on these early indications of self-awareness, the first full-scale “Hollywood on Hollywood” movie appeared in 1928 with the King Vidor comedy Show People, about the transformation of a young country girl  into a major movie star. Starring Marion Davies and based on the early career of Gloria Swanson, Show People is a thorough and intelligent look at the complexities of stardom, and its quality rivals that of the later movies who drew from its precedent. It is truly a movie that, despite the passage of 85 years, solidly stands the test of time.

Peggy Pepper is the young Georgia girl who wants to be in movies, so her father drives her out to Hollywood where she lands a contract as a comedic bit player, often getting squirts in the face with seltzer water. She befriends a fellow comedic actor named Billy Boone, and they act together in low-budget films while remaining best of friends offscreen. At the screening of her first movie, Peggy gets an autograph request from none other than Charlie Chaplin (playing himself in a cameo) and promptly faints. Several other stars make cameos in the film, including Marion Davies herself. When Peggy sees Marion Davies, she reacts with disdain, an extremely clever demonstration of the film’s self-awareness.

Marion Davies as “Marion Davies.”

Soon, Peggy is signed to “High Art Studios,” where she becomes a big star and slowly loses touch with society as her ego grows. She shuns Billy Boone as a lower-class actor, even though he tries desperately to maintain their friendship and bring her back to reality. She runs into him on a film set and reacts coldly to him, until he squirts her with seltzer water like he used to in their low-budget films together. She becomes enraged and storms off.

Shortly thereafter, she is informed by her studio head that theaters around the country are pulling her movies because her image is becoming too snooty. She is about to get married to a fake count Andre Telefair, when Billy bursts in and squirts her in the face with seltzer water, then throws a pie in the face of the fake count. This brings Peggy to her senses, and she and Billy make up. Peggy’s next movie is set in a World War I village, and she convinces director King Vidor (the real life director of Show People), to hire Billy as her new leading man, as a surprise. Billy is thrilled to see that Peggy is his leading lady, and the film ends as Peggy and Billy kiss on the set of their new movie together.

Show People is one of the finest silent movies to come out of the 1920s. It is strikingly modern, and could easily have been made today, needing very few changes. Though it is a comedy, one can see the influence it had on such later Hollywood on Hollywood movies such as A Star is Born, chronicling a male actor’s assistance to an actress, and that star witnessing her rise over his. It is said that this movie is loosely based on the career of Gloria Swanson, who later starred in her own Academy Award-winning film about Hollywood–the incomparable Sunset Boulevard.

See you next time!

What’s New in Classic Film?

As a way to bring the very latest in classic film happenings to my readers, I have compiled a list of some of the classic film events for the month of July. I hope that some of you will be able to see some of these! If you are, please let me know how they went–I very much want to attend TCM’s nationwide screening of Singin’ in the Rain, but alas, it conflicts with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for which I have press accreditation, so I have to prioritize those screenings. Tough life, right? Anyway, here are what I consider to be the major events for the month of July:

Here is the screening that I so badly want to go to. For the 60th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain, TCM is presenting a big screen showing of the movie in theaters across the country on July 12. It promises to be quite the event. And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen before, you’re in for a treat–it is one of my all-time favorite movies to watch on the big screen. The colors come so alive, and the musical numbers are simply nothing like you remember them on your 25″ TV set. Keep a special eye out for the Broadway Rhythm number and how beautiful it looks on the big screen. It was clearly meant for the theater.

For tickets, click on the poster and follow the instructions on the website.

The 17th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicks off July 12 and continues through July 15 in San Francisco, CA. The festival is highly renowned and very highly regarded, Leonard Maltin has called it “in a class by itself” and is a frequent guest speaker. The centerpiece film for this year’s festival is Pandora’s Box (1925), and other films being shown include Mantrap, Stella Dallas, Wings, and The Spanish Dancer. All showings will be at the Castro Theatre, and I have been honored to receive full press accreditation for the festival, so if you can’t make it, you can follow along right here! Last year’s festival was stellar–you can read my reviews of Die Frau, nach der Man sich sehnt and He Who Gets Slapped by clicking on the links.

For tickets, please visit the official website at http://www.silentfilm.org or click here. If you’re traveling from outside the area, I would advise you to book your hotel NOW. Even though I live just across the bay, there is one night that I will have to spend in San Francisco, and I had a terrible time trying to find a room. All the hotels are filling up fast due to a parade happening that weekend. Something to plan for!

As of June 26, The Artist has been released on DVD! It is now available in all the usual places–movie stores, online, Redbox, and to be ordered on Amazon.com. If you haven’t seen it yet, you are missing out on an incredible piece of cinema. However, like Singin’ in the Rain, it was simply meant to be seen on the big screen, so I’m interested to see how it holds up on DVD. I do believe that it is still playing at a few select theaters around, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one, so it looks like if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have to settle for the DVD version. Maybe they’ll re-issue it in theaters someday!

HIGHLIGHTS ON TCM THIS MONTH: 

ALL SHOWTIMES IN EASTERN STANDARD TIME

July 10, 11:15 PM: Of Human Bondage (1934)

July 13, 8:00 AM: The Lion in Winter

July 15, 9:00 AM: The Virgin Queen

July 18, 8:00 PM: A Face in the Crowd

July 20, 12:15 AM: The Adventures of Robin Hood

2:15 AM: Citizen Kane

4:30 AM: The Magnificent Ambersons

July 22, 8:30 AM: Pinky

6:00 PM: Wuthering Heights

July 29, 5:15 PM: West Side Story