Thursday, January 26, 2017

notes on hollywood's eternal teenager

It will be a month soon since Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood's eternal teenager, died - on December 28th - and to commeorate her passing, Turner Classic Movies is devoting a full day to her on January 27th - January 28th.  "TCM Remembers Debbie Reynolds" consists of a dozen of her 40-plus theatrical films. The picks are curious, with signature titles missing and at least one embarrassment ("How Sweet It Is!") included.

Missing is "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957), one of two personal hits for Reynolds.  The other, of course, is “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964) which gets the Star Spot (8 p.m., est, January 27th) on Turner's slate. These are the two lone films which Reynolds carried alone, with no co-star of equal stature, as was the case with "The Singing Nun" (1966) - but that film was not nearly as popular as the other two. I had a lot to say about "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" in a 2012 essay, little of it complementary.

Considering the size of her output, Reynolds turned in straight dramatic performance in only three of her films - "The Catered Affair” (1956), which is also on Turner's schedule, “The Rat Race” (1960) and "Divorce American Style" (1967).  The latter two films feature her best acting, hands-down. Although "Divorce American Style" may have been sold as a comedy, Reynolds' performance in it is seriocomical and multi-faceted.

And she's rarely been as impressive as she is in "The Rat Race."

Oddly, "The Rat Race" is a film she didn't personally like. During an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show" in the 1970s, Reynolds stopped Griffin cold as he raved about the film and her performance in it. "Awful movie" is how she described it.  She never explained how or why it is awful.  Anyway, Merv Griffin was spot-on in his praise.  Sorry, Debbie.

That said, Reynolds' films can be conveniently compartmentalized for those Debbie fans who would like to put together modest double-bills or sprawling marathons, apart from TCM's tribute.  Here are a few recommendations:

Her Bookend MGM Musicals: “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)
Her Inside Joke in "Singin' in the Rain":  Everyone knows the plot of this movie classic. The Jean Hagen character - the insufferable Lina Lamonte, a silent-film actress trying to make the transition to talkies despite a horrible voice - makes a film musical, called "The Dueling Cavalier," even though she can't sing.  Debbie, playing a struggling actress, is brought in to dub her singing and, at the movie's premiere, it is revealed that it is Debbie who's really singing "Would You?" and "You Are My Lucky Star."  The joke is that Reynolds, who could sing, was dubbed herself for these two songs by Betty Royce. (The joke was further extended: To dub Lina's speaking voice for the film, Jean Hagen did the job herself.)

Her Metro B-Musicals: “I Love Melvin,” “The Affairs of Dobie Gillis,” “Give a Girl a Break” (1953) and “Athena” (1954)

Her Biggest, Splashiest Ensemble MGM Musical: “Hit the Deck” (1955)

Her Tony Curtis Double-Bill: “The Rat Race” (1960) and “Goodbye Charlie” (1964)

Her Glenn Ford Double Bill: “The Gazebo” and “It Started with a Kiss” both (1959)

Her 1959 Releases: “The Gazebo,” “The Mating Game” and “It Started with a Kiss” (all three directed by George Marshall) and “Say One for Me”(Frank Tashlin)

Her George Marshall Films: “The Gazebo,” “The Mating Game” and “It Started with a Kiss” (all 1959)
Her Frank Tashlin Films:  “Susan Slept Here” (1954) and “Say One for Me” (1959)

Her Charles Walters Films: “The Tender Trap” (1955) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)

Her Donald Losby Films: "The Mating Game" (1959) and "How Sweet It Is!" (1968).  Losby, a popular child actor, plays Debbie's little brother in "The Mating Game" and her teenage son in "How Sweet It Is!"

Her Films Based on Plays: “The Tender Trap” and “Hit the Deck” (1955), “This Happy Feeling” (1958), “The Gazebo” (1959),  “The Rat Race” (1960),  “The Pleasure of His Company”  (1961), “Mary, Mary” (1963), “Goodbye Charlie” (1964) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)
Her Misguided Attempt at Being Groovy: "How Sweet It Is!" (1968).  The films of the Beat Generation (read: 1960s) weren't welcoming to the stars of the 1950s.  But both Debbie and Doris Day tried to make the leap.  Doris called it quits, moviewise, in 1968 after "With Six, You Get Eggrolls" - which like Debbie's "How Sweet It is!," is an utter embarrassment.  The unsinkable Debbie, however, soldiered on.

Her Two Best TV Movies: “These Old Broads” (2001) “Behind the Candelabra” (2013)

Her Comeback Films: "Mother” (1996) and “In & Out” (1997)

Her Five Best Performances: (1) "The Rat Race" (2) "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (3) "Divorce American Style" (4)  “Behind the Candelabra” (5) "Goodbye Charlie."

Her Flirtation with Camp: "What's the Matter with Helen?" (1971), a delicious mash-up of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "Gypsy," with Shelley Winters in a must-see melt-down. A doozy.

Her Swan Song and Most Amazing Performance: “Behind the Candelabra” (2013)

Her Lost Movies: “This Happy Feeling” (1958), “Say One for Me” (1959), “The Second Time Around” (1960) and “My Six Loves” (1963) - And good luck finding any of them! (“This Happy Feeling” was directed by Blake Edwards, no less. Where is it?)

There are two missed opportunities in Debbie's career - “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Follies.”  Gower Champion, who directed "Birdie" on stage and was initially signed to helm the film version, wanted Reynolds and Jack Lemmon for his leads.  He had worked with both years before - with Debbie on "Give a Girl a Break" and with Jack on "Three for the Show."  Champion quit "Birdie" before it began production and instead went immediately into the delightful "My Six Loves," taking Debbie with him.

Debbie Reynolds and Jack Lemmon never made a film together, as difficult as that is to grasp.  "Birdie" would have been a terrific teaming for them.

As for "Follies," there were rumors in the 1980s that Fox wanted to film the Sondheim musical with Doris Day and Debbie in the roles created on stage by Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins. And how great would have that been?

Finally, here is Debbie in arguably her greatest movie moment - the six-minute "He's My Friend" number from "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," with assist from her "Molly Brown" cast, especially Grover Dale and Gus Trikonis as her dancing movie brothers.  The music is by Meredith Willson and the choreography is by Peter Gennaro and it's just wonderful.


shelly said...

I thought Dick Clark was the eternal teenager, but totally see your point.

Charlotte said...

Joe- Terrific run-down of everything Debbie. A fun read. And useful, too. Thanks!

van said...

Great performance by Debbie in "The Rat Race." Never saw her like that before. I wish she did more drama. She could do it all!

Alex said...

Debbie would have been great in "Bye Bye Birdie" but, like Janet Leigh who played the part, she wasn't right for it. They needed a genuine Latina for the role. Why on earth would anyone think of casting Debbie or Janet in that part?

joe baltake said...

Alex- It was a different time, that's why. Here's what I don't understand. "West Side Story" was released late in 1961. Rita Moreno won her Oscar for it in early 1962, just about the time "Bye Bye Birdie" went into production. Given her recent win, wouldn't Rita have been the obvious choice for the role? Makes sense, both artistically and financially. Chita Rivera, who originateded the role on stage, had no film credentials at the time - but neither did Dick Van Dyke, who went on to recreate his stage role for the film. Yes, it was a different time - sexist and racist, the double whammy. Personally, I would have cast Lemmon and Moreno. But I had no say in the matter.

Brian Lucas said...

Joe- I agree that the makers of "Birdie" did an inexcusable thing hiring Dick Van Dyke while passing over Chita Rivera. Sexism at its worst. But, remember, Van Dyke had an edge at the time: He was doing his sitcom at the time and it turned out to be a big hit. And, I believe, that Janet Leigh who got the role was an old friend of the director, George Sidney. For the life of me, I can't explain why Rita Moreno didn't get the role as she had serious Acadmey Awards cred at the time.

Marvin said...

I was just a bit disappointed, Joe, that in this fabulous article about Debbie Reynolds, you did not mention WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? This is one of my favorite of her dramatic roles (and you did mention some of her dramatic roles). Was this intentional? Do you like the film? I am most curious to hear your take on this.

joe baltake said...

Marvin. I like the film very much - it's a hoot - but I frankly didn't know where to place it within the categories that I created. Yes, it's dramatic but it's also comedic. But which? It's definitely camp. I'll think of a way to incorporate it into the piece. Thanks for alerting me to the omission. -J

joe baltake said...

Marvin: "Helen" haws been added! -J

Marvin said...

Joe, I am so flattered that you made the two changes (albeit minor) to your pieces on Moore and Reynolds! - Marvin

Kiki said...

You give a different view of D. Reynolds who I thought did a great job in Behind the Candelabra but thought any old dame couldn't with a Hollywood CV could have done it. Joe, I never saw/heard of Rat Race, Divorce American Style, and I knew about Molly Brown but didn't see it like I didn't see Yentl or movies like that.