Monday, March 17, 2014

cinema obscura: two with Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds, who one wag aptly called Hollywood's eternal teenager, has had a remarkable screen career but much like a peer from the same era, Doris Day, she has rarely received the credit she deserves.

She has a whopping 83 acting credits, starting with an uncredited bit in 1948's "June Bride," but is perhaps largely known for roles in two Metro musicals - Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's iconic "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), her sixth film, and Charles Walters' "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964), a mid-career hit which brought Reynolds her only Oscar nomination, very well-deserved. She's terrific; the film isn't.

For reasons that I cannot quite pinpoint, I'm fascinated by a five-year period in her career - 1959 through 1964 - when Reynolds churned out 12 films, including "Molly Brown" and the all-star Cinerama Western, "How the West Was Won" (1962), directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall.  But, for me, it's the other ten, more modest titles that truly fascinate, because so many have been so difficult to see for so long.

In 1959, Reynolds appeared in no fewer than four films - the Frank Tashlin-directed "Say One for Me" and three (count 'em) three directed by the aforementioned Marshall,  "The Mating Game," co-starring Tony Randall, and "The Gazebo" and "It Started with a Kiss," both with Glenn Ford, with whom she was romantically linked at the time.

Tony Curtis was her co-star in two vastly different films from this period - Robert Mulligan's tough-edged "The Rat Race" (1960), based on the Garson Kanin play, and Vincente Minnelli's antic "Goodbye, Charlie!" (1964), from the popular stage comedy by George Axelrod.

Mervyn LeRoy's "Mary, Mary," based on the Jean Kerr stage hit and just recently made available on DVD by Warner Archives, was one of two Reynolds movies released in 1963.  The other, still almost impossible to see, is Gower Champion's incredibly charming "My Six Loves," in which Reynolds plays an exhausted Broadway star whose attempt at a little R&R in the country is unsettled by a family of squatters, six orphaned children.

What may sound like sitcom hell on paper is much more in performance, thanks to Champion's nimble direction and eye for casting.  Reynolds' polar-opposite leading men here are David Janssen as a smooth New York dandy (named Marty Bliss, no less) and Cliff Robertson as a local pastor, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Eileen Heckart, Hans Conreid, Alice Ghostley, John McGiver, Alice Pearce, Pippa Scott and the particularly hilarious Max Showalter and Mary McCarty as the kids' slovenly foster parents (who develop dollar signs in their eyes when they see that they're dealing with a big Broadway star in a big Connecticut house).

"My Six Loves" was Champion's debut film as a director.  He was on the rebound.  Champion was supposed to make his directorial debut the same year with Columbia's "Bye, Bye Birdie," which he of course directed to some acclaim on Broadway.  In fact, he had planned to make it with Reynolds (who had appeared with him years before in Donen's "Give a Girl a Break") and Jack Lemmon (his co-star from "Three for the Show").  But creative differences over the script for "Birdie" caused him to bolt and he landed at Paramount with Reynolds in tow to do "My Six Loves." (George Sidney ended up directing "Birdie" - aka, "Ann-Margaret in Concert").

There's another, earlier Paramount film that Reynolds' made during this period which also seems to be lost.  In 1961, she made Vincent Sherman's "The Second Time Around," for Fox (and now available on DVD by Fox Cinema Archives), and Paramount's "The Pleasure of His Company," George Seaton's film version of the play by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Samuel Taylor about a long-lost father who disrupts the Napa-based wedding of his debutante daughter, much to her delight and chagrin.

Fred Astaire and Reynolds played the father-daughter roles that were essayed on stage by Cyril Richard and Dolores Hart.  Tab Hunter had the role of the groom, performed on stage by George Peppard. And Lili Palmer is the estranged wife, a part that Skinner herself limned on Broadway.

"The Pleasure of His Company" is very much a filmed New York play, urbane and talky - a good thing - and it benefits from the casual chemistry shared by Reynolds and Astaire who, at the time, was diving into straight acting roles and with some success ("On the Beach" and "The Notorious Landlady").  Both it and "My Six Loves" should be out there for us enjoy.


wwolfe said...

TCM has shown "The Pleasure of His Company" at least once, because I stayed up late to watch it. What I saw was very enjoyable, but I confess I fell asleep about halfway through. (This is a comment on my early rising time for work, not the quality of the movie.)

I've started buying more current, or relatively recent, movies on DVD over the past few years, in part due to reading your Cinema Obscura feature. It's made me realize how quickly, and completely, movies can disappear - even those made by big companies with well-known stars.

jbryant said...

From that period of Reynolds' career, I particularly like The Gazebo (or, in the two-syllable pronunciation of John McGiver's character GAZE-bo).

The Rat Race awaits in my Netflix Instant queue.

Alex said...

Curtis and Reynolds in a Minnelli. I really have to revisit "Goodbye Charlie," a film I forgot about.