As if the death of actress Carrie Fisher at the age of 60 were not bad enough, to then learn that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died a day later was even more of a shock. Michael Darvell looks back at the career of one of Hollywood’s unforgettable legends…
It was probably the effect that the death of daughter Carrie had on mother Debbie Reynolds that brought about the stroke that the 84-year-old actress suffered on 28 December. Her dying words were that she wanted to be with Carrie and so Debbie’s wish was granted in one of the most bizarre incidences to come out of Hollywood.
Carrie was taken ill on a return flight from the UK, where she had been promoting her new book and her return to the Star Wars franchise. She suffered a heart attack and died in hospital and then 24 hours later her mother also died.
Debbie Reynolds was one of the last surviving stars towards the end of the golden period in Hollywood’s history. Born in 1932 in El Paso, Texas, to Ray Reynolds, a railroad carpenter and his wife Maxene, Debbie won a beauty contest at age 16 when she impersonated the actress Betty Hutton, a talent for mimicry that she developed and used later in her cabaret act. She entered films in 1948 in an uncredited role as a wedding guest in June Bride, the Warner Bros comedy with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery.
The budding singer-actress began her career at a time when movie musicals were still popular with film fans. She had a more substantial role in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady, a musical starring June Haver, and was then put under contract to MGM where, in 1950, she played Helen Kane (miming to the singer’s recording of ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’) in Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen.
She was also in Two Weeks with Love with Jane Powell and Ricardo Montalban, and You Belong to My Heart with Lana Turner and Ezio Pinza, before co-starring in the film that would make her name, Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Singin’ in the Rain was a cut above most of the MGM musicals of the time. It had a witty screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green which satirised the Hollywood of the late 1920s when silent movies became talking pictures. Debbie Reynolds played Kathy Selden opposite Gene Kelly as matinee idol Don Lockwood and Donald O’Connor as studio musician Cosmo Brown.
The plot hinges on the fact that Don’s leading lady, one Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), looked fine in silent pictures but had no voice for the talkies. Not only is Singin’ in the Rain a marvellous entertainment with some great songs by lyricist and the film’s producer Arthur Freed, but also one of the best films about how movies are made. In the film Debbie as Kathy Selden dubs for Lina Lamont, but ironically she herself was dubbed by Betty Noyes for Lina’s song ‘Would You?’.
If Debbie rarely appeared in big box office successes, her films were popular enough to keep her career ticking over and she remained a welcome addition to most projects which at the time were often light-hearted musicals. She was good in I Love Melvin with Carleton Carpenter, followed by The Affairs of Dobie Gillis with Bobby Van, Give a Girl a Break with Marge and Gower Champion, Susan Slept Here with Dick Powell, Athena with Jane Powell and Edmund Purdom, and Hit the Deck with Jane Powell again and Tony Martin.
As the musicals dried up, comedy then provided work for Debbie in The Tender Trap with Frank Sinatra, The Catered Affair with Bette Davis and Bundle of Joy with Eddie Fisher who had married Debbie and fathered daughter Carrie and son Todd. Debbie had a hit record, the title song from Tammy (1957), and she carried on making films such as The Mating Game, the US version of H.E. Bates’ Darling Buds of May stories, The Rat Race with Tony Curtis, The Pleasure of His Company with Fred Astaire, and John Ford’s epic How the West Was Won. Debbie sang and danced up a storm in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Meredith Willson’s musical which garnered six Academy Award nominations including Best Actress in a Leading Role for Debbie.
After The Singing Nun, Divorce American Style and How Sweet It Is! television called and Debbie had her own series (1970). After that she made some stage appearances in the musicals Irene, Annie Get Your Gun, Woman of the Year and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, as well her own cabaret show and some recording work.
Back on television she appeared on a number of US TV shows including The Love Boat, Hotel, Perry Mason, The Golden Girls, Roseanne, Wings, Rugrats, Will and Grace etc, with the occasional cinema film such as Mother with Albert Brooks, In and Out with Kevin Kline and These Old Broads (2001), a TV movie about a reunion for some oldtime movie actresses, co-written by Carrie Fisher and starring Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor alongside Debbie.
By then Debbie had forgiven Liz Taylor for pinching Eddie Fisher after the death of Liz’s husband Mike Todd. Debbie had also married Harry Karl, a shoe magnate, and Richard Hamlett, a real estate agent, both ending in divorce.
Debbie’s final film was Behind the Candelabra in which she played Liberace’s mother opposite Michael Douglas. Made for TV by HBO, it was eventually released to cinemas.
However, the cute little girl from Texas who claimed she couldn’t dance until Gene Kelly put her through her paces for Singin’ in the Rain, will always be remembered for being a bright young talent who subsequently became a huge star and one that stayed the course for over 60 as a Hollywood icon.
She was also a collector of movie costumes, props and sets and created her own Hollywood museum of memorabilia which, alongside Debbie Reynolds herself, will never be forgotten. Sadly, one of the last real movie stars has been laid to rest beside her own daughter.
Debbie Reynolds: 1 April 1932-28 December 2016 – R.I.P.