American GIRL

If you haven’t had a chance to see the recent HBO documentary about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, Bright Lights, be sure to queue up at your local library or home video venue when it becomes available. Completed before their deaths in December, the documentary is both funny and touching in equal doses.

Originally designed as a tribute to Reynolds’ career, the show ultimately focuses, more than anything else, on the relationship between mother and daughter, who lived next door to each other for the last years of their lives. While touching briefly but significantly on each of their rather spectacular careers, Bright Lights is really about their mutual dependence on and devotion to one another.

The movie concludes with Carrie presenting her mom the 2015 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Lifetime Achievement Award. Though somewhat frail, the 83-year-old entertainer-of-all-trades still managed to exude the familiar charm that had endeared her to generations of viewers, referring specifically to only two films from her career — Singin’ in the Rain (her breakthrough) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (her favorite). After watching Bright Lights, I felt compelled to revisit those two as well as a third, lesser-known entry in the Debbie Reynolds canon — 1971’s What’s the Matter with Helen? All of them are well worth the time.

Watching Singin’ in the Rain for the fourth or fifth time, I  thought what an absolute surprise young Debbie must have been to audiences in 1952. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were well-known, but at 19 years old, Reynolds was a newcomer, selected over established stars like Leslie Caron, Jane Powell, Judy Garland and others — despite the fact that she wasn’t really a dancer.

Kelly, who directed the dance numbers, was a severe taskmaster, but the teenager proved to be a more than capable pupil, quite literally dancing until her feet bled. Kelly later said that “she was a great copyist, and she could pick up the most complicated routine without too much difficulty … at the university of hard work and pain.” Perky and pretty, Debbie looks older than 19, though her continued youthful looks would later allow her to play roles younger than her years.

Though today often cited as the best Hollywood musical ever, Singin’ in the Rain got only two Oscar nods at the time — for Best Music and Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen). In the American Film Institute’s 2007 List of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, it came in fifth — behind Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca and Raging Bull. With Singin’ in the Rain, Debbie Reynolds became a star.

A dozen years and 24 major films later, the busy actress scored her only Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, based on the Broadway musical by Meredith The Music Man Willson. Though not director Charles Walters’ first choice (he wanted Shirley MacLaine), Reynolds eventually won over both him and audiences. In hindsight, though, the film is not as good as it should have been.

Based on the real-life eponymous survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, the film itself mostly sinks after the first half, despite the star’s spirited performance. The main problem is that the filmmakers inexplicably dropped all but five of the Broadway production’s 17 original music productions, effectively turning the second half into a dramedy rather than a musical. True, the traditional Hollywood musical gasped its last toward the end of the decade, but 1964 was also the year of Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, with ’65’s The Sound of Music waiting in the wings.

As it is, Molly Brown is best when Debbie Reynolds is singing and dancing or when Harve Presnell (in his film debut) is belting his impressive baritone. The gorgeous cinematography is also a real plus; many of the exteriors were filmed in Gunnison National Park’s Black Canyon in western Colorado.

Seven years, four major films and one TV series on, Debbie Reynolds was paired with Shelley Winters in Curtis Harrington’s What’s the Matter with Helen? Following the basic template of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the film is about two middle-aged women who move to California to start a new life after their sons are convicted of a heinous murder back East. Adelle (Reynolds) sets up a dance studio for aspiring child stars, giving Reynolds a chance to show her own moves. Wacky Helen (Winters), already something of a basketcase, continues a predictable descent into madness.

Set in early ’30s Hollywood, the movie is a delightful evocation of the Shirley Temple era, with Agnes Moorehead doing a nice turn as an Aimee Semple McPherson-type and Dennis Weaver as Adelle’s rich Texas boyfriend. It’s not Singin’ in the Rain, but What’s the Matter with Helen? is still a showcase for the talented Miss Reynolds, one of Hollywood’s true Bright Lights.

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