Born: 1st April 1932

Died: 28th December 2016 (aged 84)

Mary Frances ‘Debbie’ Reynolds was an acting, singing, dancing powerhouse who started her screen career at the age of 16 alongside Bette Davis (although she was uncredited in this role). She went on to star with the likes of Fred Astaire and Lana Turner before starring with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain at 19.

Mary spent the first seven years of her life in El Paso, Texas before her family moved to Burbank, California where, nine years later, she was offered a contract by Warner Brothers after they saw her in the Miss Burbank beauty contest and became ‘Debbie’ Reynolds. Most of her early career was in musicals, even moving to MGM when Warner Brothers stopped making them, she had no formal dance training and effectively learnt ‘on the job’ under the tutelage of Gene Kelly during Singin’ in the Rain.  Although diminutive, most of Ms Reynolds’ roles are feisty young women and larger than her stature would suggest.

Her love life was tumultuous to say the least. Her first marriage to Eddie Fisher, the father of her two children, ended after four years when it was revealed that he had had an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who he married the same year they divorced. Her second marriage was, away from the glitz and glam of Hollywood, to Henry Karl, a millionaire businessman, it lasted thirteen years, and her final marriage was to Richard Hamlet, it lasted twelve years and he turned out to be a con-man.

It is of no surprise thatthe majority of Debbie’s top five are musicals but her top box office film is  How the West Was Won, a western that follows the Prescott family, through three generations, and their search for happiness in the American west. Debbie Reynolds plays the youngest Prescott daughter Lilith (Lily), who her father describes as “a daughter who doesn’t seem quite right in the head” meaning she’s a dreamer who doesn’t follow his ideas and wants to marry a rich man and wear silk. We see her grow to an old woman who has got through the diversity and hardship of the ‘Wild’ West. Her portrayal of the three ‘stages of Lilith’ are very different especially ‘old’ Lilith she has the aged voice and decorum of a woman who has “made and spent three fortunes” with her husband.  But what can’t this woman do? In How the West Was Won she sings, dances and she rides a wagon (although I’m sure the fall from said wagon was a stunt double). Next we have Singin’ in the Rain and this is the first film where she shares top billing with the two main actors and holds her own alongside their talents, quite a feat when you consider one of them is Gene Kelly. Now normally I wouldn’t cover an actor portraying themselves but with her role in Pepe I will make an exception especially as Pepe is a smorgasbord of Hollywood talent of the 50s/60s playing supporting roles to the main story of a Mexican man following his ‘son’ to America. It’s a sweet film and not one star distracts from the main plot. Debbie Reynolds plays, what I can only describe as, a Tequila genie! We know she can dance but here she treats us to a two and a half minute ‘drunk dance’ (when she descends from a Tequila bottle what else would you expect) I was very impressed especially with some of the moves she pulls off. Seven years after starring alongside Gene Kelly, Ms Reynolds played Hollie LaMaise alongside Bing Crosby in Say One for Me. Holly is a feisty young woman who takes an ‘unsuitable’ job to raise money to care for her father. The only problem I have with her role in this film is the soft focus they use in the ‘tender’ moments – why use such a technique with such a beautiful woman, I know it was the norm back in the day but still. Her fifth box office hit is a more modern film (I say more modern it was made in the late 90s but that is more recent than any other in this to five) In & Out is a film that never really took my interest, even with a cast of stars that I like but now I have seen it, I have to say I really enjoyed it. Debbie Reynolds plays Berniece Brackett, mother of the main character, and, although her part is small, she has some funny lines made even better by her delivery.

Although I have a tendency to enjoy most Debbie Reynolds’ films I have seen, especially as most of them have been musicals, my favourite has to be Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor do help with this but what I do like is that Kathy Selden is not the simpering, weak, “I can’t do anything without a man” role that appeared in some films of the time; she is feisty and sure of herself she even belittles Don Lockwood’s (Gene Kelly) acting credentials in the first scene we see her in; her face pulling when she trivialises the silent screen is very funny and accurate. Alright she does fall for the man quite quickly and he does talk for her a lot (he is effectively the main star of the film) but there is still a strong woman to be found within the misogyny of the 1920s.

There are a lot of comparisons that can be draw between Debbie and her daughter, Carrie. They were roughly the same height; they made the films that made their names at the same age; they were both incredibly beautiful (a gene that has obviously been passed down to Carrie’s daughter, Billy Lourd); they both had high profile marriages/relationships and they both played feisty women an attribute that I find admirable in a world where women tend to have the weaker character. 

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