Debbie Reynolds was born in El Paso, Texas in 1932. Her family moved to California and she began her show business career as a teenager. Her first film was “June Bride” in 1948. She became a very popular MGM contract player during the 1950’s and scored a big success with “Singing In the Rain” with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. She went on to make “Tammy and the Batchelor” in 1957, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in 1964 among many others. She is the mother of Carrie Fisher from her marriage to Eddie Fisher. She died in December 2016, just a day after the death of her daughter actress Carrie Fisher.
When Debbie Reynolds, wearing a skimpy pink flapper’s dress, burst out of an enormous cake at a Hollywood party in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), she simultaneously burst into screen stardom. In fact, it was the sixth film appearance of Reynolds, who has died aged 84, but her first starring role. The casting of the inexperienced 19-year-old was a risk taken by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the co-directors of the classic MGM musical about the early days of talkies. The gamble paid off, but not without some sweat and strain.
“There were times when Debbie was more interested in playing the French horn somewhere in the San Fernando Valley or attending a Girl Scout meeting,” Kelly recalled. “She didn’t realise she was a movie star all of a sudden.” Reynolds herself admitted later: “I was so confused. It seemed dumb to me … reporting to the studio at 6am, six days a week and shooting till midnight. I didn’t know anything about show business. “I learned a lot from Gene,” she added. “He is a perfectionist and a disciplinarian – the most exacting director I’ve ever worked for … Every so often, he would yell at me and make me cry. But it took a lot of patience for him to work with someone who had never danced before. It’s amazing that I could keep up with him and Donald O’Connor. This little girl from Burbank sure had a lot of spirit.”
Daughter of Maxene (nee Harmon) and Ray Reynolds, she was born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas. Her father was a railroad mechanic and carpenter, who lost his job at the height of the Great Depression. After living from hand to mouth for a while, the family moved to Burbank, California when her father got a job with the Southern Pacific railroad. While at high school, Reynolds entered and won the Miss Burbank beauty contest. One of the requirements was “talent”, which she fulfilled by lip-syncing to a record of Betty Hutton singing I’m a Square in the Social Circle, which earned her a Warner Bros contract. (It was Jack Warner who gave her the name of Debbie.) But after a bit part in the Bette Davis comedy June Bride (1948), and playing June Haver’s bubbly young sister in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), she took up a contract with MGM, where she flourished, on and off, throughout the 50s and early 60s.
Prior to Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds was noticed, in what amounted to a cameo, lip-syncing I Wanna Be Loved By You to the singer Helen Kane’s voice in Three Little Words (1950). In Two Weeks with Love (1950), as a younger sister again, this time Jane Powell’s, the cute 5 ft 2in Reynolds stopped the show with the 6ft 3in Carleton Carpenter in two numbers: Abba Dabba Honeymoon and Row, Row, Row, with her nifty tap dancing belying her statements of never having danced before Singin’ in the Rain.
Reynolds’s lively opening Charleston number in her breakthrough film has her singing and dancing All I Do Is Dream of You with a dozen other chorus girls; she keeps up brilliantly with Kelly and O’Connor in the cheery matinal greeting Good Mornin’, danced and sung around a living room – even though during some of the more challenging steps, she stands by and lets the two men dance around her – and she is touching in the lyrical duet You Were Meant For Me with Kelly, who switches on coloured lights and a gentle wind machine on a sound stage to create a make-believe atmosphere.
In the plot, a silent screen star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, unforgettable), has a risibly squeaky voice for sound movies and, unknown to the public, is dubbed by Kathy Selden (Reynolds). In reality, however, Debbie’s singing voice was dubbed by the uncredited Betty Noyes, and Hagen herself provided the speaking voice for Debbie, dubbing her on screen because Reynolds was then handicapped by what Donen called “that terrible western noise”.
An effervescent Reynolds went on to star in a series of charming youthful musicals, this time using her own pleasant singing voice. I Love Melvin (1953) was one of the best, with Reynolds paired again with O’Connor. The film opens with A Lady Loves, a musical dream sequence in which Debbie sees herself as a big movie star courted by Robert Taylor. This gives her a chance to be classy, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Later she features in a witty acrobatic number entitled Saturday Afternoon Before the Game in which she is dressed as a ball being tossed around by a football team.
There followed The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Give a Girl a Break (both 1953), Susan Slept Here, Athena (both 1954), Hit the Deck and The Tender Trap (both 1955). In the latter, a romantic comedy, Frank Sinatra is a confirmed bachelor and Reynolds is determined to trap him into marriage. In the same year, 23-year-old Reynolds married the 27-year-old crooner Eddie Fisher. They became the darlings of the fan magazines, and co-starred in Bundle of Joy (1956), a feeble musical remake of the 1939 Ginger Rogers-David Niven comedy, which capitalised on their personalities as a happy young couple and the rumours of her pregnancy. (Reynolds gave birth to a daughter, Carrie, in October 1956.)
Meanwhile with the film musical in a moribund state, Reynolds showed that she could get by in straight acting roles, the first proof being in The Catered Affair (1956), a slice of Hollywood realism, with Reynolds as the daughter of working-class parents (Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine). This failed at the box office, unlike Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), which was one of Reynolds’s greatest successes, the theme song of which (“I hear the cottonwoods whisp’rin’ above, Tammy! Tammy! Tammy’s in love!”) remained high in the hit parade for months. This entertaining piece of whimsy gave Reynolds, as a backwoods girl in love with a wealthy man (Leslie Nielsen), what was an archetypal role – a naive girl thrust into a sophisticated world … and triumphing.
In 1957, Eddie and Debbie were best man and matron of honour at the wedding in Acapulco of Fisher’s lifelong friend the impresario Mike Todd to Elizabeth Taylor. A little over a year later, Todd was killed in a plane crash, and Taylor sought solace in Fisher’s arms, causing a huge Hollywood scandal. Taylor, who had been cast as the Grieving Widow, now found herself in the role of the Vamp, while Reynolds was widely and sympathetically portrayed as the Wronged Woman. However, the outraged moralistic public was unaware that the Fisher-Reynolds marriage was already in tatters, although they continued to play America’s sweethearts in public, mainly because Debbie was pregnant with their son Todd (named after Mike) and they were worried that divorce would damage their popularity ratings. But divorce was inevitable and, on 12 May 1959, Taylor, who had converted to Judaism when she married Todd, married Fisher at a synagogue in Las Vegas.
Despite being the divorced mother of two small children, Reynolds was never more active. In 1959, she was among the top 10 Hollywood box-office stars and appeared four movies that year: The Mating Game, Say One for Me, The Gazebo and It Started With a Kiss. None were world-beaters, but they got by on her effortless charm.
In November 1960, Reynolds married the millionaire shoe-store magnate Harry Karl, and pursued her career with added vigour, though her roles hardly varied, whether she was playing Fred Astaire’s nubile daughter in The Pleasure of His Company or a feisty young widow with two children in The Second Time Around (both 1961) or a pioneer woman in the sprawling Cinerama western How the West Was Won (1962), in which she is the only character who makes it through from the first reel to the last, ageing from 16 to 90.
In The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), for which she was Oscar-nominated, Reynolds throws herself around energetically in the title role of the backwoods girl (shades of Tammy, but with added robustness) who enters high society and survives the Titanic, displaying everything she had learned from past musicals, especially in the dance numbers Belly Up to the Bar, Boys and I Ain’t Down Yet.
After playing a man resurrected as a woman in the tiresome Goodbye Charlie (1964), and the title role in The Singing Nun (1966), the mawkish biopic of the guitar-strumming Belgian nun who composed the hit song Dominique, she finally managed to bid farewell to her ingenue “tomboy” persona and portray a mature adult in Divorce American Style (1967). A rare Hollywood comedy with teeth, it cast Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke against type as a squabbling couple, who utter not a word as they prepare for bed in the best sequence. “That was a really hard part to get,” Reynolds commented. “The producer didn’t want me. He didn’t think I could play an ordinary married woman. I think he thought I had to be all ‘diva’d up’ and in a musical.”
When Reynolds, now in her mid-30s, saw her film career gradually slowing to a virtual halt, she reinvented herself as a cabaret performer, appearing most frequently on stage in Las Vegas. Reynolds also shifted her attention to US television starting with 18 episodes of The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969-70), a sitcom resembling I Love Lucy, in which she played a suburban housewife with ambitions to become a newspaper reporter. She continued to appear regularly on TV for the next four decades. What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971), a campy murder tale set in 1930s Hollywood in which Reynolds and Shelley Winters run a school for budding Shirley Temples, would be her last feature film for 20 years.
By the early 1970s, her marriage to Karl was heading for the rocks, mainly because of his infidelities but also because he had gambled away both their fortunes. Luckily, Reynolds was still bankable and, immediately after her divorce in 1973, she made her Broadway debut in a revival of the 1919 musical hit Irene. The show, which ran for 18 months, gained Reynolds a Tony nomination, and was the first of several stage musicals she would appear in over the years: Annie Get Your Gun, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Woman of the Year among them.Reynolds returned to the big screen in the 90s, where she showed that she had lost none of her comic timing playing a number of sweet-voiced monster mums, having maintained her doll-like looks. These included Albert Brooks’s Mother (1996), her first leading film role for 27 years, In & Out (1997) and Zack and Reba (1998), as well as appearing in 10 episodes of Will and Grace on TV, portraying Grace’s mother, a would-be star whose propensity for breaking out into show tunes and impressions dismays her daughter. Reynolds was also known as Princess Leia’s mother, after Carrie Fisher found fame in the Star Wars movies Aside from performing, Reynolds had many other interests. In 1991, she bought a hotel and casino in Las Vegas, where she displayed part of her extensive collection of vintage Hollywood props, sets and costumes. But after her marriage to the real-estate developer Richard Hamlett ended in 1996, she was forced to declare bankruptcy the following year. She later reopened her museum in Hollywood. Reynolds was also an indefatigable fund-raiser for The Thalians (a charitable organisation that provides mental health services from pediatrics to geriatrics in Los Angeles).
Carrie Fisher died the day before her mother, after a suspected heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles. Reynolds is survived by her son, Todd.
- Debbie Reynolds (Mary Frances Reynolds), actor and singer, born 1 April 1932; died 28 December 2016
Entertainer Debbie Reynolds embodied the cheerful bounce and youthful innocence of the post World War II era, buoying the genre’s goodnatured hokum with her sincere charm and energy. One of a long line of girls-next-door like Doris Day and June Allyson, Reynolds was never as sultry as Day could be, and was more of a showbiz cheerleader and less of a tomboy than either. In her most successful films like “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), she was often cast as a sincere young adult in the throes of puppy love – never the virgin chased by rogues like Day or the placid housewife like Allyson. Her squeaky clean image came in handy when, in the biggest Hollywood scandal of the 1950s, her then-husband, crooner Eddie Fisher, left her and their two children, Carrie and Todd, for sultry screen goddess, Elizabeth Taylor. Not surprisingly, the public was more than on Reynolds’ side as the jilted wife. Once that furor died down, Reynolds was left to reinvent herself. In the late 1960s, when new sexual mores suddenly rendered the docile suburban female image a thing of the past, Reynolds shifted her focus to nightclub and theatrical stages. She was absent from the big screen for decades but settled into a comfortable presence in the American fabric by returning to film in the 1990s with funny mom roles in films like “Mother” (1996) and “In and Out” (1997) and hysterical guest appearances as the over-the-top mother of Grace Adler (Debra Messing) on “Will & Grace” (NBC, 1998-2006). Reynolds brought both self-mocking and nostalgia to these and other well-received comedic outings, using her persona as a perennially perky throwback to mine genuine laughs well into her 70s.
Mary Frances Reynolds was born in El Paso, TX, on April 1, 1932. Her railroad worker father moved the family to Southern California when Reynolds was young, and growing up in Burbank, Reynolds performed with the town symphony and was active in school plays. When she was 16, she was crowned Miss Burbank in a beauty contest and subsequently MGM and Warner Bros. courted her for a movie contract. The latter won out, but Reynolds mostly treaded water there for two years, playing only a modest part in “The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady” (1950). She moved to MGM in 1950 and made an instant impression in small roles in her first two films, impersonating 1920s “boop-oop-a-doop” singer Helen Kane in the biopic “Three Little Words” (195) and teaming with equally cute boy-next-door Carleton Carpenter in “Two Weeks with Love” (1950), which included a high-speed rendition of the novelty song “Aba Daba Honeymoon” that hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts. The studio and directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen responded by casting her in a leading role, complete with star billing, in the brilliant musical, “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). Her pleasant alto sold several old-time song standards and Reynolds, not a trained hoofer, literally danced her feet raw to keep up buoyantly onscreen with Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Best of all, her acting conveyed the sincerity of the aspiring neophyte that was both the role and the performer. Just like her role in “Singin’ in the Rain,” a star was born.
During her tenure at MGM, Reynolds performed primarily in musicals; none of which approached the landmark status of her first big success. The underrated “Give a Girl a Break” (1953) was full of ideas and energy, but as was typical of MGM and the studio system, “Athena” (1954) and “Hit the Deck” (1955) were too formulaic. The lively and playful comedienne overdid the teen boisterousness in “Susan Slept Here” (1954) but had a more successful foray into romantic comedy with “The Tender Trap” (1955). A standout was her most sober film of the period – one of only two or three dramas she ever acted in – “A Catered Affair” (1956), where Reynolds provided tender and quietly touching work that her sis-boom-ba roles rarely called upon. As the studio system disintegrated, Reynolds turned to freelancing, enjoying a big hit with “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957), whose theme song, the highly sentimental but equally memorable “Tammy,” gave Reynolds a second smash hit single (five weeks at No. 1). The film also marked one of the occasional “country girl” roles which she would also play in “The Mating Game” (1958). Reynolds had begun appearing on TV by this time, and was a semi-regular on “The Eddie Fisher Show” (NBC, 1953-57), starring the popular crooner Reynolds had wed in 1955. Together, Reynolds and Fisher were second only to Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as “America’s Sweethearts.”
The first of several unsuccessful marriages showed its sour side in 1958, when Fisher announced that he was leaving Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, the widow of his recently deceased best friend, producer Mike Todd, who had perished in a plane crash. The attendant public sympathy for Reynolds – now a single mother of two – meshed well with her wholesome screen persona, which had fully matured by the time of “This Happy Feeling” (1958). At the time of the scandal of all scandals, Reynolds ranked as one of the top ten box office stars in both 1959 and 1960. In 1962, she joined the all-star cast of the Oscar-nominated epic “How the West Was Won” and two years later starred in the screen adaptation of the aptly titled musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964), one of her best vehicles, and one which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Raising her two children, future director Todd Fisher and future actress and author Carrie Fisher, kept Reynolds busy; her screen career, which relied to some extent on her youthful, girlish qualities, slowly began to decline. Worse, the new frankness in films began to date her image. When she finally did try a Doris Day-style sex farce with “Divorce American Style” (1967) and “How Sweet It Is” (1968), even that vogue was waning. A few TV spots and a first try at a series, “The Debbie Reynolds Show/Debbie” (NBC, 1969-1970) did little to stem the tide. Her last feature acting for over 20 years, though, was striking. “What’s the Matter with Helen?” (1971), a late entry in the often unpleasant “aging female star” horror subgenre, was redeemed by a very offbeat story, Curtis Harrington’s directorial flair, and fine acting.
Effectively out of films before age 40, Reynolds enjoyed smash success on Broadway with a revival of the old musical chestnut “Irene” in 1973, played the London Palladium in a 1975 revue, and polished to a lively sparkle the nightclub talent she had first tested earlier in her career. Live performing kept Reynolds busiest for the next 20 years, though she occasionally surfaced in a the recurring role of the title character’s acerbic mother on the sitcom “Alice” (CBS, 1976-1985) and did likewise on “Jennifer Slept Here” (NBC, 1983-84). She tried her hand at helming another series with the unsuccessful “Aloha Paradise” (ABC, 1981), a “Fantasy Island/Love Boat” rip-off with Reynolds as a female Ricardo Montalban, and enjoyed a feisty role as a woman cop teamed with her son in the TV movie, “Sadie and Son” (CBS, 1987). She also basked in the boom of nostalgia for her studio heyday when she purchased a Las Vegas hotel and casino and added a Hollywood Movie Museum packed with the memorabilia she had been collecting for decades. The largest collection of its kind in the world, Reynolds’ memorabilia included over 40,000 costumes including Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in her infamous 1952 LIFE magazine photo spread. Ever the hard worker, Reynolds performed constantly at her own hotel’s nightclub to make the enterprise fly, and her love of the work and her finely honed presence kept her venture afloat.
After being known for decades as “the mother of Princess Leia” after daughter Carrie struck iconic status with her role in “Star Wars” (1977), Reynolds blithely withstood gossip surrounding her daughter’s 1987 novel, Postcards from the Edge when wags assumed it was actually about their actual relationship. Even Mike Nichols’ 1990 film version made the mother into something of a attention-craving gorgon. Fisher always said it was an homage to her mother, not an exact portrait of their sometimes strained relationship. The ensuing decade saw Reynolds own return to the big screen, first in Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth” (1993). Her renaissance really began when, at her daughter’s suggestion, Albert Brooks cast Reynolds in the title role of his critically acclaimed “Mother” (1996). Reynolds received raves for her rich characterization of a sunny and loving but subtly disapproving and forbidding parent. The widespread attention she received helped pave the way for her casting as Kevin Kline’s mother in “In and Out” (1997). The following year, she starred as a magical matriarch in the Disney Channel Original Movie “Halloweentown” (1998) and went on to make regular guest appearances on the hit sitcom “Will & Grace” as Grace’s highly critical entertainer mother. She worked steadily as a voice actor in family fare, including “The Rugrats” (Nickelodeon, 1991-2004) and “Kim Possible” (Disney Channel, 2002-07) and well past the normal retirement age, Reynolds maintained a busy stage schedule as a song and dance gal on the casino and resort circuit.