While Debbie Reynolds was best known as a Hollywood singing and dancing icon — from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” — she also made a strong impression in children’s programming. She voiced a grandmother in Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats,” and took on similar roles in Disney Channel’s “Kim Possible” and “Halloweentown.” But to me, nothing compares to her aching and wistful performance as the star of Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 animated “Charlotte’s Web.”
The movie, the first adaptation of E.B. White’s beloved children’s novel, was met with lukewarm ticket sales, but received a renaissance in the ’90s thanks to its hugely popular VHS edition.
I must have been in the first grade when I got to know Reynolds — before I’d ever heard about her. As interpreted by Reynolds, Charlotte is everything the book character is and more: wise, maternal, sassy, didactic and endlessly protective of Wilbur the pig. Plus, she’s a hell of a singer. It’s such a masterful portrait, every time I’ve read the story since then, I always hear Reynolds’ soothing cadence.
Joe Barbera later revealed that Reynolds was such a fan of the book, she offered to play the part for free. And her work paved the way for Julia Roberts as Charlotte in a live-action remake, released in 2006.
Yet, for all its charms, the 1973 “Charlotte’s Web” was a painful production that almost didn’t make it. White, who resisted selling his book to Disney, protested about all the musical numbers. In 2003, illustrator Gene Deitch (“Popeye”) published his collection of letters from the distressed author.
“In writing of a spider, I did not make the spider adapt her ways to my scheme,” White wrote. “I spent a year studying spiders before I ever started writing the book. In this, I think I found the key to the story. I hope you will, in your own medium, be true to Charlotte and to nature in general.” (White also added, quite comically: “My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney’s.”)
With the news of Reynolds’ death at 84 on Wednesday, I went back and revisited the movie. Here’s my favorite song: Reynolds singing “Chin Up” — a rah-rah anthem that you could imagine her belting out in one of her live musicals.
And here’s the scene that always made me bawl as a kid. On her deathbed, Charlotte explains to Wilbur the importance of friendship. “After all, what’s a life anyway?” she says. “We’re born, we live a little while and we die.” Then she sings herself to sleep with a melancholy lullaby: “How very special are we/for just a moment to be/part of life’s eternal rhyme.”