There Could Be No ‘Artist,’ No ‘La La Land’ Without Debbie Reynolds

A critical appreciation of the 'unsinkable' star, whose 'Singin' in the Rain' was the great (if underappreciated in 1952) Hollywood-plays-itself movie that made a string of future Oscar winners possible.

Debbie Reynolds
Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock

In “Singin’ in the Rain,” Debbie Reynolds plays a reluctant ingénue, drawn into “the pictures” after Gene Kelly, playing a silent-era matinee idol trying to escape a mob of autograph-seeking kids, hops into her open-top convertible. It wasn’t Reynolds’ first movie, but it was by far her biggest break — much as “Star Wars” was for her daughter, Carrie Fisher, when she was 19 — and it provided America with a charmed backstory for her subsequent stardom.

Today, it’s plain to see that “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the great screen musicals of all time (many believe the best), but it certainly wasn’t embraced as such in 1952. Heck, it wasn’t even made in that spirit, coming through the MGM pipeline like so much sausage, in much the way that “Casablanca” was a miracle of a steady backlot production model at Warner Bros. — though in that film’s case, it was almost instantly rewarded with Oscars. “Singin’ in the Rain,” on the other hand, was conceived as a vehicle to recycle a number of old Arthur Freed songs, its scenario reverse-engineered to accommodate a number of tunes written by the MGM producer-lyricist who, like star Gene Kelly, was coming off 1951’s hit musical “An American in Paris.”

But time has invested “Singin’ in the Rain” with a significance lost upon audiences at the time: As a portrait of Hollywood at the moment the industry switched from silent to sound cinema, it not only justified the jukebox use of old standards, but offered an upbeat record of that important transition. In 1952, the movie’s bubbly spirit was incongruous with such cynical Hollywood self-portraits as “All About Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard” (which came out two years earlier) or “The Bad and the Beautiful” (released later that year), flying in the face of the film noir aesthetic of the era. And yet, it’s easily the most delightful Hollywood-plays-itself movie ever made, thanks in no small part to the purity of Reynolds’ performance.

The irony, if you go back and watch “Singin’ in the Rain” today, is that the movie represents all those things that are used to justify heaping Oscars on lesser achievements today: While undeniably adorable, silent film homage “The Artist” is a blatant rip-off of the movie, minus the songs, and leading man Jean Dujardin earned his best actor statue for delivering an extended Gene Kelly impersonation (whereas Kelly went to his grave unrewarded). This year, much has been written about “La La Land” and how improbable it is that an old-fashioned musical could be made in the current industry climate, but put it side-by-side with “Singin’ in the Rain,” and neither the song, dance, nor romance can hold a candle — though Reynolds’ passing could be a key factor in its continued appreciation.

Reynolds would be the first to admit (as she does in forthcoming HBO documentary “Bright Lights,” about the bizarre relationship she and her daughter shared until the end) that she wasn’t a natural-born singer. Voted Miss Burbank in 1948, Reynolds had been anointed by the powers that be at MGM and gifted the role of Kathy Selden in “Singin’ in the Rain,” and because she couldn’t dance worth a darn, Kelly took it upon himself to train her, much as he had Leslie Caron for “An American in Paris.”

Reynolds would never be as great a dancer as her teacher (no one would, as Kelly truly was the greatest Hollywood ever produced), but “Singin’ in the Rain” launched her career in that direction, keeping her busy with a string of starring roles in such comedy-musicals as “Give a Girl a Break” and “The Singing Nun,” until such time as she landed her juiciest role, that of the eponymous Titanic survivor in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” — providing the musical backstory of the same character Kathy Bates later played in “Titanic.” Reynolds is a tornado of energy and ambition in the movie — and an early female role model in a still decidedly patriarchal era: Molly Brown is, quite literally, a gold-digger, determined to marry a rich man and rise above her station (we meet her character, as an orphaned infant, riding down the Colorado River rapids), who escapes her white-trash upbringing in order to defy a wealthy rival in the Denver high-society set.

The role deservedly earned Reynolds an Oscar nomination — the only one she ever received, although she would later be rewarded with a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy for her contributions to mental health research (a cause inspired by her daughter, Carrie Fisher, who battled addiction and bipolar disorder). At the height of her fame, Reynolds married the country’s most famous singer, Eddie Fisher, and played her part in what the world believed to be the perfect couple, until such time that her husband left Reynolds for her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, at which point the glamorous relationship became a tabloid scandal. Her children, Todd and Carrie, were quite young at the time, and her next marriage, to millionaire Harry Karl, was all about the money.

Molly Brown would have approved, but it was rough on her kids, especially Carrie, whom Reynolds pressured to perform, convinced that her daughter had been blessed with the gift that had passed her by — namely, Eddie Fisher’s natural singing talent. Carrie couldn’t cope with either her condition or her overbearing mother, spinning their codependent relationship into a novel, which in turn inspired the movie “Postcards from the Edge,” featuring Meryl Streep and Shirley Maclaine as the histrionic pair.

And yet, Reynolds’ greatest role was clearly that of mother, and “Bright Lights” reveals how their dynamic settled into one of mutual love: Reynolds evidently remained demanding till the end, but Fisher held her own, pushing back in order to assert her own needs. Meanwhile, Reynolds continued working until just a few years ago, bringing a version of her real-life persona to Albert Brooks’ “Mother” (by all appearances, though exaggerated for comic effect, the part wasn’t so far removed from the way she behaved toward Carrie) and the NBC series “Will & Grace” (playing Grace’s mom a few years after Carrie’s marriage ended when her husband Bryan Lourd came out as gay), and lending her bubbly energy to various voice roles, most notably the spelling spider in “Charlotte’s Web.”

Though she had participated in Hollywood’s all-time great homage to itself via “Singin’ in the Rain,” Reynolds recognized the irony that the industry in which she worked did little to preserve its own legacy, and she dedicated herself to collecting the artifacts that best represented its golden age. Reynolds was determined that Los Angeles should have a proper film museum, and she used her own modest fortune to acquire Jean Hagen’s green gown from “Singin’ in the Rain,” the iconic white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in “The Seven Year Itch,” and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” — more than 3,500 costumes in all.

When efforts to create a showbiz museum in Los Angeles failed, Reynolds and then-husband Richard Hamlett shifted their attention to Las Vegas, buying the Paddlewheel Hotel in 1992 and building a museum on the premises. But after a few years, the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel went bust — and so did she in 1997, as bankruptcy forced the star to part with her collection. Rather than selling, she tried to gift the collection to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, though then-president Bruce Davis declined (evidently, the bequest came with conditions, including costly climate-controlled storage and demands on how they should be displayed), so she ultimately decided to auction off the costumes instead.

Though Reynolds’ collection has since been scattered to the four winds, the impulse behind it finally caught on, as the Academy moves forward on the creation of a landmark film museum. Reynolds may have left us, but she lived long enough to see one of her greatest causes gain traction.