Still Singin' in the Rain
In its halcyon days, M-G-M studios boasted in its publicity releases of having "More stars than there are in heaven." Today, more of those stars are in heaven than not, but a few of those remaining still grace us with their stage and screen appearances, whether it's the unstoppable Angela Lansbury returning to Broadway for the revival of Blithe Spirit or, happily for Seattle audiences, Debbie Reynolds, who'll be singin' in the undoubtedly rainy climate of the Puget Sound as the very special guest headliner of the Seattle Men's Chorus spring concert Singin' ... In The Rain – A Salute to the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals (March 28-29).
Born Mary Frances Reynolds, and rechristened Debbie by Jack L. Warner of Warner Brothers himself, Debbie Reynolds has come a long way from her El Paso, Texas roots. She is an Oscar and Tony award nominee, a multi-million selling recording star for her recordings of "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" and the theme from her film Tammy, a nightclub legend, and a tireless fund raiser for The Thalians (a charitable organization that provides mental health services from pediatrics to geriatrics at The Thalians Community Health Center at Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles). From her first marriage to singer Eddie Fisher, she is the proud mother of a daughter, actress/writer Carrie Fisher, son Todd Fisher, and she is grandmother to Carrie's daughter Billie Catherine. This still spry and lovely performer, now in her seventies, has kept herself in the public eye with continuing film, nightclub and television performances, including a recurring role as Grace's mother on Will and Grace.
How often does one have the pleasure and privilege of ringing up a genuine Hollywood legend for a phone chat on an otherwise nondescript work day? Just about never, but Ms. Reynolds, sounding younger than springtime, put me at ease right away.
Debbie Reynolds: Hello, how are you, sir? How nice of you to do this article.
David-Edward Hughes: So nice of you to make the time for it. Seattle is looking forward to hearing you sing with the SMC.
DR: I'll be there, and my daughter (Carrie Fisher) is coming too! It's hystericalshe does a very good show, Wishful Drinking (at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, April 2-May 3). I didn't know we were going to be in the same place at the same time, and then she said, "Mother, you're gonna do what, when?" I said, I'm gonna go up and sing with the Men's Chorus the end of March, and she said "That's when I'm gonna be there." And, it's my birthday, April 1, April Fool's day, and my son Todd is driving up, so it's going to be a family reunion.
DH: What will you be doing in the show?
DR: Well anything they want me to do! Some of my celebrity impressions, tell some stories, but of course primarily I'll be singing. They have it all laid out, what they have in mind. It's a huge number of singers, and I've never seen them so I am very excited. I'm going to come up, we'll rehearse one day, and then we do two shows. This is an experiment for me as well, since I've never done this sort of show. They're gonna do a lot of songs from my movies, like "Singin' in the Rain." I like that they chose the Hollywood musicals theme and that I'm still alive and can do it. I'm still here!
DH: And are we glad. I don't think I can turn on Turner Classic Movies and not see you lighting up the screen in one of your great films.
DR: Sometimes I like it, and sometimes I don't. Depends on the movie.
DH: Who among you when you were making Singin' In the Rain had any notion it would become the iconic classic and perennial top 10 movie of all time gem that it is revered as today?
DR: I think Gene Kelly did, as he was the creative force. And Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the writers, and Stanley Donen, who worked with Gene. They cast Donald O'Connor, and then I think I was sort of thrust upon the whole thing because I was under contract to M-G-M studios, and Louis B. Mayer told Gene that I was going to be his leading lady, so Gene was kind of stuck with me. He really worked me very hard, which he should have, because I wasn't a trained dancer. Even though I was very much like that little girl in the moviethat's one thing, but it's quite another to be able to dance well enough to be teamed with Gene Kelly. I worked especially hard on that film.
DH: Do you still enjoy seeing it?
DR: I do because I'm fascinated that that's me, and that I lived through it and I could do it. To have been able, for someone who was so young, to keep up with Gene who was so brilliant, and Donald who was so great. I didn't have anyone to turn to except Donald, he was more my buddy. Gene was the creative one; He knew what he wanted and he got it. I was a courageous young talent, and god helped me get through it. I had the background and backbone to get through it. I had blood in my dance shoes. Gene would shoot each take 40 times, and in those days you worked six days a week, and had Sunday to faint. I rehearsed three months just with teachers to be able to be able to start to work with Gene. I had a lot of great teachers, and help, and, no thanks to me, but I am proud to say I was able to keep up. I think it is a great picture and I'm proud that it lasted all these years, and it seems to work for every generation, because it's a spoof. It's oh so corny, and corny still works. It's a great musical, with great numbers.
DH: In a career of great films, and several great musicals, I know that The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which you earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, has to be one of your special favorites.
DR: It was a great role and I had to work very hard to get it, but I finally did. I worked really, really hard on it, and I think it suited my talents. I love how it turned out. We all did a good job, and I'm proud of it.
DH: I was fortunate enough to see you and your "Johnny Brown," Harve Presnell, reteamed in the late '70s when the two of you did Gower Champion's amazing staging of Annie Get Your Gun in Los Angeles.
DR: I thought it was a great show too. I should have taken it on to Broadway. I just don't really remember why I didn't, but it was stupid not to have. It was a whole new Annie, and Gower did it especially for me, and it was a great production. I'm so glad you got to see it. Very few people did.
DH: After movie musicals fell out of fashion, you didn't disappear from the screen like so many of your contemporaries. I recently caught a wonderful comedic role you did in the film Divorce American Style from 1967, and that holds up really well.
DR: That was a really hard part to get. The producer (Norman Lear) didn't want me. He didn't think I could play a married, ordinary woman. I think he thought I had to be all "diva'd up" and in a musical. And yet I really wanted to do it, and I knew I could do it. I kept auditioning for it and finally they let me do it. And I thought I was good in that. We all had a good time doing it. And I think Norman Lear liked me in it, after it was all done.
DH: And then you were in the epic Cinerama western classic, How the West Was Won, in which your character is the only one who makes it through from the first reel to the last. It looks great in the new restored version with the split lines from the Cinerama process removed. Is that another favorite film?
DR: It's a great movie. Henry Hathaway, the director, liked me and kept giving me more and more to do. Every day I'd come to the set and there would be more. I worked on that picture for about a year. Going from a 16-year-old to a 90-year-old, a young girl to a grandmother.
DH: An earlier non-musical film of yours comes to mind, in part because it was recently musicalizedThe Catered Affair, in which you played the daughter of the inimitable Bette Davis.
DR: She would take me in her dressing room and say: (Reynolds doing a spot on Davis impression) "Don't do the scene like that! Do it like this!" She'd read the scenes with me and help me out, and Borgnine was great. Everyone was wonderful on that picture.
DH: Did you get to see the musical?
DR: I did, when it was in San Diego. I drove to see it, with George Furth. I enjoyed it, enjoyed Harvey. It was a hard subject to make into a musical.
DH: Who amongst your fellow M-G-M cohorts did you remain close to after the studio system ceased to function as it did in its heyday?
DR: Well, Agnes Moorehead, Carroll Baker, Leslie Caron, Esther Williams. Ann Miller was absolutely one of my best friends. We'd go to dinner, Esther also. Annie loved to go to luncheons and all that. I'm not really a big luncheon person, not one of the ladies who lunch, not my cup of tea. Ricardo Montalban was also a great friend of mine. I'd say those were my good buddies.
DH: Since the early 1970s, I know your museum of Hollywood memorabilia has been an ongoing passion, through several incarnations. What is the latest on its status?
DR: We're in flux again now, due to the recession. We're in Pidgeon Forge, Tennessee, which is right up from Dolly Parton's Dollywood Park. It's all built but not occupied yet. The developer has put it on hold for now, to see if they can come up with a new interested partner in getting it finalized. We were ready to ship out all the costumes and everything, ready to occupy. My collection is still intact. I am just on watch, and on guard and hoping it can still happen, but in this recession nobody knows. We're praying that it can be finished. We've put a lot of years into it. Millions of dollars. I hope I'm able to achieve this last big endeavor. We'll just have to wait and see. My son Todd Fisher and I are working on it together. He's made some twenty-odd trips there, and he's flying down next week. Tennessee is not right next door. We wanted to do it in Hollywood, but they don't seem to want it, so we went to Tennessee, because Dollywood is all ready there and it's proven. But we're still working on it.
DH: What was that line they used to describe the movie That's Entertainment? Boy, do we need it now.
DR: We do, we need a lift!
DH: It's been wonderful to talk to you today, Ms. Reynolds. One last comment. If indeed a film version of Sondheim and Goldman's Follies were to come to fruition, I can't think of anyone in Hollywood more ideally suited to sing "I'm Still Here" on celluloid.
DR: I think it's a great idea; I'll have to call Stephen Sondheim. I do it as my opening in my nightclub act. I'm going into the Café Carlyle in June and that's my opening.
DH: Well, Seattle is glad you're still here, and we can't wait to see you.
DR: You're sweet to do the article. Come backstage and say hello!