Top Ten Debbie Reynolds Films
Debbie Reynolds, adorable, mischievous, and uncommonly likeable, she’s the kind of girl you’d want to be friends with (or possibly bring home to mother). A girl next door with a spirited core, Debbie never seemed like the kind of girl who could be pushed around. She’s a youthful ingenue with an intense inner strength and an often impish sense of humor. Not to mention being a talented musical comedy star, she, also, brought an earnest sincerity to each of her roles, no matter what the genre.
Debbie’s boundless energy and undeniable flair for comedy allowed her to remain a recognizable and beloved presence in the entertainment industry for over 70 years. (Surprising for an actress originally known for playing young innocents). Debbie was still making frequent appearances on the big and small screen well into her 70s, often appearing in memorable character roles, such as Grace’s hilariously flamboyant mother, Bobbi Adler, on the successful TV show, Will and Grace. Although she began to focus more on her voice-over work in her later years, she, eventually, made her final onscreen appearance in the 2013 Liberace bio-pic Behind The Candelabra. So, if you're not yet familiar with the work of this vivacious star, it is, definitely, time to fix that.
FYI: I chose the order of my Debbie Reynolds top ten by considering each film's importance in Debbie’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Debbie Reynolds film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" (1952) -
Considered by many to be the greatest movie musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain is, certainly, the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory. Set in the 1920’s during the film industry’s awkward transition to sound, the film stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, one half of successful screen duo, Lockwood and Lamont. Although Don is well equipped to make the transition from silent film to sound, his leading lady, Lina Lamont (played by a brilliant Jean Hagen), has a voice that could shatter glass. Now forced to jump on the sound bandwagon, the studio has to figure out how to release a Lockwood and Lamont talkie without ruining the stars' careers. Then Don meets Kathy Seldon (played by Debbie), an aspiring actress who manages to charm and insult him so thoroughly over the course of one evening that he can’t seem to forget her. When he, finally, runs across the feisty Kathy again, Don soon realizes she might just be the key to saving "Lockwood and Lamont". Without a doubt, Singin’ in the Rain is the film that Debbie is best remembered for and there's good reason for it. Written around the songbook of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, the film’s meticulously researched script is just as strong as its classic score (complete with loving winks to the more ridiculous aspects of 1920’s Hollywood). And of course, Debbie is utterly charming as Kathy, while, also, managing to hold her own in the film's complicated dance sequences (despite her lack of dance training at the time). In fact, she worked so hard while filming the famous “Good Morning” number, her feet bled. But, the final sequence looks so effortless, you'd never know it.
2. "TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR" (1957) -
Based on the book, Tammy Out of Time by Cid Ricketts Sumner, this sweet romantic comedy stars Debbie opposite a dashing Pre-Naked Gun, Leslie Nielson. (This being before his famous turn in Airplane changed the trajectory of his career). Tammy and the Bachelor tells the story of Tambrey “Tammy” Tyree (Debbie), a spunky country girl raised by her grandfather (and formerly her grandmother) on a houseboat in Louisiana. Tammy lives a relatively sheltered and simple life until a private plane crashes near her home. Tammy and her grandpa rescue the injured pilot (Nielson) and nurse him back to health. When Pete (the pilot) is, finally, well enough to go home, Tammy is heartbroken to see the handsome young man leave. But before leaving, Pete offers Tammy a place to stay at his family’s estate should anything ever happen to her grandfather. So, when Grandpa is arrested for making moonshine shortly afterwards, Tammy is sent to Pete’s home (along with her pet goat). Only Pete’s house is much larger than Tammy expected and his family much more well-to-do. So, it doesn’t take this little country girl long to realize that she sticks out like a sore thumb amidst Pete’s sophisticated world of Southern high society. Extremely popular when it was first released, Tammy spawned two sequels and a television series. The song “Tammy” that Debbie sings in the film was nominated for an Oscar and won Debbie a gold record. And, of course, Debbie carries this film with an irresistibly adorable performance as the titular Tammy, an innocent country girl who may have more to offer than others give her credit for.
3. "THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN" (1964) -
In her first and only Academy Award nominated performance, Debbie is bursting with energy as the titular Molly Brown in this Meredith Wilson musical (Wilson was, also, the composer of The Music Man) . Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, the film is a fictionalized account of the life of the real Molly Brown, a poor girl from the backwoods who dreamed of marrying a rich man but, married for love instead. But, somehow, she still managed to become one of the richest women in Colorado. Molly later earned her immortality (as well as her “unsinkable” nickname) through her courageous conduct during the sinking of the Titanic. One of Debbie’s personal favorites among her filmography, The Unsinkable Molly Brown seems to run almost entirely on Debbie’s raw enthusiasm as the ambitious Molly (seriously, her energy level is amazing). It is fascinating to watch Debbie take Molly on the incredible journey from rough and tumble country girl to the toast of European society. If you’re a fan of musicals like Funny Girl, this one is not to be missed. (The “Belly Up To The Bar” musical sequence is particularly memorable).
4. "THE TENDER TRAP" (1955) -
Based on the stage play of the same name, this breezy romantic comedy stars Frank Sinatra as Charlie, a theatrical agent living the high life as one of the few eligible bachelors over 30 in New York. But, even though Charlie enjoys his swinging bachelor lifestyle (with its constantly revolving door of beautiful women) there’s still a part of him that envies the stable married life of his old friend, Joe. Then he meets Julie (Debbie), the actress his agency has just signed. She’s young, beautiful, and seemingly immune to Charlie’s advances. You see, Julie has her life planned out quite perfectly (to an almost obsessive degree). She knows when she's going to get married, how many children she'll have, where they're going to live and everything in between. She won’t let anything deviate her from her self-appointed schedule, which fully baffles Charlie. So, even though the headstrong Julie intrigues him, her unyielding expectations may prove to be too much for this carefree bachelor to handle. This really is a refreshing enjoyable comedy that most Debbie fans (and Sinatra fans) will likely enjoy. The film is not technically a musical, but it does contain a lovely Sinatra standard that is sung multiple times over the course of the film, the titular “The Tender Trap”.
5. "THE CATERED AFFAIR" (1956) -
Featuring Debbie in one of her few dramatic roles, The Catered Affair is a realistic family drama based on a television play by Paddy Chayefsky (the author of Marty). Debbie plays the part of Jane, a young bride-to-be who wants to marry her fiancé Ralph (Rod Taylor) in a small simple ceremony at the local church. But, Jane’s mother, Agnes (played the wonderful Bette Davis), can’t stand the idea of her only daughter getting married without a big party. Agnes is, also, embarrassed by the way this quick and cheap wedding looks to the family’s friends and neighbors (not to mention Ralph’s upper-class parents). Soon, Agnes manages to convince Jane to let her plan a big white wedding with all the trimmings for her (the kind of wedding her daughter deserves). The only problem is that the family is far from rich and Jane’s hardworking father (Ernest Borgnine) will have to give up his entire life savings to pay for the kind of wedding her mother is planning for her. By the end of the film, each family member will come to realize which things in life are really important and which things are worth making sacrifices for. This engaging drama is required viewing for anyone who has ever struggled to pay for a lavish wedding or simply struggled to pay rent. But, what really makes this film worthwhile are the realistic characters played by top-notch actors at the height of their abilities.
6. "DIVORCE, AMERICAN STYLE" (1967) -
Written and produced by Norman Lear of All in the Family fame, Divorce, American Style is an unyielding satire that explores the three-ring circus that is divorce, alimony, and marriage. Debbie and Dick Van Dyke star as Barbara and Richard Harmon, a married couple who have fallen into a seemingly endless cycle of fights. After a marriage counselor fails to help them reconcile their differences, numerous acquaintances convince the couple that they are on their way to a divorce. But, getting a divorce is easier said than done. Once Barbara and Richard, actually, start the process, they soon realize that the bizarre world of divorce lawyers and alimony may be worse than their marriage ever was. And perhaps life after divorce isn’t what they wanted after all. Anyone who has been through a divorce or witnessed one first hand will certainly recognize some of the situations portrayed in this film (albeit colored by a darkly satirical tone). All in all, Divorce, American Style is the kind of comedy that is funny simply because it’s true (or maybe, just because it’s sad).
7. "MY SIX LOVES" (1963) -
Based on the novel by Peter Funk, My Six Loves represents famed Broadway choreographer Gower Champion’s directorial debut. It stars Debbie as Janice Courtney, a highly successful actress of stage and screen who, unexpectedly, collapses in a fit of exhaustion at an industry party. Her doctor informs her that she has been working too hard and orders her to visit her country estate and rest. Once there, Janice soon discovers that 6 runaway children (and their dog) have been living on her property unnoticed for some time. Sympathetic to their plight (and encouraged by the local preacher, played by Cliff Robertson) she volunteers to let them stay until a better solution can be found. However, Janice doesn’t know anything about children (let alone keeping house) and her tempermental maid/cook has just quit. But, amidst the noise and the chaos of her new living situation, Janice just might find the happiness and fulfillment she’s always longed for. Both Debbie and Cliff Robertson give charming performances in this sweet family comedy. Children will likely enjoy the heartfelt story as well as the film’s comedic moments. This movie, also, has the historical significance of being the very last film to be completely shot using the VistaVision widescreen process.
8. "SUSAN SLEPT HERE" (1954) -
One of my personal favorites, this adorable romantic comedy has the distinction of being the only film in history to ever be narrated by an Academy Award. I know, weird distinction, right? But, that’s the charm of this movie. Based on a stage play by Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb, Susan Slept Here stars Dick Powell (in his very last film role) as Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Mark Christopher. Ever since winning his Oscar, Mark has been struggling with writer’s block and he can’t seem to get over it. He mentions to a vice cop acquaintance that he's thinking about writing a piece on juvenile delinquency and on Christmas Eve, that same cop, unexpectedly, shows up at his apartment with 17-year-old Susan Landis (Debbie) in tow. Recently abandoned by her mother, the teen has just been picked up for delinquency after hitting a sailor on the head with a beer bottle. Now facing jail time until she turns 18, the well-meaning policeman is looking for a way to keep the girl out of juvie until after the holidays. Mark is appalled at the idea of getting a teenager for Christmas but, taking pity on her situation, he reluctantly agrees to let her stay. Susan, for her part, is distrustful of the whole situation. But after spending some time with Mark, she, actually, finds herself falling for this intriguing older man. And if Mark won’t fight for her affections, Susan just might have to fight for his. Debbie sparkles as Susan and it's her earnest and likeable performance that makes this film work (though the film’s writing is nothing to sneer at either). At times, this straight comedy feels a lot like an MGM musical and in fact, it’s surprising that it’s not one, given the two leads’ musical experience and Susan’s charmingly theatrical dream sequence. But, it’s hard to complain since this quirky little film plays wonderfully just as it is. If you love romantic comedies and unlikely love stories, you’re sure to enjoy this charming film.
9. "THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY" (1961) -
Based on a play by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Samuel A. Taylor, The Pleasure of His Company stars Debbie as Jessica, a young girl about to be married who wants desperately for her international playboy father, Biddeford “Pogo” Poole, to be present at her wedding. But, months go by without any word from her absentee father, leaving Jessica bitterly disappointed. So, when Pogo (played by the eternally charming Fred Astaire), suddenly, appears at the family home unannounced, she is instantly delighted by his presence. Her mother and stepfather, however, are less enthused by his unexpected appearance. And it seems they have reason to be concerned. Finally meeting Jessica and seeing his ex-wife again after so many years away has begun to make Pogo realize what he has left behind. He, then, seems to make it his mission to do whatever he can to make up for lost time. Unfortunately, he might already be too late. Astaire is perfectly cast as the self-centered and charismatic Pogo Poole. Honestly, no one else in Hollywood could have pulled off the role (with the possible exception of the equally charismatic, Cary Grant). Another great bit of casting is Tab Hunter as Jessica’s cattle rancher fiancé, who gives a surprisingly realistic performance despite his usual teen-idol label. Even though The Pleasure of His Company is not a musical, Debbie still gets her chance to dance with Fred Astaire, making her one of the lucky few to dance with both Astaire and Gene Kelly on screen. I highly recommend this enjoyable movie (especially to Astaire fans), however, I warn you, it can be ridiculously hard to find, but it's certainly worth the effort to see.
10. "THE RAT RACE" (1960) -
This cynical comedy drama was a turning point in Debbie’s career, marking the first time she played against her optimistic ingénue film personae. She plays the part of Peggy, an aspiring dancer/model living in New York City who is forced to work as a taxi dancer to make ends meet. When she can’t make rent, her landlord rents her apartment to someone else (before formally kicking her out). The new tenant, Pete (played by Tony Curtis), feels sorry for the down-on-her-luck Peggy so, he offers to share the apartment with her as roommates. Since she doesn’t really have any other options, she accepts. Just off the bus from Milwaukee, Pete is an aspiring musician, hoping to find his big break in New York. Hard-edged and cynical after years of failure, Peggy warns Pete that his optimism won’t last long in the big city. And unfortunately, it seems she might be right. Based on the Garson Kanin play and adapted by him for the screen, the film highlights how cruel New York (and other cities like it) can be to the innocent dreamers drawn to it. The jaded Peggy was a big departure for Debbie at the time and she took the part seriously. She even worked as a taxi dancer for a night as research. That research paid off as Debbie is wonderful in the film, giving a layered, truthful performance that plays beautifully off of Tony Curtis’ sweet and earnest portrayal of the naïve Pete.
HONORABLE MENTION: “CHARLOTTE’S WEB” (1973)
I simply could not finish this list without mentioning this popular family film. The only reason this animated film is not included in the main top ten is because of the inherent difficulty in comparing a voice-over performance to a live-action performance (the two mediums are simply too different). In the film, Debbie is the voice of Charlotte, a seemingly ordinary barn spider who takes it upon herself to save a pig named Wilbur from the slaughter. Based on the award-winning children’s book by E.B. White, the film retains much of the book’s original dialogue as well as its timeless story. The animation, itself, is capable, but certainly not up to the quality or subtlety of the classic Disney features. Indeed, it’s the strength of the story and vocal performances that help drive this film. Debbie was so keen to be involved in the movie that she called producer, Joe Barbera (as in "Hanna-Barbera"), and volunteered to work without pay. And thanks to her vocal performance, Charlotte gives off a charm and intelligence that might have been absent had another star taken her place. Also, the songs Debbie sings in this film are possibly some of the most beautiful she ever sang. And no wonder: it's the talented Sherman Brothers (of Mary Poppins fame) who provided the film with its memorable score. The song “Mother Earth and Father Time” is particularly lovely.
And if you would like to learn more about the adorable Debbie Reynolds, I highly recommend her autobiography Unsinkable: A Memoir written by Debbie, along with Dorian Hannaway.
© 2011 Luna B.