The bubbly actress who danced to fame in Singin’ in the Rain
Debbie Reynolds 1932–2016
Debbie Reynolds was the quintessential Hollywood trouper. From the time she danced with Gene Kelly in the classic 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, until she died last month, one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, the 5-foot-2 dynamo remained a beloved embodiment of wholesome, spunky exuberance. Offscreen, Reynolds led a star-crossed private life that belied her sunny image. Her first husband, singer Eddie Fisher, carried on an affair with Elizabeth Taylor that became one of Hollywood’s most sensational sex scandals. Reynolds blamed two subsequent husbands for taking her to the brink of financial ruin. But through it all she was irrepressibly resilient. “My life has just spun along, sort of like a wheel on a car that somebody else is driving,” Reynolds said. “I’ve just gone with it.”
Born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, she was the daughter of a railroad worker and his wife, who “took in laundry to help make ends meet,” said The New York Times. The family moved to Southern California in 1939, and at 16 Reynolds won the Miss Burbank beauty contest after performing an impersonation of her idol, actress Betty Hutton. “Two of the judges were movie-studio scouts,” one of whom signed Reynolds to a $65-a-week contract with Warner Bros., where studio boss Jack Warner changed her name. The MGM studio soon bought out her contract, and in 1950 she appeared in the musicals Three Little Words and Two Weeks With Love. Her chirpy duet with Carleton Carpenter in the latter, “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” “became a huge novelty hit.”
Though Reynolds had little dancing experience, codirectors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen cast her as ingenue Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, a musical about the early days of talking pictures. “The gamble paid off, but not without some sweat and strain,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Kelly was “a perfectionist and a disciplinarian,” Reynolds said. “Every so often he would yell at me and make me cry.” On screen, however, the 19-year-old turned in a breakout performance. Reynolds “went on to star in a series of charming and youthful musicals,” as well as romantic comedies like The Tender Trap, opposite Frank Sinatra. In 1955 she wed Fisher, a huge pop star at the time. While he was away on tour in 1958, a lonely Reynolds called her close friend Liz Taylor, whose husband, producer Mike Todd, had recently died in a plane crash, said HollywoodReporter.com. To her shock, Fisher answered the phone. “I yelled at him, ‘Roll over, darling, and let me speak to Elizabeth,’” Reynolds recalled. She divorced Fisher, who became Taylor’s fourth husband.
“The outpouring of sympathy for Reynolds only served to increase her fame,” said the Los Angeles Times. She earned her only Oscar nomination as a buoyant Titanic survivor in 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown. As the frothy films she was known for fell out of fashion in the late ’60s, “Reynolds turned to the stage,” triumphing in a Broadway revival of Irene. She also worked steadily in TV, created a successful cabaret act, and returned to the big screen in the 1990s, usually playing formidable mothers. Her own daughter’s shocking death was the one setback from which Reynolds couldn’t bounce back. Her final words were “I want to be with Carrie.”