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Debbie Reynolds scored one of the triumphs of her career in 1964 as TheUnsinkable Molly Brown, a frontierswoman who rises to wealth and powerwhen her husband strikes it rich in Colorado and goes on to become aheroine when she survives the sinking of the Titanic. But thoughthe part would bring Reynolds her only Oscar® nomination, she was notthe first choice for the role. In fact, she had to fight just to get thedirector to direct her.
Meredith Willson adapted Molly Brown's biography to the Broadway stage as afollow-up to his first major hit, The Music Man. Though TheUnsinkable Molly Brown was not an unqualified smash, it made stars outof leading players Tammy Grimes and Harve Presnell. With the success ofThe Music Man on film, MGM was eager to pick up the rights to asimilar musical. It would become the studio's last great musicalfilm.
The young, handsome Presnell was a natural for films and would be the onlymember of the original cast invited to reprise his role. As successful asGrimes had been on Broadway, however, Hollywood already had an ideal choicefor Molly Brown, Shirley MacLaine, and she was eager to play the role. Nosooner had she signed, however, than independent producer Hal Wallis, whohad brought her to Hollywood in the '50s, claimed that she was still undercontract to him. The legal complications forced MacLaine to withdraw fromthe role, which producer Lawrence Weingarten then offered to Reynolds. Shejumped at the opportunity to star in a big musical of her own, even thoughshe had to accept a lower fee than had been offered to MacLaine.
Then the trouble started. First, Reynolds had to deal with MacLaine, whoaccused her of undercutting MacLaine's price to steal the role from her.Reynolds did her best to mollify her, arguing that MGM couldn't make thefilm with Wallis threatening a lawsuit and pleading that it was her lastchance for a great film role. On the whole, she got off easier thanHollywood Reporter columnist Mike Connolly. When he reported thatMacLaine had lost the part before any decision had even been made, shedecked him.
Reynolds' next hurdle was director Charles Walters. Although he had scoreda hit directing her opposite Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap (1955), hehad his heart set on casting MacLaine as Molly Brown. He even tried toconvince Reynolds to turn the part down. When she asked why he thought shewas wrong for it, he told her, "You're much too short for the role."Reynolds quipped, "How short is the part?" then told him he was just plainwrong. His doubts continued through the location shooting in Colorado. Infact, he gave her so little direction that Reynolds turned to LillianBurns, an accomplished acting coach with whom she had worked in her earlydays at MGM, to help her with the part. Finally, when the rushes startedcoming in, Walters conceded that she was right for the role. His doubtscame back, however, when it came time to shoot Reynolds' biggest dancenumber, "He's My Friend." He even suggesting cutting it, claiming it wastoo tough for her to learn, but Reynolds insisted. MGM had slashed thefilm's budget because of cost overruns on Doctor Zhivago (1965), so Waltershad to try to get the number in as few takes as possible. As insurance, he hadTWO cameras simultaneously film a long take of the seven-minute number, atelevision technique rarely used on film. Reynolds pulled the number offwithout a hitch, though one of her male dancing partners fainted after itwas over.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown turned out to be a huge hit for MGM,becoming the third highest-grossing film of 1964. The picture garnered sixOscar® nominations, including Reynolds' Best Actress nod. She wouldprove wrong in her prediction that this would be her last great role. Shewould go on to turn in an Oscar®-worthy performance in Albert Brooks'1996 comedy Mother. She and MacLaine would survive theirdifferences, eventually teaming up for the television movie These OldBroads in 2001. Before that, MacLaine would play a role loosely basedon Reynolds -- and with her blessing -- as the movie star mom inPostcards From the Edge (1990), written by Reynolds' daughter,Carrie Fisher.
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: Charles Walters
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch
Based on the Stage Musical by Meredith Willson & Richard Morris
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction: George W. Davis & E. Preston Ames
Music: Meredith Willson
Principal Cast: Debbie Reynolds (Molly Brown), Harve Presnell (JohnnyBrown), Ed Begley (Shamus Tobin), Jack Kruschen (Christmas Morgan),Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Grogan), Vassili Lambrinos (Prince Louis deLaniere), Harvey Lembeck (Polak), Hayden Rorke (Broderick), Martita Hunt(Grand Duchess Elise Lupovinova), Audrey Christie (Mrs. McGraw), GroverDale (Jam), Maria Karnilova (Daphne), Gus Trikonis (Joe).
C-129m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller