The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Friday January, 27 2017 at 08:00 PM
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Debbie Reynolds scored one of the triumphs of her career in 1964 as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a frontierswoman who rises to wealth and power when her husband strikes it rich in Colorado and goes on to become a heroine when she survives the sinking of the Titanic. But though the part would bring Reynolds her only Oscar® nomination, she was not the first choice for the role. In fact, she had to fight just to get the director to direct her.
Meredith Willson adapted Molly Brown's biography to the Broadway stage as a follow-up to his first major hit, The Music Man. Though The Unsinkable Molly Brown was not an unqualified smash, it made stars out of leading players Tammy Grimes and Harve Presnell. With the success of The Music Man on film, MGM was eager to pick up the rights to a similar musical. It would become the studio's last great musical film.
The young, handsome Presnell was a natural for films and would be the only member of the original cast invited to reprise his role. As successful as Grimes had been on Broadway, however, Hollywood already had an ideal choice for Molly Brown, Shirley MacLaine, and she was eager to play the role. No sooner had she signed, however, than independent producer Hal Wallis, who had brought her to Hollywood in the '50s, claimed that she was still under contract to him. The legal complications forced MacLaine to withdraw from the role, which producer Lawrence Weingarten then offered to Reynolds. She jumped at the opportunity to star in a big musical of her own, even though she had to accept a lower fee than had been offered to MacLaine.
Then the trouble started. First, Reynolds had to deal with MacLaine, who accused 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 the film with Wallis threatening a lawsuit and pleading that it was her last chance for a great film role. On the whole, she got off easier than Hollywood Reporter columnist Mike Connolly. When he reported that MacLaine had lost the part before any decision had even been made, she decked him.
Reynolds' next hurdle was director Charles Walters. Although he had scored a hit directing her opposite Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap (1955), he had his heart set on casting MacLaine as Molly Brown. He even tried to convince Reynolds to turn the part down. When she asked why he thought she was 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 plain wrong. His doubts continued through the location shooting in Colorado. In fact, he gave her so little direction that Reynolds turned to Lillian Burns, an accomplished acting coach with whom she had worked in her early days at MGM, to help her with the part. Finally, when the rushes started coming in, Walters conceded that she was right for the role. His doubts came back, however, when it came time to shoot Reynolds' biggest dance number, "He's My Friend." He even suggesting cutting it, claiming it was too tough for her to learn, but Reynolds insisted. MGM had slashed the film's budget because of cost overruns on Doctor Zhivago (1965), so Walters had to try to get the number in as few takes as possible. As insurance, he had TWO cameras simultaneously film a long take of the seven-minute number, a television technique rarely used on film. Reynolds pulled the number off without a hitch, though one of her male dancing partners fainted after it was 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 six Oscar® nominations, including Reynolds' Best Actress nod. She would prove wrong in her prediction that this would be her last great role. She would go on to turn in an Oscar®-worthy performance in Albert Brooks' 1996 comedy Mother. She and MacLaine would survive their differences, eventually teaming up for the television movie These Old Broads in 2001. Before that, MacLaine would play a role loosely based on Reynolds -- and with her blessing -- as the movie star mom in Postcards 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 (Johnny Brown), Ed Begley (Shamus Tobin), Jack Kruschen (Christmas Morgan), Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Grogan), Vassili Lambrinos (Prince Louis de Laniere), Harvey Lembeck (Polak), Hayden Rorke (Broderick), Martita Hunt (Grand Duchess Elise Lupovinova), Audrey Christie (Mrs. McGraw), Grover Dale (Jam), Maria Karnilova (Daphne), Gus Trikonis (Joe).
C-129m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller