A look back at the life of actress Debbie Reynolds. In a selection of rare interviews, Debbie discusses her favourite film roles and her relationship with daughter Carrie Fisher.
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Debbie Reynolds was the girl next door who became film royalty,
the celluloid sweetheart who got the guy
in one of cinema's greatest musicals...
and lost her husband in one of Hollywood's greatest scandals.
And in later years, when her own star was slightly fading,
she found herself mother to the most famous Princess in the movie galaxy.
Throughout the ups and downs of a career that spanned seven decades,
Debbie loved the world of show business as much as any fan.
She shared her story many times over the years,
knowing it was as fascinating as any movie script.
It was a tale that started one May day in 1948.
Her family were poor and had originally come from El Paso, Texas.
But the search for work had meant a move to Burbank,
just half an hour's ride from the Hollywood sign and it was there
that Debbie entered a talent contest
that altered the course of her life completely.
I entered this contest because they gave
a free blouse and scarf away and it was a silk blouse.
Well, I never had a silk blouse in my whole life and I thought,
"Just enter the contest" - I knew I wouldn't win.
That's silly, because I didn't do anything.
I didn't sing or dance, I was just silly, you know?
I played the record and impersonated the record,
I used to do Betty Hutton and I'd play the record
and then I'd mouth it and Beatrice Kay,
who did silly songs like Bird in a Gilded Cage.
She played kind of mad people, like Bea Lillie type, you know?
Anyway, long story, I entered the contest,
a talent scout was there, took me to Warner Brothers,
they made a screen test of me, which I thought was very funny,
so I just laughed my way through and they signed me, shockingly enough.
And that started and I was 16, then.
That contract changed everything.
Debbie was signed by first Warner Brothers and then MGM,
joining a roster of young actors like Elizabeth Taylor,
who the studios developed and moulded into stars.
And the first thing Debbie had changed was her name.
-My name is Mary Frances, cos originally,
I'm from Texas and if you're from Texas, everybody's called
Elizabeth, Sue, Lou-Ellen, Mary Frances, somethin' like that.
-How did you get Debbie, how did Debbie come about?
See... I was Mary Frances.
Mr Warner, Jack Warner, of course,
he's very strong, he's in charge.
You know, the heads of the studios were Louis B Mayer
and Zanuck and all those famous people, so he didn't like Mary,
he said it was too simple.
Frances was boring and Mary Frances was really awful,
so he said, "You're going to be called Debbie Morgan,
"because I had a dog named Debbie and Dennis Morgan is a big star."
So I said, "I don't think so.
"I'm not going to be Debbie Morgan, I don't know who that is.
"That's not me, I'm Mary Frances Reynolds", so he said, "Well,
"you'll have to be Debbie, I wouldn't change it."
I said, "Did you ever change your name from your father's name?"
And of course he had, so it didn't do any good.
And were you really excited at being in the movies?
No, I was saving my money to go back to school to be a gym teacher.
Gym teacher, of course.
You weren't stunned and knocked out by it?
Well, I thought it was wonderful for other people,
but it didn't make sense for me.
I mean, Mary Frances Reynolds to be in the movies didn't seem...
But Debbie - Debbie came up in this movie, Three Little Words.
-Let's have a look, just a little part.
Try it this way...
# Da da-da-da da da da da da. #
That ought to fix it.
I don't think so.
# Da da-da-da da da da da da. #
Too many notes.
It's NOT too many notes! Look... Hey, fellas...
Can we borrow your piano just a minute?
# I want to be loved by you Just you
# And nobody else but you
# I want to be loved by you alone
# Boop-boop-a-doop! #
# I want to be kissed by you
# Just you and nobody else but you
# I want to be kissed by you alone
# Boop-boop-a-doop! #
And that was the first one, that was you, Red Skelton and Fred Astaire.
Weren't they cute, Red Skelton?
That was actually Helen Kane's voice who did that.
Now I can do it cos I do impressions of everybody now,
but that was really her voice and her name was Helen Kane,
not that I knew that, because it's a long time ago.
-But that's the way she talked...
-"Boop-boop-bi-doop." Really, like that.
THEY SPEAK IN SQUEAKY VOICES
It sounded like she swallowed her tongue and just couldn't get it out.
It's clear from that exchange with Terry Wogan Debbie always had
a knack for comedy and that is further demonstrated
in a much-loved moment from the 1950 film Two Weeks with Love.
# "Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab"
# Means "Monk, I love but you"
# "Baba, daba, dab" in monkey talk
# Means "Chimp, I love you, too"
# Then the big baboon, one night in June
# He married them, and very soon
# They went upon their aba, daba honey...moon... #
It seems to me that you made the transition from being
"Little Miss Amateur" to seasoned trooper very quickly,
seeing again your routine
in Aba Daba Honeymoon.
I was just a clown, I think that everyone in life is born with
a personality - if you're boring or you're interesting
or you're funny or you're not. You can learn a lot of things in life,
but I don't think that you can be given timing
and you can't be funny unless you're funny.
When I say funny, I don't mean rolling around falling on the floor,
but I mean appreciation of humour
and finding things that are funny within a situation,
whereas you could look at it very straight-on and dead serious.
You know people like that.
I always just thought everything was terrifically funny
and when I was a kid, I was really a nut.
God was very good to me, that he gave me a sense of humour
and that I think was what came across when I was young.
Despite that song and dance routine,
Debbie was a far from obvious choice
for one of the lead roles in Singing In The Rain,
which demanded that she held her own alongside the dancing geniuses
that were Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor.
How did you get the part for that?
Well, Gene Kelly has one version and Debbie has another version.
Gene says that he picked me and he saw my screen test and that,
in fact, that's how it happened.
Now, I remember walking into this huge office and Mr Mayer was
a rather short, plumpish fellow and he had a little bit of an accent.
I don't know if it was Hungarian...
-It was a little accent.
He said to me, "Now Debbie,
"you're going to be in a picture with Gene Kelly."
And, uh... I mean, I was shocked, thrilled, surprised.
Didn't know what that meant, to do what? So then he says...
"And he's coming to meet you and he'll love you and you're in
"the movie, it's called Singing in the Rain."
At that moment, Gene Kelly comes in the office and he sits down
and you know, Gene was always full of it and in those days...
-Full of it?
-Yes. Thirtysomething, like, very young - huge star.
You know? So he sits down
and I remember Mr Mayer saying to him,
"And Gene, I want you to meet your leading lady, Debbie Reynolds,"
and Gene just...
..stared at me, like, "Who? SHE is? This is it?" You know?
-remember and I think I remember RIGHT, so THERE, Gene.
# All I do is dream of you... #
Debbie was always a fighter
and behind the happy grin was grit and determination.
But she needed help from another screen legend to get through
those punishing dance routines.
And then Fred Astaire was working next door and one day,
when I was sobbing under the piano, I mean,
really just sobbing away and everybody had gone to lunch,
I was just blubbering,
"I can't do it, I'll never be able to do it, why did I...?
"I want to go home!
"I want to be a gym teacher!" Well, Mr...
I didn't know who it was, but some legs walked by the piano
and said, "Who's crying underneath there?"
"It's just me..." "Well, what's the matter?"
"I'm never going to be to learn how to dance like this and I'm just..."
He says, "Debbie, this is Mr Astaire".
He gives me his hand, he pulls me out and he says,
"I'm going to let you watch me rehearse."
He never let anybody watch him rehearse,
he had a guard at the door and he worked with a drum
and he had his cane.
And he never let you watch him rehearse,
so he let me watch and I sat at the door,
on the floor and I watched Mr Astaire rehearse
and just sweat and go crazy and get frustrated and it was very hard
and he turned to me, and he said, "Now, you see?
"See, this is tough work, it will never be easy.
"Just get back in there and go rehearse. Stop crying!"
So I stopped crying, wiped my nose and learned how to dance.
Well, you certainly did dance and the memorable scene, of course,
when you're singing Good Morning with Donald and with Gene, jumping
over the couches and things - did that take a long time to get right?
Well, to hit it at the same time and then it
has to be timed just right and then of course the front flips,
so the rollover had to be the same, exact same time.
Oh, we rehearsed that.
Gene didn't have to rehearse as much of course and Donald didn't either,
but I was a gymnast, so I was pretty good, I was very strong
and that I could learn rather quickly, compared to the steps.
I'd say we rehearsed that number two months, just the one number.
And then when you actually came to film it?
The whole thing was six months.
Oh, we shot that many, many times.
I don't know - 40 times?
And then Gene printed the first take!
He was a perfectionist, but he was right.
INSTRUMENTAL SECTION FROM Good Morning
Believe it or not, those dance scenes weren't the only tough ones
Debbie had to get through.
At the end of the whole movie,
we're in front of this big signboard and it's the end,
so Gene Kelly kisses of course Kathy Selden, the young girl.
Well, I had never heard of any other kissing
and so Gene Kelly was kissing me
and all of a sudden, I felt something else.
And...I didn't know what that was, you see.
And it was called French kissing, I believe.
And of course I screamed in horror,
"Ah! What is that? Eurgh!"
And I had to go to my room and gargle and they had to cut this,
cut the film and I had to drink Coca-Cola and they tried
to explain it to me and I said, "No, no, no - I won't kiss like that,
"I will not do that other kissing, never."
The sweet, wholesome image was a key part of Debbie's public persona,
enhanced by a seemingly happy marriage
to singing sensation Eddie Fisher.
But in 1959, Eddie abandoned her and their two children for Liz Taylor -
one of Debbie's closest friends.
In the eyes of the public, Liz was the heartless seductress,
Eddie was the cad and Debbie the poor, wronged woman.
How did the tremendous emotional upset of your marriage
and seeing so many details of it being reported and going through
the enormous upheaval of that?
Still making movies, still putting
on a tremendously strong and very, very viable public face?
I don't discuss it because it's nobody's business...
why something ends - it's only my devastation, not anybody else's.
I have my children. I think that, somehow...
..the unhappy times in my life have always forced me into working.
So, perhaps it's meant to be that I did go on and work,
otherwise I would have retired years ago,
I would be retired now if I could, but I have lots of children
to put through college and I really don't have enough funds in which...
I like to live very nicely.
In order to do so, I have to work.
To live as nicely as I like to live!
And to do the things with the children and all
that I want to do, so, in a way...
life has spurred me on, also.
Debbie didn't talk about it then...
but that would eventually change.
Your daughter Carrie Fisher said,
"I always thought your whole courtship,"
that's you and Eddie Fisher,
"was a sort of press release," that's what Carrie said.
"They were riding the wave of being a media couple more than having
"any real compatibility."
She says you probably didn't have much in common with Eddie Fisher.
Oh, probably, but I didn't know that.
You know, I was in love, young love, what did I know about love?
I really didn't know anything. I thought this was terrific.
He was darling, he was handsome,
he was a wonderful-looking fellow
and a star and here I was, a young star.
-Quite a scandal, though,
when he ran off with what was I suppose one
of the world's best-known actresses at the time, Elizabeth Taylor.
Yes, Elizabeth. Well, we went to school together at the MGM lot,
we were good friends and she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
I certainly wasn't.
And the most sexual woman in the world, I certainly wasn't.
Well, I think you said about all this, you could see why Eddie Fisher
wanted HER, but why would Elizabeth Taylor want Eddie Fisher?
-What was wrong with Eddie Fisher?
-Well, SHE wonders too, now!
But of course, she found that out, right afterwards.
Well, I told Eddie.
I said, "You know what's going to happen is that in a year and a half,
"she's going to realise that you're really just nothing
"and she's going to throw you out."
So that's what happened, she did Cleopatra,
she met Richard Burton and he was out.
Have you forgiven him? Doesn't sound like it from the comments that...
Er, I kid around about it.
Yes, I have forgiven Eddie,
but I've never really understood a man leaving his children.
I can understand leaving the woman,
but he never really came back and around to be a very good father,
so I don't particularly admire that.
I mean, I have wonderful children and I'm their PARENTS.
So when you say have I forgiven him, I say that
with a sort of bit of anger,
because I have a son that is his only son
and he misses having a good dad.
So when Eddie left, he really left.
Focusing on her career
was the main way that Debbie coped with the scandal.
And the change in her private life
coincided with changes happening in Hollywood.
It was fairly obvious by the end of the '50s, wasn't it,
that musicals were on the way out.
How did you manage the transition from musical to light comedy
and, ultimately, drama?
Well, I wasn't that deep, you see.
I was never the intellectual of Hollywood that everyone ran to
for advice. And still, they do not!
Uh, I was very young.
I saw the change and I've always been intuitive for survival.
I think it's terribly nice to live and I like to work.
In order to work, you must create your own being.
It is not going to come running TO you and I have never been
the performer that is the one that has been the socially in one
or the hot copy all the time.
I really have kind of had to create my own career,
to keep it going, shall we say.
I never had one producer or a number, or any,
that believed in me, that bought properties for me and, you know,
"this girl is going to be the best ever", or a manager behind me
that was going to sock it, keep the career going.
So, when musicals went out, I knew that and I went into comedies,
because I was rather amusing and I offered to do...
Well, first of all,
I never charged the biggest salaries in the world,
like a lot of people did, because I knew they wouldn't go for me first.
One of the first films she made after her marriage break-up
was 1960's The Rat Race, with Tony Curtis.
Debbie's role had her playing against type
as a jaded, cynical dancer in a sleazy New York pick-up joint.
Oh, baby, you really are something to be up against.
You bring out the best in me.
You're quite a guy. I hope you've got enough tickets.
Well, if I don't, I know where to get 'em.
I believe for the film The Rat Race,
you became a dime-a-dance girl, or at least a 10-cents-a-dance girl.
I think in the States, they're called taxi dancers, but, anyway,
you're paid 10 cents to have a dance with somebody.
Was this research or was it just done for a laugh?
It was actually about a week I worked there and I wore
a tight sweater which really,
if I wore the tightest sweater in the world,
wouldn't be too large of a...
Appearance, shall we say.
..And a tight skirt and they were very nice men,
very lonely and terrible dancers
and they sweated a lot.
Never did like that too much.
But they talk a lot and I usually talk the most,
as you can see from this interview,
but I didn't and I listened and I learned a great deal
as far as how that character,
who was trying to get ahead in a very tough city in New York -
which New York IS tough, and if you're broke, it's REALLY tough...
What she would feel like and what kind of lengths would she go to
to try and survive and so forth.
You now owe me 481.15.
Could be a zero in two or three weeks if you played it smart.
I'd rather be dumb my way than smart yours.
Four years after The Rat Race came a film that Debbie personally
preferred to Singing in the Rain -
The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
The film earned Debbie her first and only Academy Award nomination -
for Best Leading Actress -
and would later provide the title
for her memoirs - Unsinkable.
Molly Brown was a wonderful role, the Unsinkable Molly Brown.
She was a great character and her whole story was wonderful
and I was lucky to get it because Shirley MacLaine was set for it
and then she had a law suit with Hal Wallis and at the last minute,
she couldn't do it and I was very lucky to do it because I was
expecting a baby and I lost the child
and they called me while I was just...
The first week of recovering.
I think that really got me well
and over the loss of this child passing on.
Then I did Molly Brown, which I was very proud of my performance,
I was nominated for an Academy Award.
And I loved the movie, I think I did a splendid job
and I love the character.
# Belly up, belly up to the bar, boys
# Better loosen your belts
# Only drink when you're all alone
-# Or with somebody else
# Belly up, belly up to the bar, boys
# Better have a few more
# And never whirl with a three-toed girl
-# Or a discontented whor...
# Like a girl whose name was Carrie
# She carried her charms to everybody else
# But her I had to marry
# Or die, die, die... #
The Unsinkable Molly Brown
turned out to be one of Debbie's final film highs.
By the late '60s and early 70s,
she'd stepped away from the cinema, focusing for a while
on a successful TV series called,
naturally, The Debbie Reynolds Show.
You always made very pithy comments,
you're obviously a very direct sort of person,
but you make very pithy comments about why you stopped making films.
You said, "I stopped making movies because I don't like taking
"my clothes off - maybe it's realism, but in my opinion,
"it's utter filth." Very direct about, as you were saying,
what you think Hollywood is doing now.
I don't think it's glamorous, I don't think it's pretty,
I don't think it's sexy.
I think there's ways to make everything wonderful and exciting
and interesting and mysterious at the same time,
there's no need for it.
It depends what one wishes in life.
I just never wanted my career or my life to go that direction.
You've always been very open about the mistakes you made
in your love life and about picking the wrong men.
What about the mistakes you made professionally?
I mean, at one stage in the late '60s, you had a row,
early '70s, with NBC, didn't you? Over The Debbie Reynolds Show,
because you decided to make a stand over tobacco advertising.
What happened there?
Well, everyone could smoke on camera,
you could advertise cigarettes.
Now, I didn't know Congress was going to pass a law
that you couldn't within six months
and I had a new show, The Debbie Reynolds Show,
it was like The Lucille Ball Show and The Carol Burnett Show.
A two-year contract set, a lot of money,
and I was having a great time doing it,
but then the show came out and they were advertising Salem cigarettes
and I got very upset because I said,
"I'm not advertising cigarettes or liquor.
"You promised me that I wasn't."
That was quite a stand to take at that particular period,
when almost everyone smoked.
Well, everybody did, but you don't have to advertise it
for the younger people, you don't have to do that
and I didn't have to do that.
So I just told them I didn't want to have a cigarette sponsor.
They said, "Well, that's too bad, that's who you have."
I said, "No, that's not my contract."
So they read the contract and that was the truth.
Your thinking was quite ahead of the game, though,
because the banning of cigarette advertising in most countries
-didn't happen until many years later.
-About a year later.
I lost millions for that stand,
but I'm not proud of it. I mean,
I'm happy I did it.
I think at one stage you described it as the most stupid mistake
-you'd ever made.
-It was foolish for me, financially,
but then my husbands would have just had more money to spend.
That line about husbands refers to the fact
that Singing In The Rain's lucky star
was unlucky in love...
more than once.
Husband number two was a multimillionaire,
but lost all his and most of her money through gambling.
After a failed business venture,
The Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas,
her marriage to husband number three ended in bitter divorce.
The hotel featured a fascinating museum of Hollywood memorabilia
and even contained the costume worn by her love rival,
Elizabeth Taylor, in Cleopatra.
I started collecting at the MGM auction, which was in 1970,
and, at that time, the people that owned the studio decided
they liked real estate
and they weren't interested in any other memorabilia.
Debbie knew from personal experience how film fans loved
to get a close-up encounter with Hollywood stardom.
I think that the people really wanted me to, you know,
they've heard about you and maybe they've liked your films
and now they see you in person, but can they sit next to you
and can they talk to you and really say hello and get an autograph
and know it's really yours and not the secretary's or a printed thing?
I think that means a lot to them -
it means a lot to me, because when I wrote
Katharine Hepburn a fan letter and she sent me back a picture
that I'd sent to her... I know she doesn't like to give autographs,
so I was really rather praying that she would consider my request
and she did, and she signed it Kate Hep - H-E-P.
She said, "I don't really like giving autographs,
"but I respect your work, Debbie, and so I'm signing."
And I was thrilled to get it.
Debbie was also thrilled years later when her shrewd collecting
paid dividends and made millions when she put the items up for sale,
helping with the financial problems her husbands had left her.
It wasn't just husbands that Debbie had problems with.
Another turbulent relationship was with her daughter, Carrie Fisher.
They were estranged for many years
and when Carrie wrote the novel Postcards From The Edge
about a difficult mother-daughter relationship,
everyone assumed it was autobiographical.
-And I have a wonderful daughter, as you know.
Yes, she wrote that book about you, which was not exactly flattering.
See, it's not really about me, Postcards From The Edge -
she's a writer, so she wrote a book about a crazy lady
and people think it's me!
You only remember the bad stuff, don't you?
What about the big band that I got to play at that party,
do you remember that? No!
You only remember that my skirt accidentally "twirled up".
-And you weren't wearing any underwear.
When Postcards From The Edge was turned into a film in 1990,
Debbie had wanted the role of the overbearing mother,
but was told by the director...
that she just wasn't right for it.
In the end, Debbie and Carrie's relationship
couldn't have been closer.
They lived next door to each other in Beverly Hills
and saw each other daily.
As I recall,
you were the best mom,
I always thought, when I was 14 and on,
until now, when they ran those "best mother" tribute contests,
whatever they run when you're little and I always couldn't imagine
having a better mother.
You were the prettiest mother, you were the funnest mother,
so... I STILL think that way.
When Debbie died last month,
at the age of 84, it meant saying goodbye
to one of the greats of the golden age,
who'll be forever remembered for that winning performance
in Singing In The Rain.
The timing of her passing
was given added poignancy
for coming just one day after Carrie's unexpected death.
The news shocked film fans the world over,
but even in their grief,
family members were able to joke that,
"Somewhere, Carrie would be laughing about one more in a long line
"of examples where Debbie Reynolds,
"had stolen the show."
A look back at the life of the actress Debbie Reynolds - one of the best-loved stars of Hollywood's golden age, who died in December 2016.
In a selection of rarely-seen interviews, we find Debbie discussing her favourite film roles, including her career-making appearance in Singin' in the Rain. She also talks about her husband Eddie Fisher leaving her for Elizabeth Taylor and the ensuing scandal that rocked Hollywood, and discusses life as Princess Leia's mum and her relationship with her daughter Carrie Fisher, who also passed away in December 2016, just one day before Debbie's own death.
Narrated by Sylvia Syms.