Debbie Reynolds: 'Singin In The Rain' Actress Who Was Carrie Fisher's Multi-Talented Mom
It's an understatement to say that Debbie Reynolds was a major Hollywood star. As close to a literal rags to riches story as you can find in the groovy era, she was born into a poor Texas family and rose to fame in films like Singin' in the Rain and Unsinkable Molly Brown.
Not just a star on the big screen, Reynolds took to Broadway where she performed with her daughter, Carrie Fisher, before heading t0 Las Vegas and opening a museum. Throughout her life Reynolds was the keeper of the old ways of Hollywood. Aside from collecting memorabilia for her entire life, Reynolds was the kind of star who gave off the pure embodiment of golden age excitement - complete with all the gossip and tragedy that comes along with it.
From her marriage to Eddie Fisher to her final days in Los Angeles, Debbie Reynolds was a real star.
Miss Burbank, By Way Of El Paso
Debbie Reynolds may be the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but she comes from El Paso, Texas, a place that's about as far from the glitz and glamor of the silver screen as you can get. Born Mary Frances Reynolds in 1932, her father was a carpenter and her mother did laundry for their neighbors to make money. The Reynolds family moved to Burbank, California, when she was five years old and in spite of their lack of funds the family managed to get by.
While Reynolds was at Burbank High School in 1948 she won the Miss Burbank beauty contest and her life changed forever. Shortly afterwards, Jack Warner offered Reynolds a contract with Warner Brothers and even gave her the nickname "Debbie," but MGM had their eyes on her as well.
MGM Made A Home For Debbie Reynolds
The story goes that Warner Bros. and MGM performed a coin toss to see who would give Reynolds her first Hollywood contract. Warner Bros. won the toss, but after two years she moved to MGM. At the time, the distributor was big on musicals and those were the pictures she wanted to make. Reynolds says that her first day at MGM had an inauspicious start. Upon entering the studio gates she met Clark Gable, who welcomed her to the company with the information that he was out the door.
After moving to MGM, Reynolds scored a hit single with "Aba Daba Honeymoon" from her 1950 film Two Weeks With Love. The track went to number three on the Billboard charts and it achieved gold status all within a few years of Reynolds making her foray into filmmaking and recording.
Never Been Kissed
Out of all of her roles, Debbie Reynolds is best known for her role as Kathy Selden in Singin' In The Rain. Watch the film today and you'll have a hard imagining anyone else in the role. Reynolds is all smiles and she moves in perfect time with her co-star Gene Kelly, but when she was offered the role she admits to being woefully unprepared. Not only did she not know how to dance, but she'd never been kissed.
Reynolds said that when Louis B. Mayer told her that she would be co-starring with Kelly in Singin' In The Rain all she said was "Yes, sir" without a thought of how she could pull off the rigorous physical moves that were required. To prepare for the role she went on a date with actor Hugh O'Brian after being set up by the studio. O'Brian even walked her through her first kiss. She explained:
He said Gene would do it, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it, but I better practice. So he said, ‘You get on the top stair, and I’ll stand below you, and you keep your eyes closed, and I’ll give you a kiss.'
Even with the kiss out of the way Reynolds was in no way prepared for what was to come. On the set of the film she was dressed down by Kelly for not being up to speed with him and danced until her feet bled. Later in life Reynolds said that the two most painful things in her life were childbirth and Singin' In The Rain.
Her Marriage To Eddie Fisher Was No Day At The Beach
Reynolds was married three times in her life, but her first marriage remains the most intriguing. She and Eddie Fisher seemed like they were made for one another. They were both Hollywood wunderkinds who looked gorgeous standing next to one another, something that made them press magnets. The media loved them, and when they married in 1955 the became the vision of the All-American family, complete with two children, Carrie and Todd.
At the time, Reynolds and Fisher were great friends with Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Mike Todd. When Mike Todd passed away, Fisher went to console his grieving friend and his companionship turned into a full-on romantic relationship. Reynolds and Fisher divorced, Fisher lost his show, and Elizabeth Taylor lost a friend. Rather than sweep the whole thing under the rug, MGM put Fisher's actions on the front page of every magazine. In 2017, Reynolds told Vanity Fair:
They saw the situation, and they smelled the situation, and I was simply destroyed by it, but at the time, they were my publicity people. They owned me—I was under contract, so they put me into pictures right away. I did like four or five pictures right away, during the Eddie Fisher phase. They were taking a young talent that was nobody and she happened to fall into a scandal.
Reynolds was clearly a shining star of Hollywood's studio system, but as the auteur era of filmmaking took hold in the late '60s and into the '70s, Reynolds and others fell out of favor. Finding less and less work on the big screen, she pivoted. Reynolds made her Broadway debut in 1973 in the revival of Irene alongside her daughter, Carrie. The production broke weekly-gross records of musicals at the time and Reynolds earned a Tony nomination for her work before starring in the Broadway revue, Debbie, in 1976.
From there, Reynolds expanded the empire of Debbie. She opened a dance studio in North Hollywood in 1979, she put out an exercise video in the '80s, and in 1993 she opened the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Hollywood Movie Museum in Las Vegas. From '93 to '97 she performed at the hotel five nights a week and gave visitors a chance to take a peek at her insane amount of Hollywood memorabilia. Visitors had a chance to see everything from Gene Kelly's dance shoes, to the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Marilyn Monroe's white dress from The Seven Year Itch. Unfortunately, the museum closed in 1997 and Reynolds was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Debbie Reynolds will forever be intertwined with her daughter, Carrie Fisher. Fisher adored her mother from a young age, but she also hated how famous her mother was and Reynolds could feel the exasperation. Reynolds said of her daughter:
She wanted a mother who baked and did embroidery. I was in show business and didn't do that.
Fisher followed in her mother's footsteps, first on Broadway and then in filmmaking. After Fisher's whirlwind success following the Star Wars films she and her mother were estranged for a solid decade. The two barely spoke and when they did the conversations were full of spite. It wasn't until the release of Fisher's Postcards From The Edge that the two were able to mend their relationship. In 2000, Reynolds bought the house next door to Fisher. The mother-daughter pair remained neighbors for the rest of their lives.
The unsinkable Debbie Reynolds
By the 2010s Reynolds and Fisher were essentially a two woman show,;they were a team. While speaking about her mother Fisher said that she was one of the only women from her era of Hollywood to make a career and keep it going through the '70s, '80s, and '90s:
She's an extraordinary woman, extraordinary. There are very few women from her generation who worked like that, who just kept a career going all her life and raised children and had horrible relationships and lost all her money and got it back again. I mean, she's had an amazing life, and she's someone to admire.
On December 27, 2016, Fisher passed away at the age of 60 from a sudden cardiac arrest after a medical emergency on a transatlantic flight. One day later Reynolds suffered a stroke and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where she was pronounced dead hours later at the age of 84.
Todd Fisher said that his mother was so affected by the passing of Carrie that it definitely played a part in her death. He said that before she died she said, "I want to be with Carrie." He later said of his mother's final day:
She never wanted to outlive her children. It was shocking to lose them both, but in hindsight it was a beautiful thing. Even in the hospital, through my tears, I thought, ‘Wow, she did exactly what she said she would do.'