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TCM Honors The
Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds

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Debbie Reynolds. Image by Allan Warren and used under a Creative Commons License.
At The End Of The Cable-Television Channel’s Festival Last Week, They Screened Her Most Popular Film, As Well As Had Her Son Speak About His Mother And Sister, Carrie


By Tom Johnson
Special For Modern Times Magazine

April 12, 2017 — Debbie Reynolds’ screen career flowered during the last decade of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the 1950s. As studios buckled under the encroaching pressure of television and began to shed their rosters of stars, Reynolds became a survivor. Her likable “girl-next-door” quality still provided her home studio, MGM, with a good ROI and Debbie’s fresh-scrubbed, pert innocence was a perfect tonic for audiences in the post-war era. Topping it all off, Reynolds had an endearing trait that evinced itself in scores of interviews and countless chance meetings with fans; she was legitimately humbled to be part of show business and nobody was a bigger fan of the movies.

And Debbie remained just that – a fan and a survivor – until December 28, 2016, when the crushing grief of her daughter Carrie Fisher’s untimely death just a day before at age 60 became too much for her to bear and she succumbed at age 84.

One of Debbie’s classic films, the one that made her a star, Singin’ in the Rain, was screened in tribute to her on the closing night of the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, Calif. On hand to reminisce about Debbie and Carrie Fisher was Todd Fisher, Debbie’s son and Carrie’s younger brother. The movie was screened at the TCL Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was the perfect venue since Grauman’s appears at the beginning of Singin’ in the Rain as the theater hosting the premiere of silent screen heartthrob Don Lockwood’s The Royal Rascal.

“Ever since mom passed, we’ve been going through a lot of her things,” Fisher said. “There is a lot of stuff in storage. My mother was a packrat. I found a keepsake box from high school and it included whatever she thought was important to her. It had been closed and unseen for 55 years. Inside the box were some snapshots from Korea when she entertained the troops. It is what gave her a passion for relieving other people’s plight. She wanted to be a gym teacher so there also was her high school letter and a musical letter she won because she played the French horn. There is only one movie she’s in where she actually gets to play it.”

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Fisher said that his mother was always a fan of the movies and instilled in him and Carrie a great appreciation for the classic films. “She drove that into us from an early age,” he said. “She lived on a little street called Evergreen in Burbank and walked to school and past the Warner Brothers lot and it never occurred to her that she would get a screen test there or that anything would ever happen to her.”

According to Fisher, Debbie entered the Miss Burbank contest in order to win a free bathing suit and did an impression of Helen Kane the “Boop Boop a Doop Girl.” (An impression she would reprise as Helen Kane singing “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in the film Three Little Words.). She won the contest and a screen test for Warner Brothers Studios soon followed.

“The nerve that she had to even think of dancing with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain goes to the core of who my mother was,” Fisher said. “She had this ‘never say can’t’ philosophy that was ingrained in us growing up. It was part of our family vocabulary passed down from my grandfather to mother to my sister and myself.”

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Fisher said that Debbie and Carrie created some “amazing magic in their lives” that moved and touched many people around the world.

“But really the ultimate gift was the love my sister and mother had between them,” he said. “I think that when they left the planet together, there was a message that went beyond the art. It was a life message to us all and it said to us, make sure you take that moment to give that hug and to say that goodbye.”

Summing up, Fisher said that nothing was left unsaid between him, Carrie and his mother. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I have no missing moments where I should have done this or said that.”

The anecdotes finished; as the movie began and the lush melodies of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown filled the theater, the packed audience began to be transported. From the front row to the back row, the old movie palace was filled with fans; what Debbie always called “my people.” And when she made her first appearance on screen after Gene Kelly jumps from the top of a trolley into the front seat of her jalopy, for a moment Singin’ in the Rain seemed to freeze-frame as if lost in time and Debbie was once again that beaming ingénue, forever 19, at the beginning of a storied career and before failed marriages, bankruptcies, setbacks and comebacks had tempered her. And that’s the way we’ll remember her: singing and dancing, irrepressible and unsinkable.

Tom Johnson has been an entertainment journalist for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV with David Fantle. He is also a former senior editor for Netflix.
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