When Debbie Reynolds passed away on December 28th, she left behind an enormous legacy that is a part of the very fabric of Hollywood mythmaking. One of the last surviving actresses of the studio system and Hollywood’s Golden Age, Reynolds made an indelible impression onscreen in a series of earnest, good-girl roles, as exemplified by her most famous role as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). A tireless work ethic, Reynolds never stopped working, traveling around the world with a one-woman show and endearing herself to later generations with memorable turns as the voice of Charlotte in the animated adaptation of Charlotte’s Web (1973) and as Grandma Aggie in Disney Channel’s Halloweentown saga.
Reynolds was a burst of energy and light in her youthful days onscreen, nowhere more so than in her musical turns in Singin’ in the Rain and her Academy-Award nominated performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). What made her so memorable though was not her effervescent, girl-next-door gleam, but rather her unpredictable sense of humor and her underlying strength. Reynolds fought her entire life – from learning to hold her own as a 19-year-old previously untrained dancer against an initially unwelcoming Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain to raising two children alone after being a part of the most scandalous love triangle of the mid-twentieth century (Reynolds’ first husband, Eddie Fisher, left her and their two young children for Elizabeth Taylor who herself was grieving the death of her previous husband, Mike Todd). When Reynolds played the “unsinkable” Molly Brown, she portrayed a woman who wouldn’t allow life to lick her (ironically, it was also a role she had to fight for – the director wanted Shirley MacLaine) – the role was a metaphor for Reynolds’ entire life.
She was also supremely funny. Her comedic timing onscreen was perfection (she’s the ingénue in Singin’ in the Rain opposite the comic antics of Jean Hagen, but she still manages to imbue Kathy Selden with a winking sense of humor, particularly in her holier-than-thou opening scene). In life, she was even funnier – delighting audiences and interviewers with whip-fast wisecracks and an arsenal of staggeringly accurate Hollywood impressions (her Bette Davis was my personal favorite).
But perhaps more than her sunny onscreen roles, the dulcet tones of her hit single “Tammy,” or the sheer zest and fight with which she lived her life, Reynolds’ greatest Hollywood legacy was helping us see that Hollywood should have one to begin with. Without Debbie Reynolds, many of the physical items of Hollywood history might have been lost forever.
When Reynolds began to rise to stardom at only 19, Hollywood cinema was just beginning to earn recognition as an art form alongside other more traditional mediums like literature and painting (and this was mostly by a subset of individuals in France with the Cahier du Cinema). For Reynolds, the props, costumes, and ephemera of Hollywood were tantamount to religious items – relics of America’s own unique gods and goddesses. Her collecting began with her career, as Reynolds showed an early fascination in the wardrobe department and a desire to keep and maintain artifacts from her own pictures. But her collecting didn’t really take off until 1970, when MGM moved to auction off its props and wardrobes, a prospect that horrified the actress. Reynolds told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011, “"The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history."
In fact, she was ahead of her time in seeing the value of such items. Nowadays, coveted film memorabilia goes at auction for millions of dollars, but when Reynolds stepped in to bid on much of the MGM property, her peers, including gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, mocked her. It didn’t dissuade the actress though. Quite the opposite – her collecting became obsessive, and Reynolds amassed one of the greatest collections of film history in the world. The collection covered a wide range of pictures, materials, and dates, but just some of its treasures included a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939), an Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra (1963) headdress, a Charlie Chaplin bowler hat, and Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white subway grate dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955). Despite the inclusion of such priceless items, Reynolds amassed her collection with an eye for her own passions, not the sticker price or potential resale value. She chose items that held personal meaning for her as a starry-eyed lover of cinema, and many of them held stories of famous co-stars, friends, and acquaintances that passed through her life as an actress.
It was Reynolds’ dream to open a museum dedicated to the history of cinema, and it was one of the great tragedies of her life that she never managed to do so. She was forced to sell off her collection in three separate auctions to offset the cost of maintaining it and other financial difficulties. The auctions (catalogs here, here, and here) contained everything from posters and lobby cards to costumes and props, and they generated millions of dollars with items selling to private collectors around the world. Reynolds had wanted to collaborate with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the prospect of a museum, but she said they rejected her offers. Today, the Academy is in the midst of building a new and unprecedented museum, but they face the task of rounding up Reynolds’ large, diverse collection now that it’s been sold off to the highest bidders.
Still, no matter the oversight of the Academy and her collection’s dissolution, Reynolds made an enduring impact on cinematic history. Many of what are now considered film history’s most coveted items only exist because of Reynolds’ passion and conservation efforts – she made sure items remained protected and well cared for, not only collecting them, but helping to restore and preserve them. She gathered them with the discernment that comes with a deep-seated love, and before many others, she appreciated the meaning and value of Hollywood relics. Reynolds was a Hollywood treasure herself, but her greatest legacy was ensuring that many other treasures remained intact for future generations to enjoy.
Love Reynolds as much as we do? Tune in LIVE to Chillin' with Larry Magen this Thursday, January 5th at 11pm EST to talk about The Unsinkable Molly Brown with me!