When her name comes up, many Hollywood connoisseurs immediately think of the golden age of Hollywood: Debbie Reynolds was the epitome of the golden age of the Hollywood film industry and made a lasting impression on the memory of the movie-going public like no other. Not least because of her daughter Carrie Fisher, who etched herself into the public’s memory in her role as Princess Leia, Reynolds was a sought-after personality on Hollywood’s red carpets well into old age.
Family background and beginnings in Hollywood
Mary Frances Reynolds came from a Texan family: among the family’s ancestors were English, Scottish and Irish immigrants. At the age of 16, the girl from a modest background made her film debut in 1948: she was signed by Warner Brothers.
Initially, she played smaller roles in two Warner Brothers films until she switched to MGM: MGM Studios offered Reynolds a professional home until the sixties.
When she signed a contract with MGM, she adopted her stage name, Debbie Reynolds.
The film studios saw the great potential of the young actress in musical roles: in 1950 Reynolds played her first musical role. In Three Little Words she played alongside Fred Astaire.
Singin’ in the Rain
In 1952, Debbie Reynolds played one of her best-known roles in Singin’ in the Rain: later, Reynolds repeatedly emphasized that this was one of her favorite roles. Although leading man Gene Kelly was initially opposed to Reynolds’ casting, a harmony developed between the two on screen. Debbie Reynolds achieved international fame through her role in Singin’ in the Rain.
The success of the musical Singin’ in the Rain convinced the decision-makers at MGM Studios that Reynolds was predestined for musical roles: in addition to her acting skills, she could also captivate the audience with her singing.
At the height of her career
The fifties were the golden years of Debbie Reynolds’ acting career: she mainly starred in musicals, but from the mid-fifties onwards she also added roles in other film genres to her repertoire. In the romantic comedy film Susan Slept Here (1954) Reynolds starred alongside Dick Powell. It was Dick Powell’s last film.
Debbie Reynolds’ career initially remained unaffected by the decline of the classic Hollywood studio system from the beginning of the sixties: in 1958 she played a role alongside Curd Jürgens in This Happy Feeling.
A Home in the Meadow
The increased popularity of Western films in the early sixties did not pass by Debbie Reynolds: Reynolds played one of her best-known roles in the star-studded Western epic How the West Was Won (1962), which also starred James Stewart and John Wayne, among others.
Her performance of the song A Home in the Meadow, which accompanies the entire film, puts the audience in a nostalgic mood: without Reynolds’ performance, the film would lack some of its Wild West nostalgia.
Her role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) earned Reynolds an Oscar nomination.
When Reynolds’ Hollywood career stalled in the early 1970s, she moved on to Broadway: in a revival of the musical Irene, Reynolds made her Broadway debut after two decades in Hollywood.
The Hollywood Museum
Throughout her life, Debbie Reynolds felt an obligation to preserve the history of Hollywood and make it accessible to the public: When the major Hollywood studios of the Forties and Fifties auctioned off their costumes and props, Reynolds bought a large portion of them at auction. She made it her goal to open a museum of film history in the middle of Hollywood. However, no one was interested in her plan at first: When she bought a hotel and casino in Las Vegas in 1991 and displayed her auctioned props there, her investment drove her into bankruptcy. Despite Hollywood’s extensive history, it wasn’t until the following decades that interest in establishing a Hollywood museum emerged.
In 1988, Debbie Reynolds published her autobiography under the title Debbie: My Life.
Debbie Reynolds’ marriage to the world-famous singer Eddie Fisher earned her a particularly large number of headlines in the fifties: The couple’s first child together, Carrie Fisher, also became a famous actress. Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds were particularly close. When Carrie Fisher died on December 27, 2016, her mother Debbie Reynolds died the following day.
Not just a film legacy
Debbie Reynolds left behind not only a great film legacy: The actress is also remembered to this day for her commitment to the preservation of Hollywood history – in 1972 she founded the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum organization for this purpose. However, her dream of creating a museum from the memorabilia she bought at auction never came true: at the beginning of the 21st century, she finally had to give up her dream.
At an advanced age, Reynolds embarked on a tour of the United States and Great Britain starting in 2010 with her Alive & Fabulous program: One can say Debbie Reynolds was on stage until her last breath.
She once said she initially wanted to become a PE teacher: fate gave her life a different direction.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig