Mark Steyn

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Ave atque vale

A Glorious Rain

Our Song of the Week appeared a little earlier this weekend, in anticipation of the chimes of midnight. In lieu of our Sunday night serenade, Mark remembers the late Debbie Reynolds:

Two-thirds of a century ago, the lyricist-turned-movie-producer Arthur Freed called Betty Comden and Adolph Green into his office and told them to write a film script with all his old songs in and call it Singin' In The Rain. As Miss Comden said to me many years later, "All we knew is that somewhere we'd have to have a scene where it was raining and a guy was singing."

"In it," added Adolph Green.

Ah, yes, but why is he singing in it? What, as they fret at drama school, is his motivation?

Well, his motivation is Debbie Reynolds. The boy, the girl and the best pal have "gabbed the whole night through" (as they sing in "Good Morning") pondering how to resolve a crisis, and in the wee small hours Gene Kelly returns Miss Reynolds to her humble lodgings and kisses her on the doorstep. It's a bleak, sodden night, and she turns up his collar and advises him to be mindful of the downpour: "This California dew is just a little heavier than usual tonight."

"Really?" says Kelly. "From where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place." They kiss again, she slips inside her flat, and he shoos away the cab, steps out of the doorway and into the rain. And then the guy starts singing. In it.

And so begins the great signature scene of the Hollywood musical at its peak of perfection: chance of precipitation 100 per cent, certainty of four minutes of pure lovestruck joy amid the precipitation 200 per cent - because it's ignited by a kiss from Debbie Reynolds.

Among the crueler eulogies I heard this week was one from a callow commentator explaining that, without Debbie Reynolds, we wouldn't have had La La Land, the new, critically acclaimed (indeed, deliriously uncritically acclaimed) "romantic musical" with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. I prefer to think that, without Debbie Reynolds, we wouldn't have had "Singin' In The Rain", which had been in a procession of MGM pictures since the very first all-singing all-dancing film musical, The Hollywood Revue Of 1929, without ever quite landing. I went to see La La Land the day before Carrie Fisher died, two days before Debbie Reynolds died, and found it lumpy and earthbound. Today's movie stars can act, but they can't do - they certainly can't dance, which is why the genre of heightened fantasy for our times is not the musical but the superhero picture, in which you stand in front of a green screen and twirl a hammer or rustle your cape, and CGI does the rest. It's dismal to see the cameras and computers having to do the same for Gosling and Stone in their alleged pas de deux.

When Arthur Freed and his directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen cast Debbie Reynolds in Singin' In The Rain, she was a 19-year-old who was good at gymnastics. But she wasn't a dancer, and she was supposed to dance with two of the greatest screen dancers of all - Kelly and Donald O'Connor. MGM wanted her youth and sweetness and wholesomeness - which were vitally important in a cast of wisecracking cynics and fakers. But they also needed her to move around at a high level of fluidity and competence. Kelly was impatient, and cruel and dismissive. (Afterwards, he was amazed that Reynolds was still willing to speak to him.) At the end of shooting one day, MGM's other dance star Fred Astaire happened to be wandering past the sound stage and noticed sobbing sounds coming from the piano. Underneath he found a distraught Debbie. Astaire offered to help teach her the routines. Her pep and pluck got her the rest of the way. If you watch "Good Morning" carefully, you can see Kelly and O'Connor are the two old pros and she's the neophyte. But so what? That was kind of her character in the plot, and she keeps up, and holds her own. At the end of the sequence, her feet were bleeding - and, as she famously said, the two hardest things she ever did were childbirth and Singin' In The Rain. And on the latter there was no CGI to serve as a production epidural.

In another famous remark, she offered this condescending dismissal of her director, Stanley Donen: "Stanley just operated the camera." But in a crude sense she had a point. She performed, and he recorded the performance. No performance, nothing for the camera to record - not in that long-ago pre-computer-generated age. Kathy Selden in Singin' In The Rain was Debbie Reynolds' breakout role - literally: she broke out of a cake and into a charleston - "it's the cat's meow," as they sing - and she was eager and spunky, and never stopped being Debbie Reynolds and hugely enjoying it, until last Wednesday.

After Kathy in Singin' In The Rain, as much as for her daughter in a very different kind of breakout role a generation later, the stars never again aligned quite so satisfyingly - not Judy in I Love Melvin, not Pansy in The Affairs Of Dobie Gillis, not Suzy in Give A Girl A Break, not Tammy in her quartet of Tammy pictures, not Polly or Holly, Maggie or Peggy or the syllabicly singular Sister Ann in The Singing Nun, not even her splendid turn as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a true-ish story about the celebrated socialite and Titanic survivor. (That said, watching James Cameron's plonking retelling of the tale, I felt a sudden urge, in the midst of Leo and Kate's Irish step-dancing in the hold, to see Debbie shoulder her way through and show 'em how it's really done. "Unsinkable" transferred itself from the role to the star, and three years ago became the title for her last memoir.) But the roles weren't what mattered: the stardom was, and she held on to that.

Freed gave her the leading role in Singin' after some memorable cameos - including a turn as Helen Kane the Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl in the Kalmar & Ruby biopic Three Little Words (1950) with Astaire and Red Skelton. She was 17 years old and lip-synced to Miss Kane's recording of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" - well enough to earn a Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer. A year later, she didn't need anybody else's voice: she had a Top Three Billboard pop hit. Unsinkable and unsyncable, she taught herself everything she needed to do: She danced well enough to partner Gene Kelly and credibly enough to open her own Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in North Hollywood (which I believe is still running), and she sang well enough to get a Number One record out of Tammy And The Bachelor in 1957. Livingston & Evans wrote her a lovely ballad, and I especially treasure this couplet:

The old hooty owl hooty-hoots to the dove
Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love...

What else would a hooty owl do but hooty-hoot? Two decades later, for the film of Grease, Olivia Newton-John consciously modeled her performance of "Hopelessly Devoted To You" on Debbie Reynolds' reading of "Tammy", but it's a far more pedestrian song. Sinatra liked Debbie's singing enough to make her part of his Reprise Repertory Theatre and she turns in an irresistibly perky "Happy Talk" on his all-star South Pacific album.

She never found a love like Tammy's. Granted, the two guys who followed Eddie Fisher never dumped her quite so publicly, but they blew through her dough. As for Fisher, he left her for her MGM studio sister Elizabeth Taylor, and brought forth Debbie Reynolds' finest performance, one from which his career never recovered: The all-American apple-pie rosy-cheeked mom, abandoned at 26, in the front yard of her home with her two wee bairns. The diaper pin emblazoned on her blouse was an especially fine touch. She protected her brand, and deeply damaged his.

There's a photograph taken somewhere or other, just before the split, of the composer Jimmy Van Heusen flanked by, on the one hand, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher and, on the other, Doris Day and Nat "King" Cole. And, next to Debbie, Doris is the one who looks worldly and womanly, not least because she's clasping Nat's hand, which was rather daring for the time and indeed verboten in much of the media. No one ever claimed to know Debbie before she was a virgin.

Yet it was a persona. Off-screen Debbie Reynolds was, as she liked to say, a "broad", which was one of her family-friendlier epithets. On the one occasion I met her, very briefly, I was startled, twelve seconds in, to hear her use a word that never sullied her lips in Louis B Mayer's day - or at least not on screen. Of all the A-list celebs I've met over the years, she was one of the few my dad was interested to hear about, because he'd been sweet on her since his schoolboy days when he went to see her in Two Weeks With Love in the local fleapit in Dublin. But I didn't mention the naughty words: he had no desire to see Swearin' In The Rain.

Until Albert Brooks signed her up for the title role in Mother in 1996, she kept that side of her mostly off-camera. Times changed, and movies changed, and squeaky-clean peachy-keen Kathy and Judy and Pansy and Suzy and Tammy and Debbie didn't get the old hooty owl hooty-hootin' quite like he used to. Doris Day moved very successfully into sex comedies, and Debbie tried Divorce American Style, and How Sweet It Is, running around in her scanties and crumpling the sheets with James Garner. Her singing was great, her dancing was great, but the acting was suddenly dated, and insufficiently psychological even for sex comedies. Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds are more or less the same age, but the latter is an ing├ęnue from the MGM Golden Age while the former had a glorious Seventies and Eighties culminating in her sly turn as, ahem, Carrie Fisher's mom in Postcards From The Edge (1990). Playing her daughter's mother was a role Reynolds thought worth returning to the movies for, but the director, Mike Nichols, told her, "You're not right for it."

With film work increasingly uncongenial, Miss Reynolds did what a lot of Metro's roster did: She turned to Broadway. The original production of Irene had opened in 1919 and become the longest-running musical ever. How hard could it be to dust it off for the Seventies nostalgia crowd and make it into a Debbie Reynolds vehicle? To rewrite it, they hired Hugh Wheeler, best known as Stephen Sondheim's librettist (A Little Night Music, and later Sweeney Todd). To direct, they signed, er, John Gielgud - "a strange choice for director of a musical", as Joseph Stein (co-author of Fiddler On The Roof) remarked to me drily. On the road, it was a fiasco, culminating in one performance when Miss Reynolds refused to go on and Sir John took her place on stage, reading her lines while (disappointingly, for connoisseurs of epic disaster) assigning an underling to stumble through her numbers.

At this point, the producers telephoned Joe Stein to come and fix things. "When I was called in, I asked, 'What about Hugh?'," he told me. "They said, 'He's gone.' We're down as collaborators and I never met him till after the show opened. I had one brief meeting with Sir John, who was thrilled..." Stein paused, with (as befits an old Sid Caesar writer) perfect comic timing. "...to leave. He'd had it. He couldn't wait to get out. So I made a serviceable entertainment out of a shambles, as a professional favor."

Stein didn't want to take a credit, but Debbie Reynolds was having none of that. "Are you ashamed of this show?" she demanded.

"Well, no, not really," said Stein.

"Then your name goes on it." And so, at her insistence, it did. Irene ran two years. And at the end of it Debbie Reynolds had her post-movie career. As noted above, a lot of silver-screen talent was doing the same: all those leading ladies who succeeded Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! - Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour, Eve Arden, Ann Sothern... But they were all a generation older than Reynolds. She was barely forty when she turned her back on Hollywood, and didn't return until Mother a quarter-century later. "I knew it wasn't very good," she said of Irene, "but I knew I was." She figured out a way to do without the Hugh Wheelers and John Gielguds, and just give her public what they wanted: Debbie Reynolds, indestructible and unsinkable. Irene led to her Vegas show, and after that she was no longer at the mercy of Hollywood, Broadway or anybody else. And for someone who chose to walk away from Hollywood, she had a shrewder appreciation of its value than the guys running the joint. When you watch Singin' In The Rain, most of everything you're looking at wound up in her possession - the props, her clothes, Gene Kelly's clothes, Donald O'Connor's... In the Seventies, MGM's new owners, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, put the studio's heritage on the auction block, and it was Debbie Reynolds who snaffled up most of it.

Like the MGM memorabilia all around her, she stayed old Hollywood. "Don't I look great?" she'd say. And she did, until the end. She worked hard at it, harder than her daughter did. She worked harder at looking great than at motherhood - at least according to Carrie's account in Postcards From The Edge. But it wasn't quite Mommie Dearest, and Debbie seemed to have a professional respect for it as a good career move, like her own front-yard appearance after her husband's betrayal. She was a brilliant raconteuse - Shirley MacLaine captures that rather well, if more than a little maliciously, in the film of Postcards - and she passed on to her daughter an appreciation of the embellishments and refinements effective storytelling needs. And, while Debbie Reynolds was always going to put herself at the center, as the years went by, she helped bring Carrie back from the edge. Five years ago, she decided to sell her movie memorabilia, because she wanted her and her kids - Todd and Carrie - to enjoy life before they got too old. By then she and her daughter had found a modus vivendi. Last Tuesday and Wednesday they found a modus moriendi, eerie and fantastical and with a final line - "I want to be with Carrie" - as memorable as any she ever uttered on screen. The word "trouper" is grossly abused, but Debbie Reynolds was one, trouping, trouping, trouping until one bleak Christmas morning-after, when she decided to hang up the tap shoes and exit.

On the radio last week, I mentioned one of my favorite Debbie Reynolds moments - from Two Weeks With Love, when she was eighteen and playing the younger sister of Jane Powell. Miss Powell got romanced by Ricardo Montalban; Debbie had lanky, boyish Carleton Carpenter, who was extremely tall while she was petite, and so they looked cute rather than sexy like the leads. Carleton Carpenter, from Bennington, Vermont, is a jack of all trades: actor, songwriter, mystery novelist, and better at most everything he's tried than many exclusive practitioners. For Two Weeks With Love, he and Debbie did "Aba Daba Honeymoon", an old novelty song by Arthur Fields and Walter Donovan from 1914, right at the end of the Tin Pan Alley craze for jungle numbers:

Aba Daba Daba Daba Daba Daba Dab
Said the chimpy to the monk
Baba Daba Daba Daba Daba Dab Dab
Said the monkey to the chimp...

The gymnast had yet to learn how to dance, but she does her steps with brio and the gymnastics serve her in good stead when she's tossing peanuts to her duettist up a tree or swinging simian-like from the garden gate. "Aba Daba Honeymoon" became the first soundtrack to sell enough singles to earn a gold record, and suddenly everyone was doing a 40-year-old song - Hoagy Carmichael, Kitty Kallen, Merv Griffin... Its author, Arthur Fields, had retired to Florida and the fillip in royalties made his last two years very comfortable, until he died in a fire at his nursing home in 1953. Thomas Pynchon called "Aba Daba Honeymoon" "the nadir of all American expression", but I love that firecracker performance from young Debbie and her gangly swain. Years later, my little girl and I watched it together and took to singing it in the car on long journeys. This week my now teenage daughter said to me, "I was singing that all last term, and my friends said, 'What the hell is that?'" What it is is a terrific Debbie Reynolds performance that never fails to pick you up - now and forever.

from Ave atque vale, January 1, 2017

 

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