The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year.

That’s what’s been flooding my timeline on Facebook, that’s what’s coming my way on text messages, in e-mails from family, friends, even banks and online stores. And yes, don’t we all wish for a happier 365 days ahead? Don’t we all wish that this year to come will be full of good health and joy and realized dreams for ourselves and those we love?

The last thing one wants in the first week of January is a reminder of death, especially that of someone we love. Even if that someone was not friend or family, or even acquaintance—someone we only knew through their work. Sadly, though, this has become an almost-given, come December: yet another film star I loved passes away. A year ago, it was the beautiful Sadhana; in 2013, Joan Fontaine, Peter O’Toole, and one of my absolute favourites, Eleanor Parker. Rod Taylor, Suchitra Sen, Nalini Jaywant, Dev Anand… all gone in December or January. And this year, Debbie Reynolds passed away, just the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died.

Debbie Reynolds as Molly Brown

I like Carrie Fisher well enough, but her films are outside of the timeline of this blog—but I’ve loved Debbie Reynolds in all the films of hers I’ve seen: vivacious, talented, very watchable. I dilly-dallied, thinking I’d rewatch and review a familiar film, like Singin’ in the Rain or How the West was Won. Eventually, I settled for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, based on the real-life Margaret Brown, a socialite and philanthropist who not only survived the sinking of the Titanic, but whose efforts to rescue other victims of the disaster helped save several lives.

The film begins in an appropriate way: in the Colorado floods, a baby girl in a cradle all by herself is swept along by the waters. She soon gets swept out of her cradle, but battling the current, manages to make her way to the riverbank, where she wades out and onto the ground. [This baby should’ve got the Oscar for Best Stuntwoman, if there was an award like that. Hair-raising, really, and if I’d been this pint-sized actress’s  mum, I’d never have allowed it].

A hardy baby

The scene switches to many years later. Said baby has been found, adopted and brought up by a liquor-loving Irishman named Shamus Tobin (Ed Begley), who’s named her (now Debbie Reynolds) Margaret. Everybody calls her Molly, however, a name which suits her much better than the more dignified Margaret. Molly’s a tomboyish rapscallion, always ready with her fists, always involved in no-holds barred fights with the neighbourhood boys.

Molly takes on the boys

But, deep under the shabby men’s clothes, the grimy face and scruffy hair, beats a heart that wants a better life. Another girl from the neighbourhood has gone off to Denver, and sends Molly the occasional postcard with a glittering view of a life Molly can only dream of. With a beautiful house, a red door, a brass bed. And a room for Shamus where he can always have a jugful beside him. Ah, bliss.

Shamus talks about his dreams

So one day, Molly bids farewell to Shamus, packs up and heads off for Leadville, en route to Denver.

A few days later, Molly, emerging from a river after a bath, finds herself face to face with a stranger (Harve Presnell), who’s been watching her for a while now. Molly is indignant that this peeping Tom is so nonchalant and unrepentant about his transgression; she is even more affronted when he makes it obvious that the sight of Molly in the altogether does nothing to him.

Molly runs into Johnny Brown

The stranger tells Molly that his name is Johnny Brown, and he offers her a hot meal at his cabin. Leadville is ten miles away, after all, he says. She can even bunk down in his cabin for the night.

Molly has been without a hot meal for long enough to accept with alacrity. Johnny’s cabin turns out to be pretty posh, and Johnny himself is nothing to be sneezed at. He can read (even if only haltingly), which is more than Molly can do. He is also, as he tells her, very lucky with gold and silver—he can find mines just whenever he wishes, Johnny says boastfully.

... and accepts his offer of a meal

In all his talk, he lets slip the fact that Leadville, instead of being ten miles away, is just over the hill. Molly is so angry that she runs off, leaving behind the sack in which she’s been carrying her few belongings.

Soon after, Molly arrives in Leadville, without a sou to buy even a meal for herself. Desperate, she applies to the first establishment she passes, a bar owned by Christmas Morgan (Jack Kruschen). Seeing how desperate she is (Molly says she’ll do anything, scrubbing, cleaning, whatever), the good-hearted Christmas takes her on. When she admits that she can sing and even play the piano (the latter an impulsive and untruthful assertion), Christmas decides that since their singer and pianist has just gone off, Molly can do that work. A little cleaning up and a pretty dress, and she’ll do.

Christmas agrees to hire Molly

She does, mostly because Christmas’s clientele is not exactly sophisticated or discerning. And Molly, all said and done, makes up for in vigour and cheeriness what she may lack in feminine charm.

She’s quite a hit. And when she emerges from Christmas’s, who should she find but Johnny Brown, who has come up to Leadville, bringing her sack with her? Molly is surprised and touched.

Johnny comes, bringing Molly's belongings

She is also, when he becomes persistent, willing to be friends. As time passes (and Molly gradually begins to look cleaner and more feminine), Johnny starts giving her reading lessons—and soon she’s surpassed him, reading far better than he can. Johnny realizes, too, that he’s in love with Molly, and he tries proposing, again and again, but gets turned down every time.

Molly practises reading

Until he hits upon the perfect method: without telling Molly, he works on his cabin… and, when he takes her there some days later, it’s to show Molly the changes he’s wrought. The door has been painted red. There are curtains at the windows, a fine new stove to warm the room, a new stove to cook on. A bedroom with a comfortable bed and a bedside table with a big jug on it. And, the pièce de resistance, a big brass bed. Molly is so touched, she agrees then and there to marry Johnny.

The brass bed and the refurbished cabin

Johnny seems to have been very sure of himself, because he whoops and tells Molly that yes, they’ll get married, now. Before she knows it, all their friends, Christmas and all, are crowding in, along with the preacher, and she’s a married woman.

But by the time the last of the revellers has left, a thoroughly tipsy but jubilant Johnny finds that his bride is anything but happy. Molly has had to make do with, not a proper wedding ring, but a band of paper from around a cigar; she was not even given time to get herself a proper wedding gown, and has ended up marrying in a very everyday dress. What sort of wedding was this?! She is very upset.

Molly gets upset at her slipshod wedding

Johnny ends up leaving the cabin right then—and returns a few days later, to find Molly admonishing him for having disappeared so suddenly. She is happy to have him back, though, and even happier when Johnny tells her where he’s been. He had a silver mine that he’d laid claim to in Colorado, and he’s sold that off for a whopping great sum: three hundred thousand dollars. Johnny takes out the money, wads and wads of it, and hands it over to a goggle-eyed Molly.

All that money1

Barring a minor hiccup—all that cash being accidentally burnt in the stove—this marks the start of the rise of Mr and Mrs Brown. Within a short while, husband and wife have become so wealthy that they’re able to move to Denver and build a great mansion. But now begins the struggle to be acknowledged. Molly may be wealthy, but she and Johnny are the nouveau riche; too vulgar, too unrefined to be accepted by the ‘Sacred Thirty-Six’ of Denver’s elite.

Molly realizes that her wealth doesn't give her prestige, after all

Will Molly change? To what extent? What lies in store for her, and for Johnny?

The Unsinkable Molly Brown, as I mentioned at the start of this review, is about Margaret Brown, but other than a few details—the wealthy JJ Brown, Margaret’s husband; her indomitable courage and verve; and her role in the rescuing of survivors of the Titanic disaster—just about everything about this film is fictitious. Even the name of the heroine isn’t the same; Margaret Brown was known to her friends as Maggie, not Molly.

This isn’t, therefore, a biography, really: just a musical about a dauntless and very lively woman and her relationships, both with her husband and with a society she’s trying desperately to be part of. The songs and dances, though not top notch, are pleasant enough (I have to admit, though, that I didn’t particularly care for Harve Presnell’s somewhat operatic songs; they just didn’t fit with the rest of the music). There isn’t much depth to the relationships depicted, the story is flimsy, and there is little in the way of character development. All in all, a fairly run-of-the-mill Hollywood musical. Not bad, but not great, either.

Except for Debbie Reynolds as Molly Brown, a role for which she got a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Ms Reynolds is a joy to watch, whether as the scruffy tomboy rolling about in the dirt and giving as good as she gets…

… Or as the sophisticated socialite, still giving as good as she gets.

Debbie Reynolds in and as The Unsinkable Molly Brown

She is uninhibited. She is brilliantly physical. She is vivacious and bright, and she really lights up a frame just by being in it.

RIP, Ms Reynolds. You lit up our lives, too. You will be missed.


19 thoughts on “The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

  1. First of all Happy New Year. I am in a tizzy right now with too many things to attend to therefore it is very unfortunate that now I am not much of a blog trotter. There is always something very interesting to learn from blogs if one is able to make the time for it. For instance thanks to this post I learnt about Margaret Brown. I am going off the point now but you see I love time travel films and serials. Lately I have been watching Timeless- a serial about time travel (one of the reasons I guess why I have so little time, I do watch some English serials). While the story of the serial is not so important what I enjoy is the lessons in American history that I get as a result of watching this serial. After watching every episode I rush to the internet to check the details and I have learnt a lot just as I do while reading blogs like yours.
    Well let me comeback to Debbie Reynolds, have you seen Gazebo, she costars with Glen Ford. Both of them are wonderful, if you haven’t seen it then please do, I think it is there on You Tube. I loved that film, Reynolds is particularly charming and Glen Ford is hilarious.


      • That doesn’t matter. I’ll put it on my list and keep an eye out for it. Sometimes it may not be on Youtube right now, but someone will upload it later. Or it may be on another site, like Dailymotion. Thanks, Shilpi.


    • Thank you, Shilpi, and a very Happy New Year to you too!

      I haven’t seen Gazebo – thank you for telling me about that. I will certainly look out for it!

      By the way, I too love time travel tropes. Korean TV series (which are the only TV I watch these days, besides the annual run of Masterchef Australia), has a special fondness for time travel. Some of their very best series are based on time travel, and all of them highly, highly recommended. I think Ava will bear me out on this – she has seen, and loves, at least two of the time travel series I love too.


      • Yes I have read about the popularity of Korean T.V serials. BTW have you seen Frequency starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, it is to do with communicating through time, the son communicates with his father who is dead but the son is able to talk to him through a ham radio, the son is in the future and father is in the past. It was interesting, this was no time travel but a story of communication between father and son who are in different periods.


        • Oh, yes, I have seen Frequency – I like it a lot. Have you seen The Butterfly Effect? It is fairly graphic when it comes to sex, but it’s a very intelligently plotted story about a man travelling back in time to try and change things to suit his current situation – and then realizing that the way he’s changed things has had the most unforeseen of ripple effects.


          • No I haven’t seen that one but you know this reminds me of an episode from Star Trek. Jim Kirk and Dr. McCoy travel back in time, while in the past, the good doctor saves a lady from a fatal accident. When they return to the present they see that everything has changed for worst. After some research they realize things changed because the doctor saved the lady, she goes on to become the country’s President and she turns out to be a bad one, I don’t remember the details. This much I remember that to set things right Jim Kirk and the doctor go back again and this time they let her die. That was an interesting episode.


  2. Watched this a long time ago; didn’t find the film very interesting because the stereotypes were in full force (in my opinion), but really, really liked Debbie Reynolds. I watched her first in How the West Was Won, and liked her very much over there too. And gosh, she could dance! :)

    You’re going faster than I can keep up with the reviews. :) Happy 2017 to you and yours, Madhu.


    • Yes, I thought this wasn’t a great musical. The music (except for Belly up to the Bar, Boys) wasn’t memorable, and there basically wasn’t much of a story. But yes, Debbie Reynolds. How fabulous she was! I first watched her in How the West Was Won, too. and liked her a lot in that as well.

      Happy 2017 to you all, Anu!


  3. Though the review was brilliant, as usual, I do wish you had reviewed ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. It is my absolute favourite.
    Pssst, I actually enjoyed Lina Lamont more than any other character. Of course, she was still second to Cosmo.
    ‘Cosmo! Call me a cab!’
    ‘Ok, you are a cab!’
    Oh please, please do review it Madhu- as a New Year gift, because my name reminds you of a dear friend of yours- heh!
    Wish you a great year ahead and looking forward to many more delightful reviews through 2017 :-)


    • Thank you, Simrita, and a very Happy New Year to you, too!

      Let me see when I can get around to reviewing Singin’ in the Rain. I have the next six or seven posts already planned out (if not written), so if I decide to rewatch that, its turn will probably come only sometime around March. If I decide – because that’s not one of my favourite movies. Oh, the dancing is fabulous and some of the songs, but I remember being not particularly impressed by the story. So wanting to watch it again is going to require a lot of self-motivation!

      That dialogue, by the way, was originally (as far as I know; it may have appeared even earlier) from a Laurel and Hardy film. :-)


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