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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.