In 1912, the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic created two cultural touchstones that have resonated with the world ever since. Undeniably, the first is the actual sinking; an awe-inspiring maritime calamity, likely to echo throughout the annals of human history – and folly – for many centuries yet to come. On that fateful April 15th, Titanic instantly departed the realm of fact and became the stuff of incomprehensible legend and tragedy. But the second icon to emerge from this disaster would rise like a phoenix from its watery grave, perhaps, in part because she survived the hell and, unlike contemporaries of her sex, took it upon herself to instill faithful confidence, hope and courage in the other survivors of Lifeboat No. 6, when all three were in exceptionally short supply. That woman was Margaret Tobin Brown, sometimes called ‘Maggie’, but affectionately known as ‘Molly’. She would enter the history books as ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’; thanks in large part to the musical genius of Meredith Wilson who, together with Richard Morris, launched a successful musical revue on Broadway in 1960, glamorizing the life and times of this relatively unknown Denver socialite and philanthropist.
It is important to note the legend of Molly Brown would have been nothing at all if Margaret were not something of a tomboy; born to extremely modest beginnings in Denkler’s Alley, near the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri, but fortuitously moving to Leadville, Colorado when she was just eighteen. The musical Molly is arguably more uncouth than her counterpart from history – at least, at the beginning; thus, making her transition into ‘polite society’ more of a contrast while adding spit, instead of polish, to the eye of Denver’s Sacred Thirty-Six. The stage’s Molly starts as a foul-mouthed scrapper and, at least in the movie version, is shown to have survived a devastating Colorado flood at the tender age of six months: interesting fiction, except for the timeline, as the flood referenced in the movie occurred in 1890, which would have made Molly only twenty-two at the time she heroically urged her fellow passengers to vigorously row in search of survivors from the Titanic. The real Molly Brown was pushing forty-five. Nevertheless, the artistic license taken by Wilson is effective at foreshadowing the real-life catastrophe Brown would survive.
What a smite to the bluebloods and nosegays Molly Brown must have been then; nouveau riche to boot and lacking the pedigree of a good family name, or even more distinctly, the proper social graces necessary to satisfy, former Southern belle, Louise Sneed and her hoity-toity sect, known as the ‘Sacred Thirty-Six’. In the movie, a compassionate cleric, Monsignor Ryan (George Mitchell) explains to a wounded Molly (Debbie Reynolds), “Denver is not New York or Chicago. The veneer is thin. You are a painful reminder of where these people come from.” Indeed, Denver then was a haven for a few established families, more renowned for their ancestral lineage of inheritance transplanted from elsewhere. Perhaps to avoid a lawsuit, or merely to muddle the integrity of history a little further for the sake of a good yarn, both the play and the movie concoct a counterpart to Sneed as Molly’s nemesis; Sneed once referred to by the real Molly Brown as “the snobbiest gal in Denver”: her fictionalized stand-in, Mrs. Gladys McGraw (played with austere upper-crustiness by Audrey Christie).
At least the fiction gets Molly’s marriage right…well, mostly. Despite her protestations and plans to marry a rich man, Molly would fall madly in love with impoverished miner, James Joseph Brown; rechristened Jonny for the fiction and played both on stage and in the film by brawny baritone, Harve Presnell. In one of those ‘happy ironies’ that always gels with Hollywood’s need for the proverbial ‘happy ending’; Molly and J.J. came into great wealth in 1893 after Brown’s engineering of the ‘Little Jonny Mine’ for his employers, Ibex Mining Co. yielded one of the richest strikes in history. Elevated to a seat on the board, and, enriched by 12,500 shares of company stock (a formidable sum), J.J. and Molly became the Beverly Hillbillies of their generation; moving uptown to ‘swell central’ in 1894, into an ostentatiously decorated, $30,000 Victorian manor on Pennsylvania Avenue. To say the Browns were immediately welcomed into Denver Society is more than a tad overreaching. The Sacred Thirty-Six (a society to which Molly aspired, but would never be allowed to join) thumbed their noses at her various entreats to join their influential social circle. Undaunted, the stubborn Molly instead dug in her heels, becoming a charter member of Denver’s Woman’s Club. Not merely contented to simply throw money toward a good cause, Molly would entrench herself even further in a crash course of the social graces; becoming well-immersed in the arts and fluent in no less than five languages – a very ambitious lady, indeed. If she nevertheless ‘improved’ her mind, it was not at a sacrifice or expense to her clear-cut duty to humanity or her sense of humor. On stage and in the movie, Molly’s determination to reinvent her husband’s life creates a temporary rift in their marriage; a plausible excuse for Molly to sail to Europe and revisit friends she had made during their first trip abroad in 1904. In reality, Molly and J.J. would not reconcile after 1909 although there is evidence to suggest their separation was amicable. Yet, Molly had conquered both sides of the Atlantic with her charitable works by then, even taking a run at the U.S. Senate in 1914; a campaign ended when she made the about-face decision to return to France and work with the American Committee for Devastated France during WWI.
As a Broadway show, The Unsinkable Molly Brown enjoyed a two year run at the Winter Garden Theater, starring Tammy Grimes in her Tony-Award winning role as this irrepressible maven. In Hollywood, Debbie Reynolds aggressively campaigned to play the title role, despite early press from gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper intimating Doris Day was all but set to star in the big screen adaptation. In truth, the lead had already been slated for Shirley MacLaine. But no sooner had she signed on the dotted line, then independent producer, Hal Wallis, claimed MacLaine was still under contract to him and thus, unable to make her own decisions on the matter. Legality having thus intervened, producer, Lawrence Weingarten thought better of the rumors and also, much more of Debbie Reynolds. At the age of 32, Reynolds, while far too young and pretty to play the matronly Mrs. Brown, nevertheless, took the play’s more bawdy affectations a step beyond mere caricature, toggling back the ‘larger-than-life’ legacy into a manageable creature of flesh and blood. Regrettably, MacLaine took the loss personally, publicly blaming Reynolds for undercutting her price. While it is nevertheless certain Debbie Reynolds was paid far less to play the part, MacLaine’s real stumbling block was Wallis – not Reynolds – and a potential lawsuit MGM could not afford to face. In hindsight, Reynolds would avoid MacLaine’s more formidable wrath, reserved for The Hollywood Reporter’s columnist, Mike Connolly. Having reported MacLaine’s loss in print before anyone had had the opportunity to inform the star first, MacLaine hauled off and slugged Connolly.
It might have been smooth sailing for Debbie Reynolds thereafter, except that director, Charles Walters had his heart set on directing Shirley MacLaine. Even after negotiations with Wallis stalled and fell through, and, the ink on Reynold’s contract to replace her had dried, Walters went to bat for MacLaine, doing everything in his power to convince Reynolds to back out of the project. When Reynolds called Walters out on his deliberate stalling, he suggested, “You’re much too short for this role” to which Reynolds pertly replied, “Why? How short is the part?” As cast and crew prepared to go on location in Colorado, Walters’ reluctance regarding Reynolds persisted. “He really was unhappy with me at the start,” Reynolds later mused, “Just did not want me at all. He offered me no direction, no insight into the character or how I should play her. After a few weeks of this I took my problems to Lillian Burns (the acting coach). She was a great help.”
Returning to the relative safety of Culver City, Walters made an even more disastrous decision: to cut the movie’s big production number, ‘He’s My Friend’ – claiming MGM’s cost overruns on Doctor Zhivago (1965) had irrevocably forced him to trim the fat off his production. Reynolds fought for the number’s inclusion – and won, learning the necessary dance steps in record time and shooting the entire 7 ½ minute spirited routine in only two takes; the action captured simultaneously by two separate camera set-ups; a common practice when shooting television programs – not movies – at the end of which one of her dancing partners, Grover Dale, collapsed from exhaustion. When the film had its’ premiere, Time Magazine gave Reynolds a well-deserved rave, “All charm. All bounce. All spirit and all fun! It is impossible not to admire her!” In hindsight, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) is likely the last great musical to emerge from MGM during a tumultuous decade in which the studio was steadily sinking under the weight of its own elephantiasis. Musicals in general had all but fallen out of fashion with most critics and audiences, rare megahits like My Fair Lady (1964) or The Sound of Music (1965) keeping hope alive another blockbuster was waiting just around the corner to invigorate the genre. Sadly, more often than not, musicals sank like stones at the box office.
And, at least in hindsight, The Unsinkable Molly Brown distinctly bears the cross of Metro’s cost-cutting desperation. E. Preston Ames and George W. Davis’ art direction for Molly and Johnny’s Denver mansion, gaudily decked out in varying shades of red, is a veritable art gallery of oddities borrowed from the studio’s vast warehouse of props; sumptuously photographed by Daniel L. Fapp. Exteriors for Denver were shot mostly on the back lot ‘St. Louis’ street, built for MGM’s Meet Me In St. Louis (1944); with its gingerbread architecture and familiar facades plainly visible. But even more damaging sacrifices were made when staging Johnny and Molly’s trip to Europe; the couple seen doing a spirited two-step across matte-painted promenades depicting London, Paris and Rome. Flawed too is the actual sinking of the Titanic, borrowing stock shots, tinted in Metrocolor from 1958’s A Night To Remember; the model work even more transparent in Panavision; the cutaways to close-ups of a horrified Molly, clinging to the ship’s upper decks as a cascade of ice from the ill-timed berg sheers away, landing only a few feet from her toes, not altogether convincing and, in fact, making short shrift of one of the movie’s pivotal plot points. None of this seemed to matter back in 1964, The Unsinkable Molly Brown becoming the third highest grossing picture of the year, nominated for six Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nod to Reynolds.
Immediately following the iconic MGM trademark roar of Leo the Lion, we open on the Colorado prologue; a runaway cradle, carrying the infant Molly down rapids: the child seemingly oblivious to the dangers involved before being jostled from her seat and momentarily struggling to pull herself from the waters. An segue into the ebullient main title and then a jump cut to Molly Brown (Debbie Reynolds) eighteen years later; scruffy, tomboyish and riding on the back of a wagon with her two boyhood friends, Jam (Grover Dale) and Joe (Gus Trikonis); her father, Shamus (Ed Bagley), punting the horses alongside his good friend, Murphy (Brendan Dillon). Joe playfully shoots Molly in the buttocks with a stone from his slingshot, inciting a minor riot that turns into an all-out brawl. Afterward, Shamus confides that perhaps he did Molly an injustice, raising her as self-sufficient as any man. For now, a maid of eligible marrying age, she is more a competitor than a potential mate for any boy who might have her. Empathetically, Molly quells her father’s fears. He did alright. She isn’t muddle-headed or boy crazy. And she is determined to do more than dream of the day she will leave the squalor of this farm life to marry a rich man. Shamus knows what can come of wishing for things too hard, especially when ambition drives strongly. “Serve the Lord,” he encourages Molly, “…and a hot breakfast. Then you can look for your Irish Catholic man with the roof that don't leak.” When Molly suggests the man who will win her will have to be more than Catholic, Shamus bewilderingly inquires what more there could possibly be to satisfy her. “Well, if he’s goin’ to crawl in next to me, he’d better be the richest Irish Catholic next to the Pope!” she emphatically replies.
The next day, Molly sets out for her dream – to find the town of Leadville. Meanwhile, in another part of Colorado, miner, Johnny Brown is ‘hollering in the mountain’, enjoying the sound of his reverberating echoes throughout the canyons. He comes upon Molly bathing in a nearby river. At first oblivious to his presence, she emerges nude from the sump to dry off, only then realizing she is not alone. “How long you been standing there?” Molly curtly inquires. “Long enough,” Johnny flippantly replies. After a brief series of loaded exchanges, Johnny offers Molly some stew and a place to rest at his cabin. She is standoffish, but hungry and eventually follows Johnny home, showing him a postcard written by her good friend, Katie Spinner; a girl since risen to prominence and living on Pennsylvania Ave. in Denver. “That’s where the rich folks live,” Johnny points out. This ignites Molly’s courage to hurry along to Leadville, the first stop on her journey. Alas, Leadville is no Denver, but a squalid little mining village with a saloon run by the congenial Christmas Morgan (Jack Kruschen). Morgan desperately needs a piano player to liven up his place and lure some of the paying clientele away from the Golden Nugget brothel across the street.
Professing to know how to play the piano, Molly is hired by Morgan on the spot; then, spends the rest of the afternoon and night learning to play the basic chords. Her rambunctiousness earns her the respect and admiration of the thirsty menfolk whom she encourages to belly-up to the bar. Johnny arrives and offers to teach Molly how to read. A romance begins to blossom; Molly resisting Johnny’s charms because he is a no-account miner who lazily takes what he needs from his claim, but does not aspire to come into any great wealth. To please Molly, Johnny builds a brand new cabin on his land, fulfilling all of her limited, if fanciful daydreams about ‘being rich’. She is touched by his sentiment and the two are married. But almost immediately, Molly begins to have her doubts. These lead Johnny to wild distraction. He sells his claim for a sizable $300,000. Again, in figuring out the best place to hide the money from potential thieves, Molly chooses the stove in the kitchen as the last place anyone would look. Tragically, her hunch proves right on the money – literally – as Johnny returns from his bath, slightly chilled, and lights a fire in the stove to warm himself. Their fortune gone up in smoke, Johnny heads right back into the wilderness with pickaxe in hand to find another claim. Quite by accident, he stumbles upon a rich gold reserve he christens ‘The Little Jonny’; the millions netted from it affording the Browns the opportunity to leave Leadville and move into a fashionable – if ostentatiously decorated – Pennsylvania Ave. mansion.
Alas, Molly is unprepared for her debut into high society – and vice versa – alienating Gladys McGraw (Audrey Christie) – the head of Denver’s Sacred Thirty-Six – with her frank good humor. Recognizing her desperate need to belong, Monsignor Ryan (George Mitchell) takes an interest in Molly. She has spirit and heart. Moreover, she is sincere and kind – qualities lost on Gladys who is even ashamed of her own mother, Buttercup Grogan (Hermione Baddeley), soon to develop a romantic yen for Shamus. Unable to persuade Denver society of her honorable intensions, on Monsignor Ryan’s advice, Molly takes Johnny on a whirlwind tour of Europe; subjecting them both to art history and elocution lessons – a crash course in a smattering of culture that leaves Johnny flat, but invigorates Molly to befriend some of the crown heads of Europe, including Baron Karl Ludwig von Ettenburg (Fred Essler), Prince Louis de Laniere (Vassili Lambrinos) and Grand Duchess Elise Lupavinova (Martita Hunt). Unlike Denver’s stuffy socialites, these heads of state embrace Molly and Johnny for their unspoiled vivaciousness. Johnny begins to suspect Prince Louis has a crush on his wife. Moreover, he is homesick. Molly decides for them both. They will return to Denver, but bringing along their new friends to show off.
Gladys, accompanied by Denver newspaper society columnist, Malcolm Broderick (Hayden Rorke) attends the party, shocked to discover her former manservant, Roberts (Anthony Eustrel) now working for the Browns. The party is a smashing success – at first; Molly subtly snubbing Gladys by exercising her grasp of several languages; also, her newly acquired artistic skills. Too bad Johnny has invited all of their old friends from Leadville; Christmas Morgan striking up a spirited barroom number that encourages Molly to take to the floor with Jam and Joe. The crown heads are enchanted by the joyousness of it all. But Gladys’ offhanded comment, smugly thinking the moment more suited to a brothel, and Broderick’s equally glib retort, “My dear, that’s how she made her living!” causes Morgan to assault Broderick. A brawl breaks out between the society swells and Molly and Johnny’s Leadville crowd; the crown heads partaking in Molly’s defense. Afterward, the Brown’s residence is a shambles. “Molly sure knew what she was doing when she had the place painted red,” Shamus proudly declares, “The blood don’t show!”
Broderick’s column smears the Brown’s good name in the tabloids. Molly, more determined than ever to succeed, elects to return to Europe. But Johnny has had quite enough of turning himself inside out for people he wisely deduces have no interest or respect for him. Refusing to accompany Molly across the Atlantic, she makes the journey alone. Months pass and Molly, now, has become the paramour of Prince Louis. Yet, she cannot reconcile what she has gained, in terms of wealth of culture, with what she has lost – the love of a good man without whom none of this would have been possible in the first place. During an anniversary gathering, surrounded by her European friends, Molly is driven to humiliate the Prince and confront Gladys, who is on vacation. Gladys is unresponsive, forcing Molly to admit – if only to herself- that in her bid to become a lady she has very much gone down in her aspirations to remain a good person. A short while later, Molly books her fateful transatlantic crossing on the RMS Titanic. The ship sinks, but Molly mobilizes the crew of her lifeboat, keeping up everyone’s spirits with colorful stories from her youth. Returning to Denver, she is hailed ‘the unsinkable Molly Brown’; Gladys finally coming around to declare, “You’re quite a woman.” Entering the mansion she once shared with Johnny, Molly casually peruses the empty rooms, climbing the stairs to her bedroom to change, but surprised to discover the old brass bed from her unassuming cottage in Leadville installed in place of the stately mahogany monstrosity that once filled the room. Suddenly, a familiar hat lands on the bedspread. Molly pulls back the door, discovering a repentant John Brown waiting for her behind it. The couple embraces and the screen fades to black.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown is so obviously a star vehicle for Debbie Reynolds. Only one other movie in Reynold’s repertoire – 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor – allows her such latitude to completely dominate the screen with fresh-faced effervescence and unapologetic spunk. Interestingly, both movies are about a backwards babe in the woods determined to improve their prospects with the love of a good man. Where The Unsinkable Molly Brown differs is in its third act; Reynolds made up to appear harsher – physically; lit to accentuate her tightly pulled back hair; sheathed in sumptuous period gowns designed by Morton Haack, somehow made ugly, or perhaps subservient to Molly’s entrenched resolve; a damning effect on the character as it goes against the grain of the Debbie Reynolds we all know and love. Yet, Reynolds plays this key moment for all its worth, unafraid not to be liked; seizing a torchiere from the corner, placing its lamp shade upon her head and proclaiming herself ‘Queen of the lard bucket’; a very embittered figure of fun, catering to a roaring crowd of uber-chic sycophants. She emasculates Prince Louis, ordering him to bow in her presence. He does so, perhaps partly out of shock and disbelief at being asked to do so, but moreover to placate her anger. Molly is neither assuaged nor amused. She does, however, find an unlikely soft spot for Gladys, the woman who disparaged her arrival in Denver, and, in this same scene, still looks upon her as an uncouth little bug to be vigorously squashed. Refusing to appease the show off, Gladys’ stubbornness is something Molly can recognize in herself and, in fact, admire. The epiphany, she has become the person she once despised, shatters her art of make-believe. In retrospect, it is impossible to imagine any other actress capably pulling off this moment of conceit; then, resurrecting the old Molly from its ashes; the gal with a genuine heart and blind faith in all human frailty.
It should also be pointed out Reynolds – while undeniably the focus – is nevertheless, not the ‘whole show’; ably abetted by the sadly underestimated Harve Presnell. Presnell ought to have become one of Hollywood’s brightest musical talents. Certainly, he possessed the looks and charisma of a leading man. Alas, his timing was all wrong – the last gasps of the musical as a viable genre leaving no place for his particular brand of overtly masculinized eloquence. He is, I think, unbearably excellent as the perfect counterpoint to Reynold’s boisterous Molly; his Johnny, a man in love, though not impugned by his wife’s desire to ‘make good’; intuitively knowing from whence he has come and acknowledge there is no shame in it - something Molly only realizes after faced with a thought-numbing crisis – one real (the Titanic); the other, of conscience, mirroring the wreck itself. And Presnell is enigmatic in this part besides; unafraid to poke holes in his impossibly butch he-man; bright enough as an actor to know his own mind, but smart enough to translate these complex emotions into his characterization.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown was a colossal hit for MGM; arguably, the last of their ‘golden era’ musicals, long after the age itself had dwindled. Critics and novices alike often ponder whatever became of this ancient ghost flower in American picture-making, when raw talent, readily prized and put on display, required no distractions in chop-shop editing and/or glittery digital effects to sell its wares. The answer is rather complex; owing to changing times and tastes, the introduction of television (depriving the studios of nearly half their viewing audience) and the falling off of Hollywood’s founding fathers – men, who by sheer willpower, the strength of their convictions; also, an intuitive knack for repeatedly picking a winner, dominated as purveyors of the popular entertainments of their day. Employing raw intimidation to keep stars in check, these moguls wielded unprecedented authority. Such individuals do not exist in Hollywood today, replaced by the MBA graduate and bean-counter, interested exclusively in immediate profits and relying almost exclusively on clever marketing to dictate choices being made. What has happened to Hollywood today is a rather sad homogenization of its product and people; movies looking like other movies, and, celebrities aping the iconography popularized by a handful of legends. The perennially youthful and optimistic Debbie Reynolds is, at the writing of this review, 83 years young. But when she passes from this world into the next, the void left behind as an iconic and easily identifiable ‘star’ of the first magnitude will unlikely be replaced by anyone even remotely able to resemble this great lady. No, Hollywood today is rife with copycats. Originality is rare. As an interesting aside, Reynold and MacLaine patched up their differences, MacLaine, with Debbie’s blessing, playing a part loosely based on Reynolds for 1990’s Postcards from the Edge; a celebratory tale of mother/daughter friction penned by Reynold’s daughter, Carrie ‘Princess Leia’ Fisher.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray of The Unsinkable Molly Brown is exactly what you would expect – in a word: superb. Shot in glorious Panavision, the image is an exquisite reference quality offering with deep, rich and fully saturated colors. The lush outdoorsy greenery and blood reds employed to decorate Molly Brown’s Denver mansion in particular, are lush and very vibrant. Flesh tones – pitch perfect. Contrast is solid and fine details pop in a way that make it easy to appreciate E. Preston Ames and George W. Davis’ production design; ditto, for Morton Haack’s absolutely gorgeous costumes. The whole affair is luminously photographed by Daniel L. Fapp, whose artistry is beyond reproach. Despite MGM’s cost-cutting efforts, The Unsinkable Molly Brown looks every bit the A-list grand and gargantuan Panavision spectacle you would expect from the studio that practically invented, and quite easily perfected the Hollywood musical in its heyday, and, in 1080p it is a sheer wonderment to behold. What a joy to see the film looking like this again. Hey, we ain’t down yet! The Warner Archive’s remastered DTS 5.1 is breathtaking, capturing the opening night splendor of the movie’s original magnetic stereo audio. Bass tonality is greatly advanced and the score will leave you tapping your toes as never before. Extras are limited. We get the vintage featurette: The Story of a Dress – promoting Morton Haack’s costuming and a vintage trailer. Bottom line: one of the greatest of all movie musicals, and a tour de force for Debbie Reynolds, now comes to exhilaratingly to life as never before. This is what Blu-ray mastering is all about and once again, we doff our caps to the Warner Archive for preserving their 20th century’s cultural heritage for decades yet to follow. A no-brainer/must have purchase. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)