Program Notes: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)
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But in the collective memory of popular culture she will always be the “unsinkable” Molly Brown, the rough-edged but big-hearted Denver socialite who lifted the spirits of the other survivors in her bobbing lifeboat and even demanded that the tiny vessel return to the sinking Titanic to pluck additional passengers from the icy waters.
Given the importance of the RMS Titanic to Molly Brown’s legend, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that the film The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) devotes less than two minutes of screen time to the entire Titanic affair.
But in a way that makes sense. This movie musical, based on Meredith Willson’s hit Broadway show, was meant to delight an audience, not put the ticket buyers in a dour and reflective state of mind by dwelling on death and suffering.
For the Molly Brown portrayed by Debbie Reynolds (she landed her only Oscar nomination for the role) a sinking ocean liner was just one more obstacle to be overcome in her ever-upward trajectory.
The Broadway production, with music and lyrics by Willson (of Music Man fame) and book by Richard Morris, opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on November 3, 1960, and ran for 532 performances. Tammy Grimes originated the role of Molly on stage, winning a Tony Award in the process.
The show had memorable musical numbers in “I Ain’t Down Yet,” “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys,” and “I’ll Never Say No.”
Even before the show closed plans were underway to turn it into a big Hollywood musical. Molly Brown was a product of the Wild West, a subject filmmakers knew how to exploit.
Watching the film version today, it’s hard to imagine how it could have worked on stage without the magnificent Colorado vistas captured in Daniel L. Fapp’s fabulous Oscar-nominated cinematography. These wide-screen mountainscapes are so spectacular they threaten to overwhelm everything else in the film ... everything, that is, but Debbie Reynolds.
Reynolds was 32 at the time (she wasn’t even 20 when she made Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly) and she brought all her considerable energy to bear on Molly, a backwoods tomboy who early on sets her sights on fame and fortune.
In hands less beguiling than Reynolds’ Molly could come off as a repellant social climber and gold digger. But Reynolds brings out the spunk in Molly, the unpretentious drive to succeed.
And succeed she does, first tending bar in the wild and wooly mining town of Leadville, Colorado, then marrying unpretentious Johnny Brown (Harve Presnell, reprising his Broadway role), proprietor of the world’s richest gold mine. They move to Denver and, snubbed by hoity toity society for their down-home style, head to the Continent where they are embraced as a breath of fresh air by those hidebound Europeans.
It’s on her voyage back from the Old World that Molly finds herself in that lifeboat, but her experiences only make her more famous and force the Denver snobs to reassess their attitude toward her.
In the end she wins over everybody.
The director is Charles Walters, all but forgotten today but in his time considered a highly reliable maker of movie musicals. Among his credits are High Society (the musical version of The Philadelphia Story), the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers Barkleys of Broadway, Summer Stock (with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly), and Easter Parade.
In addition to Reynolds’ best actress nomination, The Unsinkable Molly Brown was nominated for Oscars for color art direction-set decoration, cinematography, costume design, sound and music scoring.
It didn’t win any of those, possible because of the other big movie musical up for awards that year: My Fair Lady.
Other films in the series “Women and Children First”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 2: Titanic (1953) Not rated
- April 9: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) Not rated
- April 16: Raise the Titanic (1980) Rated PG
- April 23: Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) Rated G
- April 30: A Night to Remember (1958) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.