100 Movie Musicals #40: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

An interesting failure, too stagey for the screen, too Hollywood for a good theatrical adaptation, with sawdust visibly leaking out of every seam. An interminably boring frontier musical about a fascinating historical figure where all the most interesting moments are shunted to the margins. The Titanic sinking is shoved to two of the last fifteen minutes!

bless her, she’s trying

We’ve had some bad movies on this list, ones I personally hated or that were thick with really blunt racism, but few of them have felt as perfunctory and tired as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, or so completely trapped by the more is more requirement of the big budget musical. Especially coming off three all timers like West Side Story, The Music Man, and A Hard Day’s Night, the sagginess of Molly Brown is hard to excuse. Even the color, normally a dazzling highlight of these productions, is wasted here on beautiful but uncanny scenery shooting or opulent but hideous interiors. Debbie Reynolds, so sparkling and joyous in Singin’ in the Rain, gives a committed performance as Molly Brown (for which she was bafflingly nominated for an Oscar), but she still spends 90% of the movie hollering in a cornpone accent, and Harve Presnell, her costar and the only Broadway actor to make the jump to the big screen, is tall and handsome and blandly mellifluous and deeply, deeply dull as Johnny Brown.

the boundary between hollywood and reality is seldom so stark

There’s an air of uncanniness to the entire production. Some elements — the frontier sets, the American performances, the dreadful costuming — are thoroughly artificial, but then they’re put against real locations or the second act’s detour into European cosmopolitanism, and it becomes almost viscerally uncomfortable to watch. West Side Story and The Music Man embraced artificiality, and thrived; A Hard Day’s Night put a vaudeville spin on New Wave realism to great effect; Molly Brown marries Hollywood hyperreality with Broadway theatricality and it just doesn’t work.

the tightest of pants against the widest of skies

Something also clearly went askew in the production. They cut 12 songs from the stage production, and it shows: Debbie Reynolds only gets two songs, and they’re both out of the way early on, leaving the rest of the tunes to be carried by Presnell, who is… I mean, he’s fine, he can sing perfectly well, but it’s so noticeable that he’s the only one who gets a number. There’s a song at the end of the second act that is notionally performed by Reynolds, but she spends the entire song with her back to the camera like she’s been replaced by a stunt singer, a baffling decision in a decade that was routinely still using ghost singers — My Fair Lady came out the same year, and didn’t feel the need to hide Audrey Hepburn’s face while she was being dubbed. The producers originally wanted Shirley Maclaine for the role, then Judy Garland when Maclaine couldn’t do it, so admittedly Reynolds was a compromise casting, but even then, why treat her like this?

very weird, very noticeable

I’m not a big fan of frontier movies in general — that whole Little House on the Prairie genre gives me a pain — but there’s plenty of narrative grist in that genre that the movie doesn’t bother with, even as it spends the vast majority of its runtime on the tension between these nouveau riche hicks and the second generation snobs of Denver. Things don’t start to really come alive until Molly splits from Johnny, returns to Europe and an affair with an impoverished prince and loses her accent, but that isn’t until the last fifteen minutes of two and a half hours; Reynolds does bitter and jaded and cosmopolitan so much better that it’s a shame the movie didn’t spend more time in that period of Brown’s life. The Titantic sinking, and Brown’s survival of it — the survival that earns her the sobriquet “Unsinkable” — takes less than two minutes of screen time, and is made of footage from the 1957 black and white Barbara Stanwyck Titanic. Baffling decisions all around. Debbie and Molly deserved better.

where was this energy the rest of the movie?

Something I’m curious about but don’t know enough about to really go into here is that Molly wasn’t just a rich hick trying to buy her way into society, the way she is in the movie, she was a rich philanthropist that did a lot of whatever you call rich person organizing? The closest the movie comes to that is a single gigantic gift bestowed at random on a priest, and a throwaway line that they pay their servants “too well,” whatever that means, but in real life she wasn’t just a donor and wasn’t just on philanthropic committees, she was actively forming them, and traveled the US and Europe to implement them. Like, real!Molly organized a survivor’s committee to ensure that all the survivors were taken care of after the wreck, and that wasn’t in the movie at all. In fact, anything that would have suggested that film!Molly had any conception of the world and the power relationships in it was cut out in favor of the sub-Caddyshack slobs vs snobs storyline, which is so much duller.

stop crying, hildy!

Also, she didn’t just survive the sinking, she took an oar in the lifeboat, and threatened to throw the lifeboat captain overboard if they didn’t go back and help more survivors; the movie version of that scene has her giving her clothes to other rich women who are cold and slapping a hysterical woman. I don’t know if the real life Molly Brown was an actually good person or not, but she was definitely more deeply engaged in something than anything that shows up on screen here, and that’s… I don’t know what the term here is, exactly. Richwashing? The movie strips any discussion of the power of the wealthy away and boils it down to a personal snobbish meanness instead.

1 Response to “100 Movie Musicals #40: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: