Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Unsinkable Molly Brown


This movie has always had a special place in my heart, because I saw it during it’s initial run at Radio City Music Hall, the only time I have ever been there. Me and a friend, Phil Richey, both of us aged 17, had driven from SE Texas to NYC in a 1951 Hudson Wasp (“Three Teenagers Go to New York” our local paper said when we got back), to see the World’s Fair. I’m still amazed that we managed to do all the things we did, with as little time and little money as we had. We saw an off-off-Broadway play from the last row of the balcony, certainly the cheapest seats in New York, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. We spent time at the Museum of Natural History, and climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty (and the Washington Monument on the way home, when you could still do that). And we stood in line for at least an hour at Radio City, where we also were in the audience for “Jeopardy,” “To Tell the Truth,” and one other TV show. All this while driving an hour each way every day from East Orange, New Jersey, where we were staying with Phil’s uncle, to Newark, then taking the PATH train through the tunnel to the site where they were building the—sigh—World Trade Center towers. Oh, yeah, and four full days visiting every pavilion at the World’s Fair, living on a diet of mostly Belgian waffles covered with whipped cream and strawberries. Oh lord, to have that youthful energy back.

A special place in my heart … but that’s just because of the circumstances. The movie itself isn’t all that good, and it’s the fault of two people, in my opinion: Debbie Reynolds and Meredith Willson.

Willson is at fault because he took a woman who had a totally fascinating real life, threw most of it away, and manufactured a lot of romantic bullshit and flat-out lies. Molly bobbing down a river in a cradle, like Moses? Bullshit. (This was probably the idea of the screenwriter.) Molly returning to her one true love, J.J. Brown? Bullshit. They remained friends for all his life, but they legally separated. Burning up $300,000 in cash? Never happened. Big gold mine, likewise. Brown was an engineer, and made his fortune designing mining equipment. There are many other things that are highly dubious, such as her rejection by Denver society. She did survive the sinking of the Titanic, so he didn’t get it all wrong.

Normally I wouldn’t care much, but her real life was so damn interesting, and so utterly different. She was self-made and self-educated and became knowledgeable about the arts, and fluent in French, German, and Russian. (“I’m gonna learn to read and write” indeed!) She was an early suffragist, and worked in soup kitchens for the poor. She helped found the Denver Women’s Club, dedicated to women’s education and philanthropy. She worked with destitute children, and helped establish the first juvenile court system in America. What a real life! Wasn’t there a musical in there, Meredith?

The second bad thing is Debbie Reynolds, though she got an Oscar nomination for this. It’s either her fault for doing it, or the director’s fault for encouraging her or letting her get away with it … but the damn woman simply shouts all the first verses of these lovely songs. (All too few of them, really; they only used five of the songs from the stage version.) I’M GONNA LEARN TO READ AND WRITE!!!! I’M GONNA SEE WHAT THERE IS TO SEE!!!! And if you come from nowhere …” the last part actually sung, in Debbie’s very good singing voice. I got to where I wanted to cover my ears whenever she opened her mouth. Most of her dialogue and acting are just as exaggerated, and annoying.

Good things: Harve Presnell’s subdued performance and terrific singing voice. A lot of lively choreography by Peter Gennaro. Great outdoor scenes of Presnell singing against a huge backdrop. This movie could have been so much better with a more three-dimensional Molly and a lot more music.