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One of Debbie Reynolds’ most iconic roles is The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Released in 1964, it was nominated for six Academy Awards including a Best Actress nomination for Reynolds.
The rag-to-riches tale is one of perseverance amidst hardship, and the story not only resonated with audiences, but with Reynolds herself, who called it her favorite part.
She said, “In the sometimes blurry line between art and real life, Molly is the woman I’ve become as the years passed.”
1. Robert Goulet was the original lead.
Goulet was a much-sought after star in the 1960s. However, Goulet’s casting fell through when his record label refused to allow him to sing on the soundtrack. Robert Horton (known for Wagon Train) sought the role. However, Harve Presnell, who originated the role on Broadway, won out and made his film debut as “Johnny Brown”.
2. Shirley MacLaine wanted the part.
And Director Charles Walter wanted her. But when Debbie Reynolds saw the musical on Broadway, she knew she could play it. “I started campaigning for it as soon as I got back to California," Reynolds said, even offering to work for free. Fox Studio refused to release MacLaine from her contract, and so the producers considered Doris Day, Shirley Jones, Carol Burnett, and even Judy Garland. Reynolds, however, won the role after producer Lawrence Weingarten saw her Vegas show and knew that the versatile actress could seal the deal.
3. One dance was dangerous.
Debbie Reynolds got her friend Margie Duncan a job as her “dance-in”, someone who helps the choreographer work out the dance routines. While working on the first song, “Ain’t Down Yet”, poor Margie stepped on a loose straw shingle on the roof and fell down. She wasn’t seriously injured, but the crew made sure the rest of the roof was nailed down before Reynolds tried it.
4. The budget was cut while filming.
MGM took approximately $1 million from Unsinkable to put it into Doctor Zhivago. As a result, the studio wanted to cut the musical number “He’s My Friend”, which the cast had already rehearsed. In order to save the song, they used more than one camera and shot the huge dance number in one day. “If you watch closely, you can see me wobble. I don’t know where I got the strength to even pull myself up,” Reynolds said.