If you’re in the mood for a film about a woman with an outsized personality – and who isn’t? – then we have a treat for you.
The film is based on the successful Broadway play, which was (very) loosely based on the life of American philanthropist Margaret Brown.
Reynolds-as-Molly is brash and loud, and she storms through scenes with Determination. She’s on a mission to (A) go to Denver, (B) marry Rich, and (C) join Society.
(Okay, we sense a little disappointment that such a lively character gained her wealth by marrying it, instead of earning it herself, which she could doubtlessly do.)
Reynolds’s character, as a young woman, leaves home for the sole purpose of Finding a Millionaire. En route, she meets a nice, handsome man (Harve Presnell, reprising his Broadway role), and she marries him, even though he ain’t got much dough.
Turns out, though, that Presnell owns a mine and tons o’ cash, so Reynolds gets both love and liquidity.
As you may have guessed, the film is more about the Refining of Molly Brown than it is about anything else, including her actions vis à vis the Titanic, and this reformation is symbolized by her Absolutely Incredible wardrobe.
To be fair, Molly Brown’s Reformation includes practical things, such as learning to read and write, but filmmakers gloss over that and focus on her desire to fit into Denver Society. In order to do that, she must lose her accent and mimic the manners of those she regards as Well Bred.
This transformation is told through her wardrobe – and, if we’re honest, this film is as much about the clothes as it is Molly herself.
Let’s take a look:
Here is Reynolds-as-Molly at the start of the film. Notice her clothes are shapeless and baggy, and her haircut has a definite DIY feel to it. All suitable for stomping through the mountains, but not through Polite Society.
The first time we see Molly in a dress is when she finds employment as saloon entertainer. This Hand-Me-Down outfit is overlaid with black fishnet, but note the odd and cheerful ornaments: The colour red will be a recurring theme in this film.
As Molly falls in love, she develops a more feminine style.
Now that Molly has a Rich Husband, she’s desperate to fit into Denver Society. She has the moola, thanks to mining profits, but her neighbours think she’s uncouth. Her jewels and wardrobe start to become a little Much, reflecting her desire to Fit In.
But, during a trip to Europe, she refines the more outrageous parts of her personality and wardrobe, and becomes Debbie Reynolds, Glamorous Movie Star.
As we knew she would all along.
The story of Molly Brown’s Reformation via her Wardrobe is told by Morton Haack, who is likely best-known for his costume design for Planet of the Apes (1968).
During his career, Haack was nominated three times for an Oscar, including his fabulous work on The Unsinkable Molly Brown, although Cecil Beaton (My Fair Lady) received the award that year.
Now, we don’t want to give you the impression that Reynolds-as-Molly is a sell-out; she never loses her sense of humour or self-determination. Most importantly, she never forgets those less fortunate than herself, and always ensures her father (Ed Begley) shares her Good Fortune.
Debbie Reynolds said the role of Molly Brown was one of her favourites, and it seems she was born to it. She gives us a woman who Will Not Be Beaten Down – and has the wardrobe to prove it.
This post is a part of The Bustles and Bonnets Costume Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer and Silver Screen Classics.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown: starring Debbie Reynolds, Harve Presnell, Ed Begley. Directed by Charles Walters. Written by Helen Deutsch. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1964, colour, 128 mins.