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The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

The scenic shots of Colorado Rocky Mountains as well as the abundance and character of musical dance numbers in this movie make for a brash but tasty visual and aural feast. With a likeable heroine and hero, superb supporting performances and great music from Meredith Wilson of Music Man fame, The Unsinkable Molly Brown satisfies in a way few other musicals do: it celebrates the common people of America. If you’re looking for an American version of European opera, you won’t find it here. This romantic comedy movie musical seems far too rollickingly American to be much like opera.

The movie opens on a scene of a child’s cradle in a roaring rapids. Before long the cradle/boat flounders, but the “unsinkable” child riding in it gets to shore. Credits roll while some of the musical themes to be explored in more depth later are hinted. When the credits conclude the scene returns from shots of mountains and sky to the river of the movie’s opening, but with an addition: a very simply outfitted angler pulling in a fish. The angler’s attention is taken by a passing horse cart containing a couple of men passing a jug while they sing of the joys of drinking. The angler gives chase and jumps aboard the back of the rig next to a small boy.

Shortly they all arrive at a very plain log cabin with a sod roof and outhouse. One of the men tells the angler to “bring in the feed.” A slingshot wielding young man, who was also in the rig, hits the behind of his target, who is carrying the feed and fish caught earlier. At this point the angler is revealed as a fiery red haired female with a temper to match her hair. She instantly seeks revenge on the shooter. Together with his brothers (two of them), they eventually almost subdue Molly (Debbie Reynolds), but she won’t say “uncle” and escapes their hold.

The young people have a rough and tumble scene with singing and dancing mixed in with the wrestling. During this Molly gives voice in song to some of her dreams for the future: “I’m going to learn to read and write, I’m going to see what there is to see.” She has hope, innocence, perseverance and ambition. As she puts it: “If I gotta eat catfish heads all my life, can’t I have ‘em off a plate once.”

Prospects at the cabin of her adopted father Shamus Tobin (Ed Begley, Sr.) don’t seem very good to Molly. She works hard, but there is little likelihood for the fulfillment of her dreams, which she keeps fresh in her mind. She decides to leave. As she packs, Pa talks to her. He advises her to look out for men who would take advantage.

The scene changes to a different Colorado valley and Johnny Brown (Harve Presnell) who sings of his love for his Colorado home (Colorado not America!) in an echoing voice, that should have graced more musicals. (Hollywood stopped making many for a long time.) In the next scene, Johnny meets Molly as she “trespasses” on his land after bathing in a stream (he gets an implied eyeful, we don’t see much). He offers Molly a place to sleep for the night and shows off his cabin, which is much nicer than Shamus Tobin’s, but not up to the standard of Molly’s dream house. She tells him of her desire to get to Denver and find a rich husband. After some conversation Molly discovers that Johnny exaggerated the distance to Leadville (her immediate destination), she figures with less than good intentions. She leaves his cabin in a hurry.

In Leadville she meets Christmas Morgan (Jack Kruschen) a tavern keeper who gives her a job when she tells him she can sing and play the piano. Christmas is losing much of his business to a competitor who has female entertainers. To keep her end of the bargain Molly must learn to play the piano. Her playing seems a bare minimum, but passes in the mining town of Leadville and Christmas’s business picks up. This draws the competition’s entertainers for a large song and dance ensemble. After that Johnny shows up with Molly’s travel bag which she left behind in her hurry to leave his cabin. She seems to have forgiven him for the slight she took earlier and asks him to teach her to read. Molly’s success has begun as has her love story with Johnny.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown is a brash, vivacious, optimistic, exuberant and unashamedly American musical. Perhaps, at times, it might strike you as “corny,” but people once did have the sort of attitudes that Molly and Johnny portray so well. Occasionally it might also seem as though Debbie Reynolds could be overplaying her part, but that helps to accentuate the change that has come over America. Just as Molly desires something more than the simple life of a cabin in the mountains, seemingly losing her roots, and her true nature; so America seems to have taken a similar stumble. Eventually Molly discovers her error. I hope American society and culture can do as well. Perhaps remembering or exploring the world and characters depicted in movies like this could help.

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