Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The last gasp of the MGM Musical, this big budget star vehicle definitely has its fans. Big, colorful, loud and vulgar in the family-safe way that all movies were in 1964, The Unsinkable Molly Brown is first, last, and forever a vehicle for the talents of Debbie Reynolds. If she's your cup of tea, it might be your favorite film. For others, especially with the shrill, faux-hearty mountain tramp-turned millionairess Molly Brown, listening to Reynolds is like hearing fingernails scraped on a chalkboard.
Colorado hillbilly Molly Brown (Deb in an interpretation that makes Tammy seem like Holly Golightly) marries a no-account miner (Harve Presnell, a Howard Keel singalike who stomps around like Jon Voight's monster in Fearless Frank) who strikes it rich, beyond anyone's wildest dreams. They have a rocky romance as they try to crash Denver society with their lusty lack of manners, and a breakup eventually maroons Molly in Europe where she entertains a retinue of hoity toity nobility and oily hangers on. But notoriety is followed by real fame when she books her return passage on the Titanic!
The Unsinkable Molly Brown starts with Reynolds yelling and screaming in the Rockies and doesn't stop for 135 minutes. She's undeniably talented, but her incredibly patronizing characterization pretty much sums up all that's wrong with show business - shallow, fake, insulting. Stupidity is a virtue in this Hollywood view of the lower class, and the Star rules all. She has good backup in actors like Ed Begley and Hermione Baddeley, but in general the casting seems to have been carefully chosen to make sure nobody but The Deb occupies center stage at any given time.
There's some peppy and memorable music. Belly Up to the Bar Boys is the highlight. The dancing is energetic but more exhausting than uplifting. The picture has never looked better in (finally) restored color and 16x9 enhancement. For extras there's a peppy trailer and a moronic studio short subject about the creation of a dress for Reynolds to wear in the film; with the kind of regal insensitivity one associates with Marie Antoinette, we're supposed to be impressed by how many underpaid seamstresses, for how many untold hours, can be worked to create a dress for an exalted star. (this is stretching it a bit, but Reynolds brings out the cynicsm in Savant. Dial out some of my attitude, and the hatefulness of the short subject is still there, I think!
Those looking for the Titanic scenes will see a couple of repurposed black and white shots from A Night to Remember cut into some lifeboat scenes that play like a Saturday Night Live parody. The historical Molly Brown did indeed take command of her lifeboat and fortified the spirit of her fellow surviviors, but if she had behaved like the the loudmouthed, 'spirited' Deb, her boatmates would have clonked her with an oar and dumped her over the side.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown grates because at heart Molly learns nothing except gross consumption and ostentatious living from her experience with sudden wealth - she seems to represent the arrogant, selfish ignorance of affluent America at its horrible, bottomless extreme. Yet there's a welcoming horde of people out there for whom this show is the epitome of upstanding values and virtue. It's a real Bush movie, so perhaps its timing on DVD is an inspired touch.
With a soundtrack remastered in Dolby 5.1, and a beautifully reworked 16:9 image, fans of The Unsinkable Molly Brown are going to love this new Warners disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Unsinkable Molly Brown rates:
Supplements: trailers, short subject, The Story of a Dress
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 25, 2001