SHE was slapped by a director on set, Gene Kelly forced her to rehearse until her feet bled and she saw fellow stars put under house arrest if studio heads thought they were stepping out of line. But, in recalling Hollywood’s golden age, the actress Debbie Reynolds believes the industry has lost more than it has gained since the demise of the big studios. It was that tyrannical control over every conceivable aspect of film-making, from stars to scripts, that produced some of cinema’s greatest movies, she says.
It is more than 60 years since she made her name with Singin’ in the Rain and half a century since she received an Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Now, at the age of 81, she is about to publish her memoir, Unsinkable, in which she tells many of the stories that the studios kept out of the press at the time.
“It was like the CIA,” she says. “They [the studios] protected the stars and, if they thought they’d get into trouble, they locked them at home. Or they wouldn’t pay them. The [stars] would go on what was called ‘lay-off’ because they were disobeying.
“It was like little children in school.”
There was a more sinister side to the control, she says, recalling Sammy Davis Jr’s bitterness when he was prevented from dating Kim Novak, star of Vertigo: “She was at Columbia ... The studio did not want her to go with Sammy because ‘black and white’ had not yet entered into the social scene.
“They forbade her from seeing him. She didn’t pay any attention, so she was locked up for three weeks [in the home of] the president of Columbia, Harry Cohn ... while they got Sammy out of town ... [and] married off to another suitable girl ... They didn’t want him marrying Kim Novak. He was very upset. There was nothing he could do because ... the Mob ... just put the gun to his head and said, ‘This is who you’re going to marry’.”
Such brutal treatment was common, she claims, recalling MGM’s break with Clark Gable. Barely 15 years after he made Gone with the Wind, the studio ended his contract, deciding that he ‘wasn’t worth the money’, she says: “He was escorted off the lot like a prisoner getting out of jail.”
Her first leading role was in MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain, but she was cast against the wishes of Kelly, the film’s co-director and leading man. Even though he was the studio’s “biggest star at the time”, she said: “Louis B Mayer [the studio head] himself had chosen me ... And there was nothing Gene could do about it.”
She adds: “I came from a background of non-dancing. Gene Kelly [was] the greatest dancer ever — I wouldn’t want me either. I’d have taken someone with lots of training. But I fit the story — a young, virginal girl.”
In her memoir, she describes Kelly at rehearsals, criticising everything she did: “[He] never gave me a word of encouragement. He was a severe taskmaster.” It was another dancer, Fred Astaire, who gave her confidence, reassuring her: “If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right.” Shooting the famous ‘Good Morning’ number for Singin’ in the Rain took 15 hours: “I collapsed from exhaustion. My feet were bleeding.” She and Kelly did, eventually, become friends.
Reynolds, born in El Paso, Texas, came from a close family with little money. Her father worked for the railway and she lived with her grandparents in a small house, using the bathroom at the next door petrol station, and sharing a bed with her brother and three other children.
Aged 16, she entered a beauty contest. “In those days the studios were looking everywhere for talent,” she recalls. “Solly Baiano, the talent scout from Warner Brothers, and Al Trescone from MGM, were in the audience. They were both interested in me and flipped a coin. Solly won.”
At a time when Kirk Douglas and Bette Davis were its biggest stars, Warner Bros signed her for seven years, starting on $60 a week. “That was more than my father made ... The big stars were paid $5,000 a week and we made maybe five or six pictures a year. Now they’re paid $20m a picture.”
The problem today, she believes, is that actors make their own films: “There aren’t any big producers any more. The actors put up the money and own the films — so they make films for themselves. They should make films for everyone ... In my day, they had floors full of writers, directors, producers. They all worked together. It was like a big university. And so they turned out wonderful products for all types of people ... I don’t think they do that today. I don’t want to see a million cars crashing ... We used to have stories that touched our hearts.”
Both in conversation and in her memoir, there is plenty of Hollywood sleaze, including casting sessions by studio heads — those with Darryl F Zanuck “weren’t always conversational” and Howard Hughes had a “bevy of girls stashed in different places ... supposedly ‘night testing’ for him”. She is not short of stories about stars behaving badly either, though, as is usual with Hollywood, they all seem larger than life. At one party she saw Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in a swimming pool “making out in the water in front of us all”: “Elizabeth could seduce any man, gay or straight.” At another party she saw Shelley Winters with her full skirt spread out over “two men who were servicing her”. Ava Gardner told her that she and Frank Sinatra often hit each other, and on one occasion she shot him.
In What’s the Matter with Helen?, Reynolds starred with Winters and remembers her terrorising cast and crew, one day accusing the costume designer of making her look fat: “Shelley ... stomped out of the fitting room stark naked.”
There were tragic episodes too.
She recalls her actress friend Pier Angeli, “a beautiful, innocent looking girl”, who married the singer Vic Damone despite warnings about his “bad reputation”. When Reynolds visited Angeli one day, she was shocked to find her battered and too frightened to leave. The couple divorced and, years later, Angeli took her own life.
But Hollywood is full of evil fairies. Reynolds’s memoir rewrites the fairytale ending that she foresaw in her 1988 autobiography, Debbie: My Life, when she thought that at last she had found happiness with her “loving” third husband, the property developer Richard Hamlett. “How wrong I was.”
She now lives alone, having survived three unhappy marriages — to the singer Eddie Fisher, who abandoned her and their children Carrie and Todd for Taylor, to the businessman Harry Karl, who took her to the “depths of despair with his gambling and cheating”, and to the third, whom she describes as “the devil”.
The book details Hamlett’s betrayal, both emotional and financial, but she is still able to joke: “Whether it was a toothless waitress from the waffle house ... Richard was never without female companionship. Hell, my first husband left me for Elizabeth Taylor. At least that made sense.”
© Dalya Alberge/The Sunday Times/NI Syndication