UnsinkableMollyBrowncoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
1964, 135 min., Color
Warner Archive Collection
Not rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Trailer
Amazon link

You know the movie that you remember liking enough as a child to want to share it with your family, but then you fire up the popcorn popper and after 15 minutes none of them wants to watch it with you?

The Unsinkable Molly Brown is that kind of movie. As you view it again, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, you can feel their pain. Maybe years ago you overlooked the flaws because of a few catchy songs and a warm-hearted story that offered a happy tear-jerking payoff. But watching it again through their eyes, you can certainly understand why the family left the TV room one-by-one.

Despite her energy and a Best Actress Oscar nomination, Debbie Reynolds is frankly annoying as Molly Brown, the real historical character that inspired a 1960 Broadway musical and this 1964 film adaptation. She has a beautiful voice, but in The Unsinkable Molly Brown she doesn’t sing as much as she shouts or growls like an angry animal, and her portrayal of a poor uneducated Colorado tomboy will remind some families of Shelly Winters’ performance as the hillbilly mother in Disney’s animated live-action Pete’s Dragon. She’s brassy and she’s grating, so blustery that Winnie the Pooh would never even peek his head out of his hollow-log home if she were out there storming about.

In this film, Molly is the vinegar to Jonny Brown’s oil, but while singer Harv Presnell is so gosh-darned nice as the miner who would do anything for his Molly that it’s impossible for audiences not to like him, his singing is another story. Presnell, the lone holdover from the Broadway cast, is terrific, but the actor’s stand-and-belt operatic style can seem overwrought to contemporary viewers—something that’s not helped at all by two underwhelming songs he’s given, one of which (“Colorado, My Home”) is remarkably weak considering it came from Meredith Wilson (The Music Man).

The real Margaret Brown was raised dirt-poor in Leadville in a two-room log cabin. In actuality she met and married J.J. Brown, an equally poor man who became rich after his engineering led to a rich strike for his employer and he was given 12,500 shares of stock and also made a director on the mining company board. In reality, they bought a mansion in Denver and Margaret became socially active in the Denver Woman’s Club. The “unsinkable” tag came after she was already separated from J.J. and Mrs. Brown was returning from France aboard a new luxury ship—the Titanic. She gained notoriety after passengers told the press how she helped others into lifeboats and tried to convince the crew in her own to return to the site to look for more survivors.

UnsinkableMollyBrownscreenThat’s a great story in itself, isn’t it? But for the Broadway version Richard Morris made a few key changes. In the play and in this film, JJ is a poor miner who strikes it rich not once but twice, and Molly is the unrefined new-money ladder-climber desperate to be accepted into Denver society. Responsible for her rejection is neighbor Gladys McGraw (Audrey Christie), who is so concerned about social acceptance that she keeps her unrefined mother, Buttercup (Hermoine Baddeley), away from her circle of friends and the charity galas she throws.

The first 30 minutes of The Unsinkable Molly Brown can be rough, because it’s all Molly and her adoptive Pa (Ed Begley) drinking and singing and her “wrassling” with brothers and getting a job in a saloon. It’s like watching the hillbilly channel. The next 20 minutes are all about her spurning JJ’s advances until he finally wears her down. It’s when the two move to Denver and Molly becomes slightly less grating that interest picks up, and things get even more interesting when JJ and Molly go to Europe and meet all manner of royalty.

Molly yearns to be something she’s not, and she places such a premium on social acceptance that she would jeopardize her marriage to the one man who really loves her. And she’s not above using people. So really, her character isn’t exactly lovable. But while you do feel for her, it’s JJ who earns your sympathy. The film reaches its moral plateau at a ball where JJ welcomes their old unrefined friends from Leadville with a song (“He’s My Friend”) that Molly eventually embraces. It’s one of three songs that you’ll have in your head for days afterwards.

Is there anything here that families can’t see? Not really. It’s all pretty wholesome, and those who like musicals will still appreciate The Unsinkable Molly Brown. But Reynolds’ performance might be a bit too much for the younger generation to take.

Language: Euphemistic cussing, mostly
Sex: Women dressed like prostitutes do a “dance off” with Molly, JJ watches Molly dress, and there’s talk of Molly’s wedding night
Adult situations: Drinking and brawling, including the catchy song “Belly Up, Belly Up to the Bar Boys”
Takeaway: Critics called The Unsinkable Molly Brown big and bold and brassy when it was first released, and it’s still all that . . . though now those adjectives have a more negative connotation

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