TBT: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)


Debbie Reynolds felt a particular fondness for the title character of The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), saying “In life, I’m like Molly Brown. I’ve had tough times along the way and gone through experiences that many women have gone through. But I ain’t down yet.” Well, the fictional Molly Brown was more like Reynolds than the real-life Margaret Brown was like the subject of this musical. The actual person was a renown survivor of the Titanic who also helped impoverished children, women, and World War I refugees, but the events in this movie (and the theatrical show it’s based on) are almost entirely invented.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Debbie Reynolds with the red velvet gown she wore as Molly. Read more about Reynolds’ vast collection of movie costumes and memorabilia.

In the film of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Molly is an orphan found on the Colorado River (so her life is neatly bookended by water-related trauma), and she was raised as a rough-and-tumble tomboy by her solo adoptive father. She dreams of seeing the world and of having a measure of physical and financial security not found in their poor and rural setting. Thus, teenage Molly sets out to the nearest town where she talks/sings her way into a job as a saloon girl and meets J.J. Brown. She had been set on getting to Denver in the hope of marrying a rich man so she’d be able to give her father a nice place to live. But, of course, she falls in love with J.J., who’s almost as poor as she. Except he has an unused mine that eventually strikes it rich for the couple, and ta da they move to Denver and create the biggest, gaudiest nouveau riche house in the city founded by the very definition of nouveau riche.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Molly battles drag queens professional saloon girls to work her way up in the world.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Wearin’ calico, fallin’ in love with yr standard-issue blond hunk. He sure can sing ‘n build a tidy cabin!

Then the story becomes a battle of elites vs. backwoods country folk, where Molly Brown tries to rise from her humble beginnings and be accepted by the upper crust. Some reviewers in the 1960s — such as Variety and the New York Times — found the character of Molly to be shallow and obsessed with money. But I think they missed something about the story and Reynolds’ portrayal of Molly Brown. She’s not a money-grubber or social climber. She doesn’t revel in the material goods for their own sake — compare with someone like Lorelei Lee singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Molly’s wants are more simple, just one separate stove for cooking and one stove for heating, plus a big brass bed. Molly Brown wants to “see what there is to see” in the world, and she wants the social acceptance that comes with status.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

This is how Molly Brown starts out…

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Then she gets all posh and fancy.

She’s a people pleaser and thinks she can use money to get people to like her, making up for perceived shortcomings in her upbringing. I think there’s something sweetly sad about Molly Brown because she is really such a boyish character, both in looks (with short hair through most of the film), and actions (her “uncivilized” manners), and her pursuit of money feels like an attempt to feminize herself. When she and J.J. are rich, Molly wears elaborate gowns with ruffles and trains, and she decorates their house in red velvet, gilding, flowers, and other cliched feminine styles.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

The diamonds are his idea, but the ruffles are hers.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

The purple gown on exhibit.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Concept art for Molly’s ultra-feminine bedroom in the Denver mansion.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)


The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Molly (& to a lesser extent, J.J.) learns culture in Europe.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Fine art & furs.

Of course, money can’t overcome Molly’s innate wildness, even after she spends time in Europe acquiring old-world habits. While the film almost seems to say that her heroism during the Titanic tragedy is enough to redeem her, it’s really the love of a good man that sets Molly’s world right in the end.

Well, despite mixed messages in the story, Debbie Reynolds gives an entertaining performance, looking amazing in period-esque gowns and dancing up a storm. Both “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” and “He’s My Friend” are riveting song-and-dance set pieces, even more so when you hear that the latter one was filmed in just one day, to everyone’s exhaustion.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)



Are you a fan of the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

11 Responses

  1. Lynn S

    Awww! Thanks to my GMa, I had a pretty thorough grounding in musicals, and this was one of my favorites. It also helped that I was living in Colorado, so during a US history class in middle school I chose Molly Brown as the subject of a report and got to go to her house in Denver, as well as Leadville, as part of it. She was an amazing woman in her own right, but I adored Debbie’s portrayal. To this day it makes me smile, even if it is bad fan fic. ;) The scene where she’s prowling the house thinking like a burglar… the sneer! She was a riot in that movie.

    So… how historically accurate-ish were the costumes?They always seemed to me similar to My Fair Lady or Gigi, especially once they go to Paris, but the times would be off, wouldn’t they?

    • Trystan L. Bass

      The costumes are pure Hollywood of the era — vaguely going for 1900-ish styles but using modern construction & materials, no corsets, modern hair & makeup. Still beautiful in their own way tho’, tons of details like beading, lace, ostrich feathers!

      How great that you went to the Molly Brown house! I’ve read how they’ve used the popularity of the musical & film to tell the history, which is fascinating. Sometimes, historians get bent out of shape by the inaccuracies, but this is such a beloved musical, it works as an excellent gateway to learning the history, which is equally amazing if totally different (as you found :) ).

      • Lynn S

        As a trained historian (well, bachelor’s in history), I am one of the odd ducks that prefers historical fiction to real history, at least for its accessibility. Even when reading primary source material, it can be hard to understand motives and undercurrents in a way that is easier to garner in historical fiction. That being said, I even more prefer alternate histories of the fantasy world (Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange / Kushiel and Namaah series standing head and shoulders above the rest) in which it becomes more fun to play with what ifs.

        That being said, any excuse for a gorgeous drive through the mountains out to Leadville, and another gorgeous drive through the old money part of Denver are well worth the research!! Leadville still looks a lot like it did in its mining days, although the trade is much heavier in tourism now.

        I find it most sad that her efforts to help workers and children, especially setting up one of the first juvenile courts in the us, has largely become forgotten. To me, it’s one of her most ensuring legacies.

  2. Susan Pola

    Despite the nonperiod hairstyles, I am a fan.

    Molly Brown, in a way iin the movie, s what European aristocrats such as the English thought Nouveau riche Americans were. Too elaborate and new clothes (English aristocratic women and the American Old Guard prided themselves for wearing clothes a couple of seasons off– did they buy new and keep them in hiding for a year?

    I really loved the red gown.

    • picasso Manu

      They bought new and gave them to a servant to wear… At least Brummel was rumored to have all his new clothes “broken in” by his valet… And even artificially aged!
      New, and worse, looking new was nouveau riche and sooo vulgar.

      PS: I have troubles with that purple gown. Lace looks nice, but that print!

      • Trystan L. Bass

        The costume materials are all very modern — little attempt to source or copy period prints & such. But I do love how richly embellished costumes in old Hollywood musicals are, it gives great depth & of course they’re designed to move beautifully.

  3. MoHub

    Of course, the real Molly and Johnny Brown permanently went their separate ways. However, they never divorced as they were devout Catholics.

  4. Frances Dorrestein

    I loved visiting her Denver mansion. It was delightfully OTT.

  5. Charity

    I attended a Halloween tea in her Denver house a few years ago. Spacious it might have been for 1980, but in comparison to the movie’s mansion it’s TINY. ;)