Unsinkable: Molly Brown in the Movies

Today is the birthday of Margaret “Maggie” or “Molly” Brown (1867-1932), a figure of legend and fact who gradually who worked her way into American mythology over the course of the 20th century. Brown is best known and remembered as the heroine of Titanic Lifeboat #6, who not only demanded that the sailor in charge turn back around to pick up survivors, but worked an oar herself. It’s a telling anecdote which invites an excavation of the woman’s life, and her biography is rewarding.

The daughter of Irish immigrants, Margaret Tobin was born in a two room shack in Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain’s hometown) two years after the end of the Civil War. When she was 18 she moved to Leadville, Colorado, where she married gold miner J.J. Brown, who struck it big in 1893. These poor, plain people instantly found themselves wealthy, built a mansion in Denver, and began to navigate society. When Molly Brown sailed on the Titanic, she was returning from an expedition to Egypt with a party organized by John Jacob Astor IV. After the sinking, she ran for the U.S. Senate in 1914, but abandoned the campaign in order to become involved in World War One charities. In her last years, she acted on the stage.

It has been fun sifting through photographs of the real woman, having seen her portrayed on screen so many times. In contrast with most of the actresses who’ve played her, even ones who are known for being “plain”, the real Molly Brown was an extremely rough-hewn woman. The contrast of those frontier features with the fashionable finery she sported makes quite an impression indeed. Her “hick” origins are always written into her character, but I’m not sure any actress has every conveyed the visual impression she must have presented in real life. I can think of a couple of actresses who might might have come closer. While not as stocky, Lily Tomlin definitely has the right face. And if she had better acting chops and hadn’t blown-up her career, Roseanne certainly has enough crassness on tap. At any rate, here are a number of women who’ve played Molly in the movies.

Debbie Reynolds, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

This is both my favorite Debbie Reynolds performance and one of my favorite musicals. Texan Reynolds has cracker cred, and she does the role of Molly Brown much justice, even if she is too beautiful by a carload. I never saw this movie until a few years ago but found myself touched by the story arc of this indomitable woman whose social struggles amongst the snobs of Denver reveal the same qualities she displayed when the going got tough in the Titanic disaster. The real Molly Brown was stubborn, self-assured, and good-hearted. She was branded “Unsinkable” in her own lifetime, btw, long before the musical debuted. Tammy Grimes originated the part in the original 1960 Broadway production. The musical and the film treat of Brown’s entire life story, in which the Titanic sinking was but one highly dramatic episode. (I’ll lay dollars to donuts, btw, that the title of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a play on The Unsinkable Molly Brown).

Thelma Ritter, Titanic (1953)

Beloved character actress Thelma Ritter had a good face for the role, although she was a bit on the diminutive side. Ritter also possessed the requisite no-nonsense feisty-ness, even if the New York accent is off the mark. She was the first to play a version of Brown onscreen, although her character was fictionalized in the film to “Maude Young”, from Montana, rather than Colorado.

Cloris Leachman

The great Cloris Leachman played Molly Brown no less than twice! The first occasion was in a 1957 episode of a TV anthology show called Telephone Time written by John Nesbitt. The episode, called “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” can be viewed here. In 1979, Leachman got to play Molly again in S.O.S. Titanic (pictured above). Iowa native Leachman (whose dad owned a lumberyard) understands the character and does a great job, although her delicate-boned beauty (especially in the earlier version) differs from the stockier western woman she was playing.

Tucker McGuire, A Night to Remember (1958)

Tucker McGuire was one of the best all-around Molly Browns in terms of type. Though American-born (from Virginia), McGuire was an expatriate whose film career played out in Britain. Ironically, her accent seems forced in this British-made film (thought by many to still be the best), though she certainly looks the part.

Marilu Henner, Titanic (1996)

This two-part TV mini-series is probably the worst screen version of the disaster, and while one can’t help having great affection for Henner from her years on Taxi, and she she is having palpable fun playing Molly, one can’t help but regard her performance as part of the cheese in this cheese-drenched production, as opposed to rising above it. She’s also far too beautiful, making the casting a bit of a head-scratcher.

Kathy Bates, Titanic (1997)

Terrific, spot-on casting, and just one of many beloved elements in James Cameron’s justifiably beloved film. At best, Molly Brown is a supporting part in the overall story of the Titanic, almost a cameo. You only get a few short scenes in which to shine, and Bates, as she always does, shines here, giving 105%. I’ll never think of her in the role without hearing her say “What’s the matter with ya? That’s your men back there!” A line containing a hidden irony, for Molly and her husband had separated in 1909.

Linda Kash, Titanic (2012)

Canadian comic actress Linda Kash portayed Brown in the Julian Fellowes-scripted made-for-tv centennial mini-series. I watched it when it premiered. Much like Henner, she is funny and too pretty, but it’s a good performance.

Thought for future Molly Browns? The 1964 movie is great, but it does occur to me that only a handful of Meredith Wilson’s songs from the Broadway production made it into that version. Time for a re-make or revival, stage or screen? Her’s is a timeless, evergreen, and inspirational American story and we can use a boost about now.