Whenever I think of Debbie Reynolds, who died on Wednesday, the first word that comes to mind is pluck. Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1932 to a ditch-digging father and a laundress mother, she had courage and determination in droves, which served her well once her family moved to Burbank, California, and she decided to set her sights on Hollywood. “My father raised me never to start a job unless I planned on finishing it,” she wrote in her memoir, Unsinkable.
That plucky nature is evident in Singin’ in the Rain (which she deemed the hardest thing she ever did, including childbirth) and every other musical performance she gave throughout her long and impressive career. She seemed both a natural and a force of indomitable spirit and hard work all at once. Now, with Reynolds gone, we’ve lost one of the last remaining stars of the golden age of Hollywood musicals—but you can take comfort in a few of her best and most inspiring numbers here.
“Aba Daba Honeymoon,” Two Weeks With Love
It’s a song about two monkeys in love, with lyrics that include: “ ‘Aba daba daba daba daba daba daba,’ said the chimpy to the monk.” But it’s oh so fun in its silliness, and Reynolds, in this mostly forgettable musical about a family of performers in the 20th century (she plays sister to Jane Powell), adorably shines in a duet alongside Carleton Carpenter.
“You Are My Lucky Star,” Singin’ in the Rain
“Good Morning” is undoubtedly her highlight in Singin’, but this outtake gives an even better sense of Reynolds' ability to sell a song and a character. While Gene Kelly’s Don sings a short and sweet version of it to Reynolds’ Kathy in the finale (with Kathy chiming in for one line), this is all Reynolds, a tender ballad set among the back lot of fictional studio Monumental Pictures. As she pines for Don’s “strong, manly arms” and admits that she was a fangirl of his long before they even met, it’s sweet and corny, but it works, even if it didn’t ultimately make it into that masterpiece film.
“Where Did You Learn to Dance,” I Love Melvin
All of that grueling instruction under Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain paid off. In her next starring role, she reteamed with Donald O’Connor for a flimsy but enjoyable musical about a girl who dreams of being a movie star and the Look assistant photographer who lies about his job ranking in order to impress her. In this cute number, Reynolds appears even more confident in her dancing abilities than before, and the two have undeniably great chemistry. Clearly, she learned to dance from the very best.
“I Ain’t Down Yet,” The Unsinkable Molly Brown
One of the most fascinating aspects of Reynolds’ career is the way in which she went from playing the cutesy innocent ingénue to the still-cute-but-also-feisty ingénue as time went on. She was unafraid to more fully embrace her tomboyish side in roles like this one, and she was just as convincing when she did. This number may as well be her personal theme song—as she says in the lines leading up to it: “I hate that word down, but I love the word up! ’Cause up means hope! And that’s just what I got—hope!”
“Chin Up,” Charlotte’s Web
For many people of a certain generation, our first encounter with Debbie Reynolds may not have been Singin’ in the Rain but Charlotte’s Web, the charming animated feature based on the beloved E.B. White novel. She played the title character, a warm, maternal spider who guides Wilbur the pig, and this song is another example of Reynolds tapping wholeheartedly into her can-do spirit. In the wake of her and daughter Carrie Fisher’s heartbreaking deaths on successive days, it’s the perfect attitude to turn to.
Bonus: “Tammy,” The Long Day Closes
It was the title song for the lighthearted 1957 rom-com Tammy and the Bachelor, starring Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen. It was also a No. 1 hit. But some 35 years later, Reynolds’ wistful tune about whip-poor-wills and being in love made its most enduring cinematic impact in Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes. In a stunning overhead sequence, Reynolds’ nostalgic vocals and the mournful orchestrations meld beautifully with Davies’ visual depiction of lower-class life in 1950s Liverpool.