Debbie Does The Rat Race


   By the time Garson Kanin’s play, The Rat Race, premiered on Broadway the playwright, director, actor, biographer, novelist and musician already had 11 previous productions on Broadway, including his super hit, Born Yesterday, which ran for 1642 performances. The Rat Race opened only days before Born Yesterday closed after an almost five year run. It had a less auspicious run of only 84 performances.  The film plays as a warning to Middle America – Beware of New York, it will eat you up! The two lead characters are naïve wannabe artists. So, where else do you go but to New York if you want to hit the big time.


   For Debbie Reynolds, doing this film was a change from the past decade. After ten years filled with sweet ingénue type roles that have been the backbone of her career, here we have Ms. Reynolds playing Peggy Brown, a dime a dance hostess (or whatever tickets cost in 1960). Originally from Tampa, for the last five years she is still looking for her big break. Her dance/hostess duties are at a Times Square dance hall run by a scuzzy low-life named Nellie (Don Rickles). Into Peggy’s life come Pete Hammond Jr., (Tony Curtis) a saxophonist, who left his Midwest (Milwaukee) home to hit the big time Jazz scene in New York. He’s an innocent in the big bad city. Not exactly a new premise.

   Upon his arrival, Pete can’t even find a cheap hotel room. He ends up in a boarding house sharing a room with Peggy who is about to get kicked out due to her owing back rent. This being 1960 the living arrangements are on the straight and narrow. She’s broke and about to be thrown out. The two need each other and reluctantly agree to share the one room apartment. Separate beds with a curtain for privacy. Pete, fresh off the farm, is sure he is going to take the town by storm and the living arrangement will be short term. After all, New York has been waiting for him.

   RatRace3   They have been waiting for him alright. Three weeks later, he still does not have a job. Then one day, talking to some fellow musicians in a diner, a guy overhears his hard luck story and tells him he can probably use him in his band. They need a sax player. He just has to audition. In a rehearsal hall, with two other musicians, Pete auditions. However, they say they’re not really sure he’s good enough. A decision is made to take a break. A coin is flipped to see who’s going to do the beer run across the street to Jack Dempsey’s. Pete loses. While he’s gone, the other three pack up, stealing his three instruments and leaving him flat. Pete discovers New York has been waiting for him and the vultures are eating him alive.

   With no money and no instruments, Pete may be down, but he’s not out. He gets an offer for a one month gig on a Cruise liner. However, he still needs an instrument. Peggy who has been working the dime a dance circuit for Nellie borrows $200 dollars from him even though she already owes him $400. In exchange for the money, she’s agrees to meet with some “gentlemen” clients of Nellie’s for dinner and companionship. Nothing too sleazy, he says. After all, it’s 1960 and we can’t show or have much sleaze, only insinuate.

   With the $200 in hand, Peggy buys Pete a new sax and he gets the cruise job. While he’s away, Peggy manages to avoid keeping her appointments with her “dates” arranged for by Nellie. Needless to say Nellie is livid. One evening, while she’s doing her dime a dance thing with a sailor, he drags her into his office and tells her to strip. Again, this being 1960 the stripping is mild: jewelry, shoes, removing a low cut gown and stockings.

   curtis-tony-debbie-reynolds-don-rickles-jack-oakie-the-rat-race-1960-press-kit-signed-autograph-8-photos-movie-scenes-33   The point of Nellie forcing Peggy to remove her clothes is not sex but power. A reminder that as long as she owes him money, he owns her. She has nothing without him. She will go out on the “dates” he arranges and will from now on not be a no show as she was in the past. But hey, this is wholesome Debbie Reynolds and despite the sexy low cleavage of her gown and the potential tawdriness of the “dates,” she is still America’s sweetheart. She does what any good America girl will do…skip town. At least that’s her plan.

   We and she know Nellie will seek revenge. Break her legs or even worst if he catches up with her for once again reneging on their deal. She starts packing to get out of the city. Unfortunately, Nellie arrives at her apartment before she leaves. Also arriving home at almost the same time is Pete, back from his ocean gig with 300 hundred dollars in pay that he forks over to Nellie who was just about to disfigure Nellie’s face. That’s only half, he complains. Pete’s 75 dollar watch and his musical instruments make up the rest satisfying Nellie that the debt has been paid.

   The film is interesting in a couple of different ways.  For Debbie Reynolds this was her first time playing against type. Peggy is cynical and bitter. After five years of failing to find success as a dancer, she sees New York as one big rat race filled with chiselers and hustlers. And as mentioned earlier she reveals an unusual amount of cleavage, at least for Debbie Reynolds. Also of interest is Don Rickles for his sleazy, hard-nosed, tough, no nonsense performance as Nellie, the manager/slug of the dance hall where Peggy works. After spending a few moments with Nellie you want to take a shower to wash off all the slime.  Last, but not least, are the great on location shots of late 1950’s  New York’s Times Square area which adds a fabulous time period feel to it all. The image below is interesting with a bit of inside humor  added. We see Curtis in Times Square; he just arrived in New York. Off to the left side of the image is the Victoria theater. Notice what’s playing. (1)


    Speaking of sleaze, look for a young Norman Fell as a low life telephone worker who has orders to remove Peggy’s phone due to non-payment. Peggy manages to get a two week extension with insinuated promises of sexual payment to come later. Fell was definitely practicing the leering look that he used a decade or so later in the TV sit-com, Three’s Company.

   As for Tony Curtis, he’s adequate. Not completely convincing in the role of the hick saxophone player; you never get over the feeling he’s acting. Curtis had to learn to play the sax for the role. Interesting enough, he had recently learned to play the flute in real life and there is a short scene where we see him play it in the film. (2)

   This was only director Robert Mulligan’s second feature film, his first was Fear Strikes Out, after years of working in television. Within two years he would make the first he is best known for, To Kill a Mockingbird.

   Finally, one other thing to look for is in the scene where Pete is given an “audition.” The practice session features two real life jazz greats, Gerry Mulligan and Sam Butera, the latter was a career long collaborator with the great Louis Prima.



(1) Some Like it Hot opened in March 1959 at the Loew’s State in New York. The Victoria run which would have began after the completion of the Loew’s State run most likely means The Rat Race was filmed toward the summertime or early fall.

(2) Curtis, Tony & Paris, Tony, 1993, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography, New York, William Morrow & Co. Inc., Pg. 178




This entry was posted in 1960's.

12 comments on “Debbie Does The Rat Race

  1. Thanks for the enjoyable review. I confess I cringed as I read this, given the casting and focus. I’m not a fan of this era of filmmaking, and I know Kanin best from his work with (wife and) George Cukor. I think I’ll stick to Born Yesterday and A Double Life. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. plwinkler says:

    The Rat Race is one of those middling films that have enough good elements to make it suitable viewing when you’re in an undemanding mood. Elmer Bernstein’s score is a definite plus.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Lady Eve says:

    Bernstein’s score is probably the best thing about The Rat Race! I did find Debbie Reynolds interesting cast against type, but she was so perfect for the sweetheart roles that made her a star – she was born for musicals and rom-coms. For me, Tony Curtis was too much a native New Yorker to be believable as a Midwestern innocent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Eve, maybe that’s what bothered me about Tony Curtis, he’s too much of a New Yorker to have been believable as an innocent from the Midwest. As for Debbie Reynolds, admittedly I am not a big fan. That said, she was perfect in Singin’ in the Rain. Generally, I just find her filled with too much sugar for my taste. The Bernstein score and Sam Butera’s sax bit are excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Joe Baltake says:

    Hi John- Terrific essay. I always loved “The Rat Race” and have been fascinated that it was released in 1960 around the same time as Wilder’s “The Apartment.” In some ways, each film is a variation on the other, very similar. A bit of trivia: I have a vivid recollection of Debbie Reynolds as a guest on “The Merv Griffin Show” in the 1970s. (I’m seriously dating myself here.) During a discussion of her career, Merv brought up “The Rat Race” and how much he admired Debbie’s performance in it. Without missing a beat, a look of horror overtook her face. “Awful film!,” she responded, “Horrible” – or something to that effect (affect?). I was surprised that she so intensely disliked the film because I agreed with Griffin. I thought it was terrific and that she was terrific in it. Go figure. (More trivia: The film was the first of two films for Reynolds and Tony Curtis, as the two would appear together in Minnelli’s “Goodbye, Charlie” a few years later.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Joe, Thanks! Good point about this film and “The Apartment” being released around the same time. Both definitely have a New York feel or grittiness to them. Interesting about Reynolds disliking the film. As part of my research, I went to the library to see if she had any helpful comments about the film in her memoir. She had one small paragraph, praised Curtis’ performance and not much else. You did get the feeling she was not fond of the film though she did not come out and say it. I saw “Goodbye Charlie” upon its original release (now I am dating myself) and liked it at the time. Have not seen it since. Wonder how it holds up. I always like George Axelrod who wrote the original play.


      • Joe baltake says:

        John- “Goodbye, Charlie,” reviled when it was released, has improved with age. A clever comedy and Reynolds is especially good in it. (Dave Kehr championed it on this former site a few years back.) Re “The Apartment” and “The Rat Race,” both are also about two people (fated to fall in love) sharing a small apartment (although, in “The Apartment,” it’s only for a few days). -J

        Liked by 1 person

  5. John Greco says:

    Thank Joe. I will have to hunt for a copy and take another look at it.


  6. I’ve tried watching this film, but couldn’t stick it out. However, I do like Debbie Reynolds in this kind of role. I don’t really buy Tony Curtis in this role, but I didn’t realize he had to learn to play the sax for this film.

    You’ve raised some interesting points, and I think I should give this film another try.


    • John Greco says:

      Curtis was too much of a New Yorker to come across as someone from the Midwest. I did find the film interesting if not completely successful. Thought Don Rickles did a good job in a nasty role.

      Liked by 1 person

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