Jul 22, 2020

On Blu-ray: Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee in The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

The Reluctant Debutante (1958) is one of those rare raved-about films that I couldn’t access for years, but found it lived up to my expectations when I could finally watch it. Based on a play by British writer William Davis-Home (also co-scriptwriter here with Julius Epstein) and directed by Vincent Minnelli, it hurtles through predictable plot points in a delightfully unusual and offbeat way. This has much to do with its lively cast, led by the bizarre and hilarious Kay Kendall in a rare starring role. I was delighted when this film that I once struggled to find on VHS was recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Set during the debutante season, The Reluctant Debutante stars real life husband and wife Rex Harrison and Kendall as the also married Jimmy and Sheila Broadbent. Sheila is Jimmy’s second wife; he was once married to an American. The product of that first union, seventeen-year-old Jane (Sandra Dee) travels from the US to London to have a long visit with her father and the stepmother she has never met.

While Jane and Sheila get on well, their values are vastly different. The second Mrs. Broadbent wants very much for her stepdaughter to be a sensation during the season. Jane couldn’t care less about status and husband searching on the circuit, instead looking for fascinating subjects to photograph and much more interesting boys than the snooty bores circulating the balls.

Angela Lansbury complicates matters as Sheila’s nosy, but not unfriendly rival Mabel, who is also invested in propping up a young debutante: her daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare). A ridiculously boyish John Saxon adds more chaos as the polite, but worldly drum player with a reputation that Jane prefers to the upper crust swells.

Director Minnelli made little attempt to expand the action beyond the proscenium. With a cast like that he didn’t need to move far beyond four walls. Kendall had a way of expanding everything: herself, her surroundings, and the situation at hand. In a way you want her in a confined space so that you can appreciate every detail of her performance, because she works both big and small and it is a lot to take in. Harrison is a perfect foil for Kendall, essentially letting her have the fire, stepping out of the way, and taking his demotion to supporting spouse good-naturedly.

Tragically, Kendall was dying of cancer at the time of filming, a fact Harrison kept hidden from the actress, who thought she was suffering from an iron deficiency. She would die at age 33 in 1959. While she made several films throughout the 40s and 50s, she rarely found a role as juicy and well-suited to her talents as this one (Les Girls [1957] gave her another rare chance to shine).

With her sharp-edged beauty and screwball temperament, Kendall would have been a movie queen in the 1930s. Both onscreen and off she had the same merry, pedal-to-the-floor approach to living as Carole Lombard. Apparently she was also as joyfully foul-mouthed as her comedic soul sister.

As Jane, Sandra Dee is a precocious oasis of calm in the midst of Kendall’s whirlwind. Most young actresses would have faded away into dull straight-womanhood in this role. Dee can’t help but be compelling though. Even here at the age of fourteen she has a thoughtful gravity and a rare habit of listening carefully and learning quickly about the motives of those around her.

Saxon is equally calm, but magnetic. Having watched him play grizzled police detectives innumerable times over the years, it was amusing to see him in his dewy youth. These were the years where Hollywood seemed to think the Brooklyn-born actor should play Mexicans. He’s a good match for Dee, despite the slightly unsettling fact that this man is courting a girl who appears much younger than she is supposed to be.

With so many fascinating performers and the irresistible appeal of Kendall, this is a comedy romance that deserves more attention.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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