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Reluctant Debutante, The (DVD Review)

7 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, Sandra Dee, John Saxon, Angela Lansbury.

Though it’s one of those upper-crust comedies where the characters say “darling” and “divine” a lot, the second of Vincente Minnelli’s three movies in what turned out to be a banner year (1958) has more than a little in common with the director’s perennially popular Father of the Bride. Not visually, though. Father is rather flat-looking and (along with its sequel Father’s Little Dividend), one of the closest things to a non-looker that Minnelli ever made. Debutante, on the other hand, is Minnelli at his most CinemaScope/Metrocolor refined — one of four handsomely remastered widescreen color releases by the director that Warner Archive has just made available on demand, along with The Cobweb, Tea and Sympathy and Two Weeks in Another Town, yippee!

The great casting coup here is one of the things that probably limited Debutante’s commercial chances in the United States: the brilliant pairing of then real-life marrieds Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall as a British lawyer and second wife dealing with banker Harrison’s American (and American-ized) teen daughter in that then-dying Brit milieu of debutante coming-out “season.” (This was the same year that the movie version of Look Back in Anger helped launch the extended and naturalistic “kitchen sink” cycle of British cinema.) The two are perfect — and their performances perfectly in synch — but I remember what the Midwest movie audience (or anything not in New York or L.A.) was in those days. “Did you see Lou Groza’s field goal yesterday?” was more the order of the day.

In an attempt to attract the teen demographic — which wasn’t what it is today but getting there — Debutante also cast Sandra Dee (a year before A Summer Place radically told that very same age group it was OK to fool around if feelings were deep) and John Saxon, who had already appeared in two movies important to my formative youth. One was The Unguarded Moment, where Saxon hid in the closet of his high-school teacher (a non-swimming Esther Williams) and watched her disrobe, a scene that did a lot for male boomers when they were nine. The other was in the garage-band trash classic Rock, Pretty Baby, opposite Sal Mineo, Rod McKuen and Fay Wray). This was probably a good warm-up for him to play a drummer in Debutante’s Lester Lanin-type society band – the kind designed for those who want to rock out (sort of) in tuxedos.

Dee and Saxon don’t have much chemistry (the movie’s one performing flaw), but Dee has a nice scene with Harrison in the kitchen — filmed when she was just 15 and appearing in only her second feature. The other performance it’s easy to take for granted is Angela Lansbury’s as a motor-mouthed friend and mother to a young woman who’s poised to be a rival to Dee’s character but really isn’t. The difference (or, at least perceived difference) between what Lansbury brings to the role and what must have been on the printed page seems cavernous.

Still, Harrison and the pretty/funny Kendall are the show, even though Debutante was filmed when she was already suffering from the leukemia that would take her life at 33 less than two years later. (Kendall made just one more movie: Stanley Donen’s Once More With Feeling, which wrapped just a couple months before her death). For Minnelli, this comedy was sandwiched between two triumphs that did much better at the box office: Gigi (which went on to win the Oscar) and Some Came Running (better regarded now than then — but even then, three of its performances got Oscar nominations). This satisfying string had been preceded by Designing Woman (my favorite Minnelli comedy) and followed by Home from the Hill and Bells Are Ringing. Liza’s dad had a lot of career ups and downs, but in this period, he was on quite a roll.

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