The joyously nonsensical goings on and foibles of the degenerate rich have often served as amusing fodder for the stage and screen, perhaps never more adroitly than in director Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante (1958) a supremely elegant puff pastry of an English farce. At the start of production MGM envisioned the film as an upper crust society romp a la the spark and comedic flavor of their Father Of The Bride (1951). That the resulting film became too recherché for the middle classes proved to be both its advantage and its detriment. In America it did only moderate business, but acquired a fairly solid following in Europe.
Based on William Douglas-Home's 1955 smash London play, MGM purchased the rights to the property for a cool $150,000 with the understanding that they would incur the costs to produce it on Broadway before translating it into a movie. So far, so good - except that the Broadway incarnation was an unqualified disaster, playing only 134 performances and to barely tepid reviews. Undaunted, MGM pressed on, signing Rex Harrison and his then wife, Kay Kendall to play the esteemed banker Jimmy Broadbent and his wife, Lady Sheila. Further bolstering the film's pedigree is Joseph L. Ruttenberg's lush and lovely cinematography and Vincente Minnelli's swift and assured direction. Minnelli shot the film in just 7 weeks - a minor marvel considering the logistics nightmare of assembling cast and crew abroad.
Because of Britain's tax laws, Rex Harrison (a Swiss citizen) could not do the film in England where the action is set. The production was moved to France to accommodate the actor. Minnelli would have preferred to shoot everything live as he had done with most of Gigi (1958) eighteen months earlier. Instead he was forced to patch together his visuals from a series of beautifully constructed sets and process plate photography. The results aren't terrible, but they do tend to reveal themselves in all their artificiality. MGM also encouraged Minnelli to diffuse the tart British wit in Homes' original dialogue by casting Americans in the supporting cast.
Hence, Jimmy Broadbent's daughter, Jane (Sandra Dee) became a child from a previous marriage who has been living abroad in America with her mother. The boy she meets and falls in love with is now David Parkson (Jon Saxon); an Italian-American currently living in Europe who returns to Italy and becomes a Duke after his favourite uncle dies. Douglas-Homes (with an assist from Julius Epstein) agreed to these minor changes - none really hurting the overall charm of the original play.
Behind the scenes two great tragedies unfolded. The first is that the resulting effort put forth by all concerned failed to find its audience at the box office. Despite a superb opening weekend at New York's Radio City, where the film racked up the second highest gross for an MGM picture ever to play there, the overall box office fell decidedly short of expectations. But the greater calamity was more personal than artistic. Kay Kendall began the movie while 'recovering from a malady' that had been assessed as gastroenteritis. Only Harrison and Kendall's doctor knew the truth. The 32 year old actress had cancer. She would die of it 18 months later, robbing movie audiences of a truly one-of-a-kind and very luminous talent.
The Reluctant Debutante concerns itself with the irony and chaos from that gay social ritual of debutante balls in London England where daughters from wealthy families are paraded in front of young men for the sole prospect of landing a husband. Sheila Broadbent is determined that Jimmy's American daughter from a previous marriage will partake in the advantages of this 'meat market'. But Jane is a progressive girl with progressive ideas. She valiantly endures the rigorous round of cotillions and parties but is dispassionate about virtually all the boys she meets.
In another corner Sheila's fair-weather friend, Mabel Claremont (Angela Lansbury) is desperately trying to push her daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare) into the arms of David Fenner (Peter Myers); a real drip with a penchant for taking advantage of girls after they've been made a wee bit tipsy by him. Something of a wallflower, Clarissa is mad about Fenner. But Sheila is determined that he will be Jane's beau. Fenner has no problem with this arrangement. Jane most certainly does. She has already fallen madly in love with bongo-drummer David Parkson.
Mabel inadvertently adds fuel to this fire when she gives Sheila Parkson's phone number. Mistaking Parkson for Fenner over the telephone Sheila invites him to dine with the family. Meanwhile Parkson's ailing uncle dies in Italy. He bequeaths his entire estate (more like a small principality) to his nephew. Suspecting that Parkson was responsible for a scandalous encounter with a drunken girl one year ago, Sheila does everything she can to split Jane and David up. The truth is that Fenner was the real culprit of that scandal - not Parkson!
Under anyone else's direction The Reluctant Debutante would be just another light romantic comedy. But its frothy dialogue and expert interplay between Kendall and Harrison elevate the film from mere confection. Vincente Minnelli brings an impeccable elegance to the visual style of the piece. One can argue that occasionally his artist's camera eye goes astray but always in visually interesting ways. He transforms the montage of debutante balls into an almost nightmarish exercise for Jimmy who frequently soaks himself in champagne at the bar. But Minnelli's real gift is his staging. He knows how to move his actors - and more importantly, his camera - around a scene, maneuvering the audience in and out of the fray.
The film's one sour note is arguably its musical score, accredited to Eddie Warner but strictly speaking - a patchwork hand-me-down from other MGM films. The main title is a direct import from Minnelli's light comedy masterpiece, Designing Woman (1957). The background orchestrations span the gamut of memorable MGM music from films like Rosalie, Born To Dance and Rose Marie. Listening to these instantly identifiable American tunes in the background one wishes for a more lush British sound to go along with the sharp drawing room witticisms played in front of the camera. Perhaps MGM was merely pinching pennies where it counted most. After the play colossally fizzled on Broadway they were probably determined to keep costs on the film to a minimum. Despite its shortcomings, in the final analysis The Reluctant Debutante is a fresh and funny farce.
This is a Warner Archive MOD DVD. The film elements must have been in fairly bad shape. Despite being advertised as a 'remastered edition' The Reluctant Debutante's transfer is marred by a considerable amount of dirt, scratches and other age related anomalies. The image also suffers from all the inherent shortcomings of Cinemascope photography- a warping of vertical lines that get too close to the peripheries of the film frame and a horizontal stretching of actor's faces in semi-close up. There's also several grainy cutaways that look as though the original film elements have merely been blown up and then re-framed afterward.
Overall color fidelity isn't quite as bad as other widescreen movies I've seen from this vintage, but the spectrum does tend to adopt a rather reddish hue throughout. Film grain is present, occasionally excessively between transitions, fade ins and outs. The image is quite sharp without appearing to have had any digital manipulations. Overall, this is just a middle of the road visual presentation. Despite its six track origins, the stereo audio is rather bland and somewhat strident too. Dialogue is never natural sounding and occasionally background distortions make dialogue inaudible. On the whole this disc won't win any accolades but it isn't all that awful either. The only extra is a theatrical trailer - presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)