Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2021) on… The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

We’re back for my last review of the year!  In this case, that would be the 1958 film The Reluctant Debutante starring Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, John Saxon and Sandra Dee!

Coming Up Shorts! with… The Screwdriver (1941)

(available on Blu-ray as part of The Woody Woodpecker Screwball Collection from Universal Studios)

(Length: 6 minutes, 48 seconds)

Woody is speeding through the countryside in his car, and decides to pick on a traffic cop watching for speeders. This one was still fun, especially with Mel Blanc voicing the character for the third and final time (in the shorts). Woody’s dealings with his car before he gets to the cop are entertaining, but it’s his torment of the cop that is when the real fun of this short begins! He drives the cop crazy (enough to send him to a mental hospital), where Woody shows up as one of the doctors! The character still sports the same design as he had in the previous short Woody Woodpecker, and provides fun and laughter (I know I certainly was laughing throughout)!

And Now For The Main Feature…

English banker Lord James “Jimmy” Broadbent (Rex Harrison) and his wife, Lady Sheila (Kay Kendall), are eagerly looking forward to the imminent arrival of his 17-year-old American daughter (from a previous marriage), Jane (Sandra Dee).  When they pick her up at the airport, Jane and her stepmother seem to hit it off quite well.  However, that is relatively short-lived, as Sheila runs into her gossipy friend Mabel Claremont (Angela Lansbury) and her daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare).  At first things are all right, with Jane and Clarissa going off to see the changing of the guard, while Jimmy, Sheila and Mabel go back to the Broadbents’ home.  During that time, all Mabel can talk about is the upcoming debutante season (where the parents of seventeen-year-old girls throw a lavish ball to help initiate them into society), which depresses Sheila, as she had missed her own due to the advent of World War II.  When Jane and Clarissa arrive, Sheila announces that Jane would also be taking part in the season (much to Jane and Jimmy’s surprise).  At the first ball, Jane dances with all the boys, but is completely bored by everything (and doesn’t bother to hide it).  Sheila tries to pair Jane off with the royal guard David Fenner (Peter Myers), but Jane is bored by him, too (not to mention the fact that, while she and Clarissa had been off on their own, Clarissa had told Jane that she had a crush on David Fenner).  However, Jimmy runs into a drummer named David Parkson (John Saxon), and he introduces him to Jane (since we have two Davids in the story, from here on we will refer to them as either Fenner or Parkson).  Jane is fascinated by him and enjoys his company.  However, Sheila is less than thrilled at this development, especially when her friend Mabel reveals that he has a less than stellar reputation due to a scandal the year before, and tries to separate them.  Of course, there’s not much trouble there, as Parkson has to leave to help take care of a sick uncle for a few weeks.  Meanwhile, Jane, Jimmy and Sheila continue to attend balls nightly (which leaves Jimmy completely exhausted), and Jane continues to show no interest in any of the boys.  With Jane’s ball fast approaching, Sheila starts getting desperate, and calls Mabel to ask for Fenner’s phone number.  Out of spite, Mabel instead gives her Parkson’s number.  So, Sheila calls him up, and invites him to dinner with everybody that night (which he accepts).  Shortly after she ends the call, Fenner calls up to invite Jane out to dinner alone.  Instead, Sheila advises against it, and makes sure he knows to come out with them to dinner.  At the restaurant, they are joined by Mabel and Clarissa, and both Davids show up.  Jane, of course, is happy to see Parkson (and the two of them quickly realize Sheila’s mistake).  Jane convinces him to take her out to a nightclub after he finishes playing the drums at the ball that night.  Sheila, meanwhile, insists on keeping an eye on them at the ball (and pushes Jimmy to do so as well).  Fenner, meanwhile, tries to kiss Jane against her will (out of sight of everybody else), but she gets away from him and runs off with Parkson before her parents can stop her.  Back at their home, Jimmy and Sheila wait for her to come back, with Sheila bound and determined to stop Jane from seeing Parkson again.  Will Sheila get her way?  Or will Jane (and Jimmy) be able to convince her that Parkson isn’t such a bad guy?

The Reluctant Debutante started out in London, England, as a 1955 play by William Douglas Home.  One of MGM’s London exectuives saw it in a pre-London tryout and loved it.  Their enthusiasm prompted producer Pandro S. Berman to see it.  He liked it as well, and convinced MGM to buy the film rights and finance a New York production as well.  In casting the film, Berman wanted rising comedienne Kay Kendall to play the part of the mother (with a little change of making her the stepmother, since she was fairly young herself, at the age of 32).  They brought in Rex Harrison to play the father (especially since he and Kay Kendall had recently married, and were looking for another project to do together after having both been in the 1955 British film The Constant Husband).  The film ran into script troubles, with Julius Epstein making some changes to the story that Rex Harrison didn’t approve of.  They planned to film in Paris, France, mainly because Harrison was a tax exile (trying to live outside of Britain for most of the year to avoid their high income tax), but with him committed to a London production of My Fair Lady, that meant they had to solve their script problems quickly.  So they brought in the original playwright, who changed a lot back to what had originally worked well for the play.  When the movie premiered, critics liked it, but outside of New York and London, audiences didn’t come, resulting in the picture losing money.  Sadly, it was also Kay Kendall’s second-to-last picture, as she was already dying from leukemia (which she and her husband kept as a secret from everybody).

Prior to this film’s Blu-ray release (more on that in a moment), I can’t really say that I had heard of this one.  The presence of Rex Harrison and Angela Lansbury in this movie is what really appealed to me (I hadn’t seen anything yet with Sandra Dee, and I’ve only seen Kay Kendall previously in Les Girls, where her performance didn’t register as strongly with me).  So I was very happy to discover this almost-forgotten film!  Rex Harrison was as good as I could have hoped for, and Kay Kendall certainly provided the comedy quite memorably! I know I had quite a few laughs out of watching the two of them reacting when Sandra Dee’s Jane and John Saxon’s Parkson go out to a nightclub (and even more so when the young couple arrive home and are being spied on)! Then, of course, there was the whole thing with Kay’s Sheila trying to call Fenner (when she was given Parkson’s number instead), which is just delightful in all the confusion that happens. But also, as a fan of many of the MGM musicals, I can appreciate the background music with the familiar strains of music from some of the studio’s earlier films (it’s the result of a musicians’ strike that happened during post-production, but it’s still entertaining, just the same). I can’t deny that the film’s main concept (with the “season” and all the balls and such) is a bit dated, but the film acknowledges that by referencing the then-recent decision of the queen to abolish the idea (not to mention Jane and Rex’s Jimmy disliking the whole idea). So, we have a case of “out with the old, and in with the new” that almost makes this a good film to watch around New Year’s (although I could easily watch it any time of the year). I would say that the film’s biggest problem, though, is the character of David Fenner. Most of the film’s humor concerning the character revolves around his only topic of conversation being traffic (and directions to various places). That’s fine, that’s not a problem. What IS (and may indeed be enough to offset that) is the fact that SPOILER ALERT he practically assaults Jane at the one ball, and it later comes out that HE is the cause of the scandal that David Parkson was accused of. In short, he is a rapist, and, outside of the fact that Jane turns down his marriage proposal, he essentially gets away with it scot-free (with Clarissa going out with him instead). Whether you can live with that aspect of the film will certainly affect how you come away from it. For me, the rest of the film more than makes up for it (particularly all the better comedy moments), and I would indeed recommend it!

What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2020) with… The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive Collection, with the Blu-ray sporting a new 2K master (if I am correct).  Personally, I think it looks fantastic!  The detail looks quite good, as does the color.  The picture has been cleaned up of all dirt and debris.  In short, the Blu-ray is certainly the best way to see this fun film!

Also, if you are interested in joining in on my first month-long “Screen Team Of The Month” blogathon for 2022 featuring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, please be sure to check out my Announcing the Jeanette MacDonald And Nelson Eddy “Screen Team Of The Month (January 2022)” Blogathon post to sign up!

Film Length: 1 hour, 36 minutes

My Rating: 9/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Rex Harrison – My Fair Lady (1964)

Les Girls (1957) – Kay Kendall

The Harvey Girls (1946) – Angela Lansbury – Blue Hawaii (1961)

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