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December 26, 2011

The Reluctant Debutante

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Vincente Minnelli - 1958
Warner Archives DVD

I don't know why it took me so long, but I just realized that both of Vincente Minnelli's films from 1958 centered on preparing young women for their "introduction" as it were, to society, or at least a specific society. Gigi is the film with the box office and Oscar glory, but I prefer the less appreciated The Reluctant Debutante. What I mostly like are the two female stars, Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee.

There is one great shot of the two actresses together. They are listening to young drummer John Saxon tell about his time in Africa, recounting his witnessing of a tribal wedding dance. Both women are wide eyed. Dee looks on in fascination, while Kendall looks on in shock. That they are able to express themselves with their eyes only, without the need to verbally explain their feelings, is both tribute to their abilities as well as that of Vincente Minnelli.

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In retrospect, it seems fitting that Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee would be in a film together as neither had the opportunity to fully manifest their respective talents. Kendall made one more film - the title is painfully ironic as Kendall had died in 1959 of leukemia at age 33. My favorite moments with Kendall involve her falling out the door, discovered eavesdropping on Rex Harrison and Sandra Dee. Between the pratfalls in this film, and her seemingly impromptu turn on the trumpet in Genevieve, I always felt that had she been given the opportunity, Kay Kendall could have excelled in a role calling on physical comedy.

As for Sandra Dee, I suspect that she is primarily dismissed by people who haven't bothered to actually watch any of the films. I also think Dee's signing on with Universal at a time when the studio system was crumbling may have hindered her potential. Still, whatever was involved in the casting process, Dee is good when she worked with good directors. The high point is A Summer Place, especially a strong scene when Dee is force to undergo an unwanted and unneeded gynecological exam following a chaste night with Troy Donahue. A hint of what was to come a year later is in a scene in The Reluctant Debutante when Dee fights off the unwanted advances of a would be suitor. Maybe it was her age, and perhaps she was playing off of her own emotions, but Sandra Dee could make the plight of a misunderstood teenage girl as real as anything done by any method actor.

As for the film itself, the years have made London society and debutante balls seem more remote. This is a world where men dress in tuxedos and the women wear long gowns. There is a brief tourist eye view of the changing of the guard, but otherwise everything takes place either in the apartment home of Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall, or in a ballroom. Only in a shot of a tea room is there a glimpse of multi-culti London with some Indians also enjoying their afternoon tea. If I place what may seem like inordinate emphasis on that shot, it reflects Vincente Minnelli's own world view of racial inclusiveness which would extend to his films where possible. While the story ends with the American in London girl, Sandra Dee, dancing the night away with the American in London boy, John Saxon, the final shot has some poignancy as the last screen kiss of onscreen and real life husband and wife, Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall.

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Kay Kendall, Rex Harrison and Vincente Minnelli

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 26, 2011 08:15 AM