The year before we found out “Gidget is the one for me,” Sandra Dee was playing in this rom-com with quite the polished pedigree. Vincente Minnelli’s The Reluctant Debutante may feature Dee, but it’s hard to say this is truly her movie. In reality its claim to fame is being the one and only starring vehicle married couple Rex Harrison and gone-too-soon wife, Kay Kendall made together. Remade, kind of, as the 2003 Amanda Bynes comedy What a Girl Wants, The Reluctant Debutante succeeds for its willingness to question the audacity of adults when children come into their own.
Jane Broadbent (Dee) is sent to visit her British father and new step-mother, Sheila (Harrison and Kendall). In an unspoken competition with her cousin, Sheila decides to throw Jane head-first into “the season,” a debutante’s “coming-out” into society. A whirlwind roundelay of balls commences, driving Jane’s father Jimmy mad. Jane soon finds romance with drummer David (John Saxon), but Sheila is desperate to get rid of the boy once she hears of his bad reputation.
The Reluctant Debutante sticks out in Vincente Minnelli’s filmography, released in between the Academy Award-winning juggernaut that is Gigi and the army vet drama Some Came Running (which itself was nominated for five Oscars). Just because this film wasn’t nominated for anything doesn’t mean it’s the valley between two hills, instead it illustrates the director’s immense range. The Reluctant Debutante, at times, feels like something in Minnelli’s wheelhouse, yet at other times comes off like a foreign studio produced it, a la the Rank Organisation or Gainsborough Pictures.
Americans, especially in the South, know of the debutante, but here it’s elevated to the level of monarchy. Jane scoffs at the endeavor not because it seems old-fashioned, but because she wants more from the people she associates with. Between this and Gidget Dee became the poster child for young women smart enough to realize the games people play for love and sought to rise above it. She doesn’t get pie-eyed at the first guy who comes along; she’s, shall we say, reluctant? Sheila is the one bent out of shape that Jane doesn’t feign interest in the men she’s dancing with. In a bizarre connection to what’s going on in the modern world, Jane finds out the nice, boring guy her friend Clarissa (Diane Clare) is in love with is actually a predator. (Note, he’s nowhere near as bad as today’s Hollywood guys, but he definitely doesn’t take no for an answer.) The whole thing is expertly summed up by Harrison’s Jimmy who explains how the concept of the debutante ball and the reason for the film’s plot is ridiculous.
It’s amazing to see how many talents are assembled for what amounts to a small romantic comedy. Dee came into her own in the late-’50s, but she’s pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Her arrival kickstarts the narrative, but the movie doesn’t go the route of making this a fish-out-of-water/clash of cultures story like its remake would. Jane goes along with the whole thing with little provocation. Outside of the romantic arc with Saxon, I wouldn’t say there’s reason to watch this for Sandra Dee alone.
I would, however, say there’s plenty of reason to watch this for the adults. Ordinarily, I despise Rex Harrison. As an actor he’s never wowed me and as a person, well, there are plenty of reasons. Here, though, he takes a backseat and plays the voice of reason to his daffy wife. The parties, conveyed as an unceasing merry-go-round of music and bars, leaves Jimmy with little more to do than get spiffed. Because this is the ’50s the movie presents him as the saner figure, open to believing that David’s reputation is the result of miscommunication where his wife would never believe it because “truth doesn’t mean the same thing to a woman as it does to a man.” Angela Lansbury as the twice removed cousin – “not removed enough” according to Jimmy – Mabel gives us Lansbury in one of her many meddling mother characters. The plot revolves around Mabel and Sheila’s competitiveness, but it’s never overt what they want. There’s a bit about Jane catching the eye of Clarissa’s beau but the stakes never run high enough to believe that would cause any rumpus. The whole thing feels very formal.
Kay Kendall is the film’s star as the flighty, over-reactive Sheila. Kendall would pass away a year after this film, and in fact was already severely sick with the leukemia that killed her (a fact she didn’t know, but Harrison did). Regardless of what was happening behind-the-scenes it’s understandable why Kendall was often compared to Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur. She has a verbal sprightliness that works to great advantage during several rapid-fire dialogue exchanges over the telephone. The best is one involving two different Davids, one deceased mother, and Sheila “sending her love.” The whole affair, complicated by a plot that teeters on the edge of zaniness makes you sad for what Kendall could have done had she lived longer.
The Reluctant Debutante won’t go down in history as one of Minnelli’s masterpiece but it is a fun comic showcase for Kendall, especially. The blend of Hollywood glamour and British sensibilities makes for a wonderful dance.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.