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The charming romantic comedy The Mating Game (1959) is a testament to Debbie Reynolds' professionalism. Although it was made during one of the most trying periods of her life, her performance as a farmer's daughter who falls for the tax man (Tony Randall) sent to find out why her father has never paid taxes, betrays none of her off-screen problems. Rather it shows that even as a mother of two, she could pull off the role of rambunctious innocent with aplomb.
Novelist H.E. Bates was a chronicler of English country life in books like Love for Lydia, though one could hardly tell that from this 1959 adaptation of his novel The Darling Buds of May. The first in a trilogy, the book recounts the adventures of the Larkins, a family of eccentrics running their farm outside the British socio-political system. When MGM decided to film the story, however, they transplanted it to America and turned the farm family from Kent into a group of hillbillies who never pay taxes because they never buy or sell anything. Their entire existence is based on a complicated barter system. Possibly the transition was inspired by Reynolds' success in the backwoods romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), a loan out to Universal that not only gave her (and the rival studio) a big moneymaker, but also inspired her hit recording of the title song.
Whether or not MGM was deliberately aping her earlier success, the previous film made her the logical choice for the female lead in the now-transplanted story. Her off-screen life at the time, however was a far cry from the on-screen merriment. Her husband, Eddie Fisher, had recently left her for a highly publicized affair with Elizabeth Taylor. The press mobbed her every time she left the house, and Taylor was publically begging her to divorce Fisher so the two lovers could marry.
During the period, Reynolds was hardly eating and had plummeted to a mere 90 pounds. When it came time to start making The Mating Game, she viewed it as a way to escape the uproar for most of the day. Alarmed at her weight loss, director George Marshall brought a blender to the set and made her milkshakes to keep her energy and health up. Shortly after filming wrapped, Reynolds finally took the time to file for divorce, hoping the furor would die down in the press so that she and her children could get on with their lives.
Her leading man, Tony Randall, had come to Hollywood on the heels of success in television, most notably as Wally Cox's best friend on Mr. Peepers. The scene-stealing character comic had only played one leading role before this one, in the film version of George Axelrod's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Later in 1959, he would land his best-remembered film role, as Rock Hudson's romantic rival in Pillow Talk. Also in the cast were two comedy film veterans, Paul Douglas and Una Merkel, as Reynolds' parents. This would be Douglas' last film. He passed away a few months after the film's release. A freelance actress who frequently worked at MGM, Merkel had teamed with Reynolds twice before, on the musicals I Love Melvin (1953) and Bundle of Joy (1956), the latter the only film to team its star with husband Fisher.
The Mating Game got decent reviews, with Bosley Crowther in the New York Times comparing Reynolds favorably to French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot and particularly lauding Randall's drunk scene after he is treated to too much of Douglas' home-made whiskey. That was more than enough to send Reynolds' fans into theatres, and she and the studio were sufficiently pleased with the results to re-team actress and director three more times, on the comedies The Gazebo (1959) and It Started with a Kiss (1959) and the epic Western How the West Was Won (1962). Bates' story eventually made it back to England with a very successful TV adaptation that ran three years on ITV. The series drew on all three books about the Larkins and cast the young Catherine Zeta-Jones in Reynolds role.
Producer: Philip Barry, Jr.
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: William Roberts
Based on the novel The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates
Cinematography: Robert J. Bronner
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Malcolm Brown
Score: Jeff Alexander
Cast: Debbie Reynolds (Mariette Larkin), Tony Randall (Lorenzo Charlton), Paul Douglas (Pop Larkin), Fred Clark (Oliver Kelsey), Una Merkel (Ma Larkin), Philip Ober (Wendell Burnshaw), Charles Lane (Bigelow).
C-97m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller