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Former model Sandra Dee was still a year away from stardom (which would hit with Imitation of Life and A Summer Place in 1959) when she made the 1958 comedy The Reluctant Debutante, but she was already getting the star build-up in only her second screen appearance. Although not top-billed in this adaptation of William Douglas-Home's British stage hit about a wealthy financier (Rex Harrison) trying to introduce his daughter into society while keeping her away from all the wrong young men (including rebel John Saxon), she got the MGM glamour treatment, with dazzling gowns by Helen Rose, creamy photography by Oscar®-winner Joseph Ruttenberg and direction by the studio's most sophisticated auteur, Vincente Minnelli. In truth, the real focus of The Reluctant Debutante was always on the girl's parents, caught up in the whirlwind of society parties culminating in their daughter's presentation to Queen Elizabeth II. But as box office insurance, MGM reshaped the story to showcase Dee and Saxon.
An executive in MGM's London office had caught the play in its pre-London tryout. His rave inspired producer Pandro S. Berman, then in London filming Quentin Durward (1955), with Robert Taylor and Kay Kendall, to see the show in London. He recommended that MGM buy the film rights. Not only did they outbid Paramount with an offer of $150,000, but they also footed the bill for a New York stage production. Wilfrid Hyde-White and Anna Massey repeated their father-daughter roles on Broadway. Celia Johnson, the acclaimed star of Brief Encounter (1945), refused to stay with her role as the mother unless MGM promised her the chance to play the role on screen, but by then the studio had other plans.
Like most people who worked with her, Berman was totally enthralled with Kendall. The accomplished comedienne, who was often compared to Carole Lombard, had scored in the British comedy Genevieve (1953). After a stock romantic lead in Quentin Durward, she had dazzled audiences and critics with her comic turn as a British showgirl in Les Girls (1957). Berman thought the eccentric, fast-talking mother in The Reluctant Debutante would be perfect for her, even though, at 32, she was a little too young for it. That problem was easily solved, however, by making her the leading man's second wife. Also in Kendall's favor was her recent marriage to Harrison, who had just scored the hit of his stage career in My Fair Lady. They were looking for another chance to work together (having co-starred in the British film The Constant Husband in 1955). And just to add a little box-office insurance, the studio decided to Americanize the script by having the daughter and her love interest raised in the U.S. so they could be played by popular young American stars.
Initially, Berman wanted to hire writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had written the similar Father of the Bride (1950), one of the studio's most successful comedies. They turned him down, though, arguing that the script was fine as written and would suffer too much if it were Americanized. He then turned to Julius Epstein, one of the most successful screenwriters of the '40s. Minnelli, who had directed Father of the Bride to great acclaim, was finishing work on Gigi (1958), making him the ideal choice to direct. He signed on eagerly for the chance to work with Harrison and Kendall.
When Harrison read Epstein's first draft, however, the project almost died an early death. He hated it. Minnelli agreed and accepted the actor's suggestions on how to return to the story's charming English setting. When he presented the ideas to Epstein, the writer said, "I'll put all of Harrison's things in, and once he's signed, I can take them out again." He never got around to that. When Harrison saw the re-writes, he flew into a rage. At this point, time was running short. Shooting was due to start and had to be done quickly because of Harrison's commitment to the London Company production of My Fair Lady. Desperate, Berman and Minnelli asked Home if he would consider taking over the script. He did, simply returning most of what had worked on stage in the first place.
One challenge facing Minnelli was creating the film's very British atmosphere without being able to shoot in England. Harrison was a tax exile, living most of the year in Switzerland to avoid the high British income taxes. Since he would already be spending a good deal of time in London for My Fair Lady, he had to shoot the picture in Paris, with some additional work in Hollywood. This was no real problem for the director, who had just done an extensive location shoot there for Gigi, except that it kept him removed from the studio battles over how to cut that film. Amazingly, he not only pulled off the illusion that the whole story was "veddy, veddy" British, but turned in a picture that was more glamorous than most of what was being shot on the MGM back lot at the time.
When The Reluctant Debutante premiered at the Radio City Music Hall, critics raved about its sophisticated humor and Harrison and Kendall's deft comic team work. Her breathless delivery and his expert reactions to the insanity she created made for high comedy, and the film was the second most successful MGM release to play that theatre. But neither the picture's sophistication nor the presence of teen heartthrobs Dee and Saxon could attract audiences outside New York and London. Despite strong business in its premiere engagements in both cities, The Reluctant Debutante ended up losing money. That wasn't the only sad thing about the picture, however. Throughout filming Harrison and Kendall had kept a heartbreaking secret. She was dying of leukemia. Kendall would only make one more film (Once More, with Feeling! in 1959) before her death, never realizing the dream of future team-ups for the dazzling husband-and-wife team.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: William Douglas-Home, Julius J. Epstein
Based on the play by Home
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Jean d'Eaubonne
Music: Eddie Warner
Cast: Rex Harrison (Jimmy Broadbent), Kay Kendall (Sheila Broadbent), John Saxon (David Parkson), Sandra Dee (Jane Broadbent), Angela Lansbury (Mabel Claremont), Peter Myers (David Fenner), Ambrosine Phillpotts (Miss Grey).
C-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller