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Friday Film Review: The Reluctant Debutante

The Reluctant Debutante (1958)
Genre: Comedy/Romance
Grade: B

We read so many books here about “The Season” that I thought it appropriate to review this movie set during the last official one before the Queen pulled the plug on it in 1958. Though it was probably watched more for Sandra Dee and John Saxon during its release, today I watch it more for the bravura comedic performances by Kay Kendall and Rex Harrison as the harried father and stepmother trying to launch his daughter and one-up her second cousin once removed (“And once isn’t far enough.”)

Lord James Broadbent (Rex Harrison) and his second wife, Lady Sheila (Kay Kendall) are expecting his American daughter Jane (Sandra Dee) for a summer vacation in London. While picking her up at the airport, they run into Sheila’s distant relative Lady Mabel Claremont (Angela Lansbury) and her daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare). Bossy chatterbox Mabel, who steamrolls her way through life, insists on riding back with the Broadbents. And while the two young women are dropped off to see some of the sights of London, including a guardsman David Fenner (Peter Myers) with whom Clarissa is in love, Mabel regales Sheila with tales of how wonderful a Season is (Sheila didn’t have one because of the war) until Sheila just has to get her own back by announcing that she and Jimmy have decided to surprise Jane with a Season of her own.

And so starts a whirlwind of parties and endless nights for Jane to dance with uppercrust English twits who bore her silly until she meets handsome American David Parkson (John Saxon). But Parkson is a dark horse with a past that Mabel takes great care to gossip to Sheila and Jimmy about in a funny scene at a ball, after which Sheila declares him persona non grata in favor of Clarissa’s drippy beau David Fenner. But Jane knows her own mind and no one but Parkson will do. Now it’s up to Jimmy and Parkson to come up with some way to change Sheila’s mind without making it obvious they’re changing her mind (“Truth doesn’t mean the same to a woman as it does to a man. To them it’s what they want to believe regardless of the facts.”).

Put aside modern sensibilities and forget that this is a story about a 17 year old Jane finding her HEA after a few short weeks with 23 year old David. I’m sure it played better in 1958 but now it does make me cringe a bit. In fact, there’s even a scene in which Jimmy Broadbent denounces the whole rigmarole as nothing more than mothers dolling up innocent goats then staking them out in the hopes of catching a passing tiger. To me and to many who love the film, it’s all about the adults.

There are several delightfully catty scenes of Sheila and Mabel trying to outdo each other through their daughters with triumphant smirks all around when things go their way. There’s also poor Jimmy having to not only foot the bill but also survive late nights at parties before early days in the office. I’d begin to haunt the bar looking for the dregs of whatever drinks are left at 2 am too. Listen for how an exhausted Jimmy mistakenly announces them as they trudge into yet another ballroom on 3 hours of sleep.

It’s obvious from the beginning who Jane will fall for and for whom she won’t. John Saxon is darkly handsome and, as depicted in later scenes with Jane after her ball, almost too good to be true while Peter Meyer plays the plummy voiced David Fenner as a human GPS drip. The look on Sheila’s face in the final scene when she discovers who David Parkson really is is priceless as are the proceeding scenes as she and Jimmy ineptly attempt to spy on Jane and Parkson. There’s a sweet undertone to the relationship between father and daughter which balances that of Sheila and Mabel and it’s funny to watch Jimmy plan to manipulate Sheila in the same manner which women normally reserve to outmaneuver their men.

And oh, the fashions. This was still an era when airline travel was glamorous and young women wore hats and gloves while doing it. As seen at the parties, England expected every bolt of tulle to do its duty as a debutante dress and everyone wore opera length gloves. However I want the Balmain gowns worn by Kendall and Lansbury – too divine – and the fab London Broadbent townhouse – even if I know it’s probably just a soundstage.

Finally! there’s an official DVD for sale (check at TCM – it’s on sale now) plus there are used copies of VHS tapes online. I made my DVD copy off a telecast on TCM. There are some sites offering a DVD-R copy though I’ve never ordered anything from them and can’t guarantee what they sell.

Kendall and Harrison, married in real life, have marvelous chemistry here and Angela Lansbury is great fun in a comedic role. Sandra Dee proves she actually can act as does John Saxon. It’s lighthearted fluff but very entertaining fluff and a film I think a lot of romance fans will appreciate.


Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Christine
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 07:41:41

    I love this film, it’s genuinely charming and funny. (Like The Sound Of Music) you know you are an adult when you are more interested in Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall than Sandra’s Dee’s romance with John Saxon.
    The rivalry between Kendall and Lansbury is fantastic and Harrison and Kendall play off each other perfectly.

    Interestingly it is also the basis for another guilty pleasure of mine “What A Girl Wants” with Amanda Bynes although I wouldn’t have put the two together without the credit listed at the end of the Bynes movie.

  2. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 07:46:22

    @Christine: Is that the one with Colin Firth? I’d heard it was based on this film.

  3. Christine
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 07:56:52

    @Jayne: Yes exactly. Sadly the Kay Kendall role is now Colin Firth’s evil fiancee played by “Duck face” from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “Caroline Bingley” from Pride and Prejudice which makes her again evilly striving for Firth’s attentions.

  4. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 07:59:32

    @Christine: “Duck Face!” Has that poor actress ever had a sympathetic role?

  5. Darlene Marshall
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 08:06:42

    You had me at Balmain gowns.

    I haven’t seen this one, but since I had a major crush on John Saxon as a girl I’ll put it on my to-be-watched list.

    Thinking of John Saxon reminded me of my other girl-crush, James Farentino, which made me think of “The Warlord”. Ever see that ’65 take on the age when things were rotten? Love that film.

  6. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 08:31:24

    @Darlene Marshall: The movie was actually filmed in France so the couture for Kendall and Lansbury is divine.

    John Saxon’s character is too sweet for words.

    What is “The Warlord?”

  7. Christine
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 08:36:08

    @Jayne- No alas poor Duck Face was probably her most sympathetic role, and that is saying something.Every role I remember her in she has played the baddie including “Tipping The Velvet.”

    @Darlene Marshall and Jayne: The Warlord is Charlton Heston in a period accurate, medieval “bowl” haircut. I haven’t seen that movie in years but I did take a picture of the tower they used for the movie at Universal Studios in CA many years back. Unlike “Reluctant Debutant” it’s not a lot of laughs.

  8. Darlene Marshall
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 09:10:57

    @Jayne–What @Christine said. Here’s a link:

    Not a happy movie, but when I was a young girl I thought it was terribly romantic and tragic. Great cast, though I wish they’d gotten a stronger female lead than Rosemary Forsyth.

  9. Debra`
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 10:41:45

    I love this movie and can’t tell you how many times I have watched it. I may be wrong about this, but I think this was Kay Kendall’s last movie before she passed away from cancer. I am s happy it is now on DVD odd to buy it now!!

  10. Mia
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 11:14:13

    Angela Lansbury! I’m there.

  11. Julie L.
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 13:36:13

    I have GOT to see this movie! It sounds great!

  12. Claudia Dain
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 15:15:00

    I’ve only seen this movie twice, but it strikes such a lovely chord! It’s completely charming. There is nothing I like better than social comedy and sharp-edged banter. I love Kay Kendall in every single thing; she’s so deliciously urbane.

  13. Kaye
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 16:38:49

    This movie souds delicious. I can’t believe Netflix doesn’t have it; I am disappoint.

    I’ll have to try the library- I’m in need of a Rex Harrison fix, which I didn’t know I had until I read the review.

  14. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 18:09:54

    @Debra`: I think you’re right about it being Kendall’s last movie. But she just sparkles in it.

    It’s cheaper here (TCM) than at Amazon.

  15. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 18:13:22

    @Kaye: The DVD is one of those Warner Bros Vault Releases that they seem to be doing with TCM so that’s probably why it hasn’t shown up at Netflix. I’d keep watching for it as it might turn up as a streaming option.

  16. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 18:14:36

    @Claudia Dain: What other Kendall movies can you recommend? I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything else.

  17. Jaclyn
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 22:16:25

    I love this movie and haven’t watched it in several years. Thanks for the post, reminding me how sweet & charming it is.

  18. Christine
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 17:38:42

    @Jayne: the only other Kay Kendall movies I’ve seen are Les Girls- a musical with Gene Kelly and a historical romance Quentin Durward.

    The thing that I always think of regarding Kay Kendall is the bizarre circumstances relating to her marriage and her illness. She began an affair with Rex Harrison while he was married to Lili Palmer. For some reason her doctor told Harrison but not her she was dying of leukemia. Harrison and Palmer agreed to divorce so Harrison could marry and take care of Kendall. Kendall was told she had an iron deficiency and never knew she was terminally ill while her married lover and his wife knew! Harrison and Palmer had even planned to remarry afterwards but Palmer ended up marrying her boyfriend instead. Kendall died in 1959 about a year after Reluctant Debutant at the age of 33 while married to Harrison.

    Can you imagine a doctor acting that way today? And in thought Love Story was farfetched with the doctor telling Oliver not Jennifer she was ill!

  19. Jayne
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 07:06:30

    @Christine: I knew about the divorce thing but didn’t know until recently that she hadn’t known about her disease. I had no idea that the ex-wife knew. That’s kinda creepy.

  20. Claudia Dain
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 10:36:10

    Jayne, Kay Kendall was in a movie with Yul Brynner; Yul played a temperamental conductor and she was his wife, or ex-wife, can’t remember. She was brilliant! That movie was my first exposure to Kay Kendall and I was hooked immediately. The movie: Once More, With Feeling. I haven’t seen that movie in decades! They never seem to show it on Turner.

  21. Kelly in Hockeytown
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 18:32:27

    Kendall died in 1959 soon after completing her last movie, Once More, with Feeling! (1960), starring opposite Yul Brynner.

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