The Reluctant Debutante (1958)
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.