Reluctant Debutante: How Vincente Minnelli Directed Kay Kendall's Last Comedy

The Reluctant Debutante was based on William Douglas Homes drawing-room comedy about the last group of debutantes to be presented to the Queen before the archaic ritual was abandoned. On the surface, Homes satire of the London Season and its toll on one debutantes father sounded like a British version of Father of the Bride.

Newly wed Rex Harrison, fresh from the success of My Fair Lady, and his wife-comedienne Kay Kendall, who had done a delicious turn in Cukor's Les Girls, were cast in the leads. We played Lord and Lady Broadbent, and I was supposed to be presenting my American daughter by an earlier marriage at Court, said Rex Harrison. The film was meant to offer a sly look at the quaint custom of presenting debutantes to the Queen, a ritual about to be demolished due to its undemocratic nature.

In June 1955, Pandro Berman recommended to purchase the rights for what he saw as “excellent material for a comedy with class.” In the U.K., the play was a success, but on Broadway, it played for only 134 performances, a fact ignored by Berman. Three years passed before the film began shooting. Fearing that the upper-crust whimsy might not appeal to American audiences, Berman wanted to Americanize the material, make it like Father of the Bride, asking Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the writers of the Father of the Bride films, transposing the play to New York locale. The writers, however, declined, claiming that what made the work special was its distinctly British flavor.

McKennas associate, Marjorie Thorson, proposed to turn the movie into a fish out of water story about an American father and daughter engulfed in Londons hectic social scene. Julius Epstein, of Casablanca fame, was hired to write. “To soak up atmosphere,” Berman sent Epstein to London and to the famous Josephine Bradley's school for debutantes. In fall 1957, while Minnelli was wrapping up Gigi, Berman showed him the fist draft of the script. Upon reading, Minnelli protested that the transatlantic move neutered the play's charm.

Minnelli then flew to New York to broach the subject with the Harrisons. Rex was intrigued by the project and liked the idea of working again with his wife Kay. He told Minnelli: “We would love to do it, but the script was no good. In fact, Harrison loathed the script even more than his director. Minnelli reassured the couple that the revised script would restore the flavor of the original play. British playwright Home was asked to refurbish the script, which he continued to do during production.

Even so, Berman felt that, to appeal to American audiences, the young players needed to be American. However, the casting of all-American Sandra Dee was so implausible that the script needed to explain that her character was Harrison's daughter from a previous marriage. Dee's fellow Universal actor, beefcake John Saxon, was chosen as her aristocratic bongo-playing beau. Angela Lansbury, who lived and worked in Hollywood but was still associated with all things British, rounded out the cast as Kendall's chum-confidante.

Sandra Dee played a typical Minnelli ingnue, a worldly innocent, or a restless misfit, like Esther Smith in Meet Me in St Louis, Kay Banks in Father of the Bride, and the heroine of Gigi. Except that in real life, Dee was so uneducated and unpolished that she projected the innocent simpleton much better than the worldly sophisticated daughter of such savvy parents as Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall. Watching Dee with Kendall or Harison was one of the most incongruous sights of a family to be seen onscreen.

The film had to be completed by spring of 1958, to accommodate Harrisons commitment to appear in the London stage production of My Fair Lady. A Swiss resident for tax purposes, Harrison couldn't go to London to shoot the film, and was not eager to go to America either. Hence, five months after he left Paris, Minnelli was back in town shooting a movie with an Anglo-American cast and Franco-American crew.

Minnelli hoped to spend three weeks of location shooting in London, but, under the circumstances, he resorted again to matching actors against back-projection shots. All in all, it took seven weeks to shoot The Reluctant Debutante, from mid-February to early April.

During the shoot, there was only one unpleasant note. Minnelli was shocked to realize that Andre Previn's theme music for Designing Woman, which he didnt like in the first place, would be recycled for the title sequence of The Reluctant Debutante.

Minnelli liked Harrison as an actor who embodied the serene foil to Kendall's perpetual agitation. Harrison projects a slightly morose, sulky tone, even when he talked about poached eggs.

The major reward for Minnelli was the joy of getting to know Kay Kendall, known for her boundless charm and indefatigable energy. Determined to grant Kendall a royal treatment, Minnelli asked Pierre Balmain to design chic costumes for her in his favorite hues of yellow and red. Minnelli really wanted Kendall to look beautiful, and different from her previous films. Indeed, the films most striking image was the way Minnelli staged Kendall's grand entree, in a red suit and slouch hat.

Minnelli was an expert at synchronizing his comedies to suit the tempos of his stars, evident by Spencer Tracy's stolidness or Lucille Ball's frenzy. In this film, Kendall is the driving force that keeps the tale spinning. Deservedly compared to Carole Lombard, who was American screwballs greatest comediennes (and also died young), Kendall was a delicious comedienne. Minnelli described her to his friends a glamour queen with the soul of a clown.

Kendall's clipped, fluty voice was suitable for genteel and subtle repartee, and her elastic frame for low, physical comedy. Leaping from one imagined crisis to the next, Kendall can't keep still for a moment. If Lucille Ball brought athletic approach to physical comedy, Kendall turns slapstick into choreographed ballet, while never losing her ladylike cool. Hence, at the sight of her stepdaughter with Mr. Wrong, she takes a dive downstairs and lands with her coiffure intact!

Kendall and Harrison possessed sufficient energy to keep the old engine running, even in the most confining circumstances. Their chemistry and Minnelli's deft handiwork occasionally make the film sparkle.

Minnelli enjoyed working with the Harrisons, as he later recalled: Kay would be raucous and vital and lovable, and when the days work was over, everyone would want to take her home.” To Minnelli, the Harrisons represented the ideal couple: “I found Rex wonderfully attentive to Kay, but gave it no special thought. Kay was equally devoted to him.”

It was great fun for the three of them, and they spent a lot of time running around together. The Harrisons had a lovely time behaving like teenagers, on and off screen. Since Minnelli had shot segments of American in Paris and Gigi in Paris, he knew the city well. At the end of the shoot, Minnelli was exhausted. It was one of the few times in which he violated his otherwise strict work code and partied wildly during the shoot.

Just before shooting began, Kendall had been rebounding from a sudden debilitating malady. A doctor from the American Hospital in Paris examined her and concluded that she was entirely recovered from gastroenteritis. In what became one of showbizs best-kept secrets, only Rex Harrison knew that his wife was dying from leukemia. The lethal disease would take her life 18 months later, at the age of 33. Minnelli thought that Kay's death was a major loss not just for Harrsion, but for the film world as well since her brand of comedy was so unique.