Reluctant Debutante, The

Vincente Minnelli's 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.

The movie centers on Lord Jimmy Broadbent (Harrison), a rich, witty international banker whos married to Lady Sheila (Kendall), and the father to Jane (Sandra Dee) from a previous marriage. Since Sandra Dee was of working class origins, she had to be coached in upper-class diction and demeanor. The inerloper David (John Saxon) became the new Duke of Positano through maternal line. Upon learning of his lineage, Dee exclaims, “Oh, darling, what a lot of housekeeping!”

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.

Even so, producer Pandro 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 Harrison was one of the most incongruous sights of a family to be seen onscreen.

The Reluctant Debutante was a commercial failure. But Minnelli was proud of his work, perceiving it as an exercise in high style. The giddy spirit is underlined by a skillful cast that turns a verbose script into a speedy movie. Working without a staff art director for the first time, Minnelli turns Paris sound stages into a Hollywoodized London. Minnelli fills the wide screen with his distinctive signature, plush textures and glittering light. And again, references to his work abound. Here, for example, the local dance band plays Meet Me in St. Louiss song, The Boy Next Door.

The appeal of Minnelli's comedies always depended on the talent of their performers. Spencer Tracy and Lucille Ball inhabited a world that viewers could relate to. The Reluctant Debutante was a drawing-room comedy with a smooth faade, replete with uniquely theatrical and British expressions like darling and divine. However, this farces Anglo-Saxon milieu was foreign to American viewers who were then accustomed to watching I Love Lucy and Ward and Leave It to Beaver on their TV screens. Cukors farce, Les Girls, with a score from Cole Porter, which also starred Kendall, failed as well, despite innovative visual scheme and campy tone.

Significantly, The Reluctant Debutante was the only Minnelli film about the upper class, with characters that unabashedly enjoy their privileged status. One of Minnelli's purest and airiest comedies, it lacked any political subtext or satirical notes. Unlike other Minnelli comedies, theres no commentary on marital discord, material excesses, or anatomy of the male (or female) psyche.

The CinemaScope frame gives The Reluctant Debutante some formal style, as when Sheila and Jimmy anxiously look at the crowd for their offspring. Minnelli's tracking shots accelerate the pace. The film's running sight gag is the couple frozen in frustrated mid-gallop as the band strikes up “God Save the Queen.” A delirious montage sums up the effects of social whirl on the stoic family. Lovelorn Jane pouts, Sheila shows her spunk on receiving line and dance floor, and the exhausted Jimmy seeks sustenance while trying to stay conscious.

For Minnelli, the films novelty was the idea of parents who behave like teenagers, and teenagers who behave like adults. It's a theme to which he could relate easily, since at age 12, Liza was already behaving like a little woman to him and prima donna to everyone else.

Ultimately, though, the movie suffered from the theatrical constraints of the source material, since the play took place mostly within the Broadbents' residence. The Reluctant Debutante was outdated even before it was made. In hindsight, it feels more archaic than most of Minnelli's other comedies of that era.
The Reluctant Debutante premiered at Radio City Music Hall, in August 1958. The films opening day became the second highest take for a Metro release in Radio City's history, but then the box-office declined rapidly. Hoping that the film would be more popular abroad, Metro arranged for an elegant London premiere, but the British press was hostile and the public remained indifferent.