Cinema Sleuth – The Reluctant Debutante

For review of all movies and TV shows by Dame Angela Lansbury, go here.

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: A satirical take on the British upper crust culture focusing on the outdated ceremony putting young women in front of a pack of wolves, aka young men. However, the comedy by Kendall, Lansbury and Harrison is a match made in heaven.

Dame Angela Lansbury passed away on October 11th of this year (2022) at the age of 96, 5 days short of her 97th birthday. She is one of my favorite actresses. In particular I am a huge fan of her 80s-90s American crime drama TV show Murder, She Wrote. She portrays the role of a widowed and retired school teacher turned murder mystery author, Jessica Fletcher, who becomes an amateur detective as well. She solves crimes in the fictional town of Cabot Cove in Maine, and also across the United States and abroad during her travels.

I was introduced to her first in 2011 in a rerun of  seen her first in 2001 when I first moved to United States. Since then I have seen reruns of that show numerous times, and still love watching them. One can say I am obsessed with her. 😛 It was a sad day when she passed away, but she leaves a legacy of Hollywood and British movies; Broadway plays and the beloved TV show for us to enjoy and remember her for ever.

In her honor and to keep her memory bright, here is my take on the 1958 American comedy The Reluctant Debutante. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, it was produced by Pandro S. Berman. Screenplay for the film was written by William Douglas-Home, which in turn was based on Douglas-Home’s 1955 play of the same name.

Musical score for the film was given by Eddie Warner and Cinematography was by Joseph Ruttenberg. This was filmed in both Cinemascope and Metrocolor.

The film stars Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, Dame Angela Lansbury, John Saxon and Sandra Dee in the lead cast. The plot is about a 17-yr old Jane Broadbent (portrayed by Sandra Dee) who comes to London to live with her wealthy father Lord Jimmy Broadbent (portrayed by Rex Harrison), while her stepmother Lady Sheila (portrayed by Kay Kendall) tries to introduce her to the society in a plethora of debutante balls. Sheila’s friend Mabel Claremont (portrayed by Dame Angela Lansbury) keeps interrupting the various plans of Jane and Shiela – one trying to avoid the balls, while the other trying to be in there just to spite a friend.

This is the first film that Dame Angela Lansbury made outside Hollywood. She is such a perky and pretty lady who is the mother of 17-yr old Clarissa Claremont (portrayed by Diane Clare) in the film. With her lilting voice she chatters on and on all through the film. Lansbury doesn’t bore us at all with her chatter, and humors us thoroughly. All the while trying to get daughter’s debutante ball to be a success and at the end find a match for her. Every dialogue and act, she delivered it stupendously, showing the comic side of her acting.

Rex Harrison was facing tax problems at the time of the filming. Although the plot was set in 1958s London around what was called as “The Season”, the filming was done in Paris because of Harrison’s issues.  Incidentally the 1958 London Season or the Queen’s Debutante Ball was the last of the balls conducted in U.K. as the queen had decided that it was out of date. Harrison is as charming and comedic as always.

Kay Kendall was married to Rex Harrison a year before in 1957 after they had worked together on the 1955 British comedy film The Constant Husband. She was also diagnosed with myeloid leukemia during the filming, a fact Harrison had kept from her. Sadly Kendall passed away the following year (1959) at the age of 33 after she completed filming for the 1960 British comedy film Once More With Feeling, a film released a year after her death.

Peter Myers who plays the role of David Fenner, one of the possible matches to Clarissa in the film is actually only 4 yrs younger to Lansbury. Yet Lansbury plays the role of a middle-aged mother to a teenage daughter. This isn’t the first time she played a role where she was either younger or equal to the characters who played the role of her kids or other young people Yet, Lansbury gives us a performance to remember for, while Myers simply fades off beside her shining light.

Jack Saxon who played the role of David Parkson, love interest to Jane in the film, was actually 23 yrs old at the time. It was said he wasn’t sure what was it odd about Sandra Dee during the filming. Years later he found out that Sandra was only 14 urs, a child, almost 9 yrs younger than him. Turns out Sandra’s mother lied about her age to push her into more adult roles in films.

The film faced musicians’ strike at the time of filming which went on to post-production. So the director Minnelli recycled songs and music from his previous films.

In all the humor that the film gives the audience, it also shows the darker shades of a debutante ball – how the young women are paraded like dolls in from of eligible bachelors; how some of them take advantage and try to misuse them; and how mothers in a race to get the best guy for their girl, forget what the girl really wants and ignore the bad side of the guy.

Checkout the wardrobe for the leading ladies – Kay Kendall, Angela Lansbury, and Diane Clare (portraying the role of Clarissa Claremont, daughter of Angela’s Mabel). They were by the then leafing French fashion designer Pierre Balmain. He was famous for post-war fashion known for sophistication and elegance. Sandra Dee’s wardrobe was by the American costume designer Helen Rose.

A doting father, equally doting step-mother and a free spirited daughter, all amidst the chaos and fun of a debutante ball gives the audience how tough a life it was for a 17-yr old to be center of attraction of so many males. A comic and satirical take on an outdated ceremony.

Spoiler Alerts:

  1. Movie Trivia:
    1. This film was remade as 2003 American teen comedy What a Girl Wants starring Collin Firth and Amanda Bynes.
    2. In the first ball Jane Broadbent dances to the song The Boy Next Door, which is from the 1944 American Christmas musical Meet Me in St. Louis, also directed by Vincente Minnelli.
    3. The main title theme also was lifted from another of Vincente Minnelli’s film – the 1957 American Metrocolor romantic comedy film.
    4. Note Eddie Warner and his musical group playing for the first ball that Jane attends.

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