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11 August 2015

The Reluctant Debutante: Sheer Charm

Don't overlook this delightful 1958 concoction from director Vincente Minnelli, from a play by William Douglas-Home. Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall star as Sir James Broadbent and his lively second wife, who are hosting his American-raised daughter Jane, played by Sandra Dee, during the last official debutante "season. " The London Season was a ceremonial few months when upper-class young ladies were presented at Court and underwent a series of lavish balls and other social events to be introduced to society. One of the characters remarks that it is like a primitive mating ritual, and so it was, which is why the Queen abolished the custom after 1958. But great fun is had by this charming cast in a plot that is practically the definition of fluffy.

In this story the young people, Sandra Dee (looking perfectly lovely) and John Saxon, are the level-headed, responsible ones, and their elders lose all sense of proportion and skitter around like loonies. Angela Landsbury is also most convincing as the mother of another deb. The wisp-thin plot has all the adults mistakenly believing that David, the sincere young man Jane becomes interested in, is an untrustworthy philanderer. He does have a secret, but that isn't it; the real womanizer is a young aristocratic guardsman.
The daughter's in love and the parents are worried
But really, the movie belongs to the dazzling Kay Kendall, as Jimmy Broadbent's adored second wife and Jane's rather too enthusiastic stepmother. She is not only incredibly lovely, gowned in a succession of gorgeous Balmain creations; she is also extremely funny. The climax comes when she, still in a glorious taupe chiffon ballgown, attempts to eavesdrop on Jane and David; deciding to hide behind the kitchen door, she suddenly pops out and exclaims gleefully to her bemused husband, "All this is such tremendous fun, isn't it, darling?" Then she pops back behind the door like a gopher ducking back in its hole.

After some amusing twists and turns, everything comes out all right. It's hard to imagine a movie like this being made today; for one thing, who in the world could replace Kay Kendall? Her early death (from leukemia, at the age of 33) does lend this film just a slight undertone of sadness. But on the other hand, seeing her so radiant and joyous is a real pleasure, and after all, that's what she wanted -- to give people happiness.

Wearing one of her fabulous Balmain gowns in a fraught moment

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