Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The End of Débuts

In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II decided to discontinue the long tradition of débutante balls presided over by English royalty. That same year, a Vincent Minnelli movie called The Reluctant Débutante was released, in which Sandra Dee became one of the last young women to "come out" in the ceremony. The film isn't wistful regarding the impending demise of the tradition neither does it relish its death. Instead it's a simple, delightful comedy with clever dialogue served very well by Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall.

Dee plays Jane Broadbent, daughter of Jimmy Broadbent (Harrison) from his first marriage, to an American. Her stepmother, Sheila (Kendall), abruptly decides Jane shall be a débutante in the middle of a catty discussion with her snooty friend, Mabel (Angela Lansbury).

Sheila forces Jimmy to improvise knowledge of the plan when he enters the room, the first of several brilliant scenes where one or the other of the couple is rapidly making do based on limited or false information. In one of my favourite scenes, Sheila decides to invite a particular boy to have dinner with the family in the hopes of bringing him closer to Jane. But instead of the desired but boring and sexually abusive David Fenner (Peter Myers) she invites the black sheep and social outcast David Parkson (John Saxon) whose number Mabel gives her, deliberately misrepresenting it as belonging to the other boy. Sheila never realises her mistake, even when Fenner happens to call next, and her apologising for wishing his mother well although she's dead is taken as an eccentricity by Fenner.

SHEILA: David, this is Sheila. About your mother, Darling . . .

FENNER: Well, I'm afraid she's dead, actually.

SHEILA: Yes, I know, Darling, that's why I'm so sorry about asking you to give her my love.

FENNER: Ah--I'm afraid I can't because she's dead.

SHEILA: I know, Darling, that's why I'm so sorry, it was such a silly mistake to make!

FENNER: Well, she couldn't help it, actually.

Fenner is the eligible bachelor girls are forced to dance with even though his conversation is limited to droning on and on about the state of roads and traffic in the London area and bragging about his route choices. This is hilarious until it turns out his other fault is getting too aggressive with young women when they're alone together, a crime which the other David, the one played by John Saxon, is widely considered guilty of after a girl was found passed out drunk in his bed.

This is all a misunderstanding, which we know well before it's explained, but to be fair, John Saxon never stops seeming creepy in this movie. It's a wonder his career of playing villains in genre films and television was still years ahead. There's an embarrassing conversation where he sincerely tells the Broadbents about studying drums "in Africa" and describes how "the tribe" have a wedding dance with a "shuddering climax". No-one thinks to ask, "Where in Africa?" or "What tribe?" Hadn't anyone seen King Solomon's Mines?

Rex Harrison has most of the funny lines, though, as the last act involves his delicate attempts to make the truth known despite Sheila's unshakeable impression of Parkson. The costumes are beautiful and while it might not be among Minnelli's best films his able had at the wheel nicely showcases the talents of the actors.

Twitter Sonnet #1184

Detectives follow cars to moons of coats.
The movie candy sticks to glass to-night.
The slinking hoods are all but passing boats.
A bridge's shadow plucks a hat from sight.
A dollar marker held the pages off.
A hundred watches marked the foolish road.
Between the warping wood the air would cough.
Bereft of players tables may implode.
The knives were hid in cans along the lanes.
The finished reel was soaked in tea and beer.
A wooden heel destroyed reflected stains.
A boiled mug ascends the fatal tier.
An axe reforged of lead collected rust.
The joint awaits a slow eternal bust.

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