Film: Design & Architecture

The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

The Reluctant Debutante is a 1958 American Metrocolor comedy filmed in CinemaScope directed by Vincente Minnelli and produced by Pandro S. Berman from a screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and William Douglas-Home based on Douglas-Home’s play of the same name. The music score is by Eddie Warner and the cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg.

The film stars Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall — whom he had married in 1957 after they worked together on The Constant Husband (1955) — with featured performances by John SaxonSandra Dee, and Angela Lansbury. The setting is London’s debutante season amidst the last presentation at Court in 1958. However, because of Harrison’s tax problems, the film had to be made in Paris. Harrison had learned from Kendall’s doctor that she had been diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, a fact that was kept from Kendall, who believed she was suffering from an iron deficiency. The actor cared for Kendall until her death at the age of 32. She only completed one more film, Once More With Feeling, before her death the following year.

Former model Sandra Dee was still a year away from stardom (which would hit with Imitation of Life and A Summer Place in 1959) when she made the 1958 comedy The Reluctant Debutante, but she was already getting the star build-up in only her second screen appearance. Although not top-billed in this adaptation of William Douglas-Home’s British stage hit about a wealthy financier (Rex Harrison) trying to introduce his daughter into society while keeping her away from all the wrong young men (including rebel John Saxon), she got the MGM glamour treatment, with dazzling gowns by Helen Rose, creamy photography by Oscar®-winner Joseph Ruttenberg and direction by the studio’s most sophisticated auteur, Vincente Minnelli. In truth, the real focus of The Reluctant Debutante was always on the girl’s parents, caught up in the whirlwind of society parties culminating in their daughter’s presentation to Queen Elizabeth II. But as box office insurance, MGM reshaped the story to showcase Dee and Saxon.

This collection of photos was captured from the DVD to showcase the various interiors and glamorous costuming. The apartment sets are especially worthy of study. The ball scenes were filmed in Paris locations that my research was unable to identify. This collection may seem redundant, but each frame captures a different angle of the interiors and/or the fashionable clothing and accessories. The frozen moments are the only way to enjoy, discover, and study the details of another era.

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