‘Debutante’ recalls the charming Kay Kendall

The terrific Warner Archive program pulled three lesser known Vincente Minnelli films out of the vaults a few years ago — “Tea & Sympathy” (1956), “Two Weeks in Another Town” (1962) and “The Reluctant Debutante” (1958).

There is a reason none of these movies appeared on DVD until recently — they are not top tier Minnelli in the vein of “Gigi” (1958) or “An American in Paris” (1951) — but the films have their charms as time capsules.

I wrote about “Tea & Sympathy” and “Two Weeks in Another Town” elsewhere on this blog.

“The Reluctant Debutante” is a much smoother piece of work, an adaptation of a stage comedy by William Douglas Home that was popular on Broadway and in London’s West End. The movie often looks like a filmed stage play — roughly the last third is set in one room — but the performances by Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall (who was Harrison’s wife at the time) really sparkle.

Harrison was in the middle of his trans-Atlantic “My Fair Lady” stage triumph. He had just completed more than a year’s run in New York City and was repeating that success in London when “The Reluctant Debutante” was shot.

Kendall had a perfect light comedy style that made her partnership with Harrison seem like it was made in Heaven (on screen and off).

Kendall plays the second wife of a British aristocrat whose daughter (Sandra Dee) by an earlier marriage arrives from America for her first visit with her father in several years.

Kendall worries about hitting it off with her stepdaughter and plots to make the girl the toast of London by making her part of “The Season” in which the daughters of the artistocracy “come out” as adult women in a series of balls.

“The Relcutant Debutante” is a culture clash comedy in which the level-headed American girl goes along with the scheme even though she has no interest in London society.

That’s about it, as far as the plot goes, but the fun in the movie comes from Harrison not really understanding what his wife is up to, and Kendall being in the dark about what is really going on with her stepdaughter.

Harrison and Kendall exude pure graceful sophistication as they guide the American girl through an archaic London ritual (one which was banished by royal decree the year the film was released).

Kendall is so witty and so beautiful — and is dressed so stylishly throughout the picture — that she rises above a rather pedestrian script. Much of her performance is simply reacting to crazy things going on around her, but the star’s silences speak volumes.

What was happening off-screen overshadowed the movie’s frothy foolishness when Kendall died from leukemia — at the age of 33 — just a few months after “The Reluctant Debutante” was released.

The actress didn’t know she was dying — Harrison kept a doctor’s diagnosis from his wife — but no doubt had to work hard to tap into diminishing reserves of energy and sharp theatrical intelligence. It’s a wonderful performance that will leave you wishing it was delivered in a much better movie.

Joe Meyers