From the July 20 edition of Nomad Wide Screen, my appreciation of Kay Kendall in Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante. For the record, I adore Les Girls , and Kendall is a joy in that one as well.
When certain killjoys decide to amuse themselves by asserting that MGM, the most widely known and successful of the major Golden Age studios, wasn't really a great studio at all, I try several methods to silence them. I start with George Cukor, move on through The Wizard of Oz, wave the flag for the Freed unit. If the conversation really gets irksome, however, I play my trump: Vincente Minnelli.
It's a curious thing, then, at least for auteurists, that the spirit that dominates Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante isn't that of the director, but of the star, Kay Kendall. The plot hews to every convention possible; you could take it and graft it onto a mass-market romance paperback with scarcely a single change. The charm of the film is tied closely to Minnelli’s eye for beauty, but even more than that it’s in the playing, and the players are led by Kendall. It was her penultimate movie, and when she made it she was already gravely ill with the leukemia that would kill her two years later. But it's a bright, vivacious performance, the only hint of her health coming from how thin she is.
Kendall had an exceptionally lovely speaking voice, pitched right mid-range with the merest hint of huskiness and an occasional crack in it that is oddly redolent of a British Jean Arthur. She was a tall woman with limbs that seemed to go everywhere at once, but her control of her body was impeccable. Nobody stumbled quite like Kay Kendall--up go the arms, the legs bend and curve, then glide back. It's a bit like watching a Mobius strip try to straighten itself. She had huge eyes, a flawless complexion and a long, strong-boned face; "Careful how you photograph my Cyrano nose, darling," she told Vincente Minnelli before filming. Nose or no nose, the overall effect was gorgeous. Kendall belongs to that rare sorority of beautiful women who are also great clowns.
She plays Sheila Broadbent, wife to Jimmy Broadbent (Rex Harrison, Kendall’s husband), an aristocratic Englishman who’s rich in that unspecified way common to Minnelli movies. She has a stepdaughter, Jane (Sandra Dee), who comes to live with them in London. Sheila’s rivalry with the snobbish Mabel (Angela Lansbury) leads her to organize a London social debut for Jane, much against the girl’s inclinations. As Jane begins the rounds of parties she meets David (Peter Myers), a weak-chinned, literal-minded, but very rich twit; and David (John Saxon), an improbably handsome drummer in the tamest, most clean-cut rock band you ever saw. Both Davids fall for Jane, the names cause confusion, and naturally Jane becomes infatuated with the twit with the adenoidal voice who puts his hand in her scrambled eggs when he proposes over breakfast. Just kidding. She goes for John Saxon, of course. That doesn’t suit Sheila, who has visions of a rich and titled husband for Jane. She tries one maneuver after another to secure a brilliant match for the girl. But Sheila’s essential good nature wins out over her matchmaking ambitions, and when true love shows itself she finds herself helping it along.
This is Minnelli’s London, pulsing with color, particularly shades of red, every shot so luxuriant and voluptuously beautiful that after a while you start to get suspicious. Sure enough, it turns out that The Reluctant Debutante was filmed in Paris, due to some tax problems Harrison was having at the time. Well, to some extent all Minnelli movies take place in Minnelli World, a place I’d move to if I could.
Saxon was not what you’d call an enthralling screen presence, but the role calls for him mostly to be desirable, and that he could handle with aplomb. The exquisitely pretty Dee is an actress who, in my view, almost never gets her due. On screen she is not so much saccharine as level-headed, always the commonsensical teenager surrounded by either malevolent or, in this case, merely dithering adults. She plays off Kendall almost as well as Angela Lansbury does.
Harrison, for once, takes something of a back seat. He was, according to his costars, a notoriously ungenerous actor. If there is justice in the afterlife, Harrison is spending his time on that great soundstage in the sky playing all his scenes opposite children and dogs. Here, though, his part is written as the calm foil to Kendall’s mile-a-minute chatter and endlessly inept plotting, and it’s a pleasure to see him holding off and just reacting to her.
The story goes that not only did Minnelli not know of Kendall’s condition at the time of filming, but neither did Kendall herself. She was told, right up to the end, that what was wrong with her was an iron deficiency. Minnelli says Harrison was the only one who knew Kendall was dying, and to see how this veteran scene-stealer lets her take over in the more farcical moments is quite touching. It is sad indeed that Kendall didn’t live to create a whole host of other characters, ones with more resonance than the fluttery Sheila. But this breezy, silk-chiffon-scarf of a movie still gives an audience a powerful taste of her allure.
From the Aug. 2 Nomad Wide Screen, a considerably rewritten and spruced-up version of a post I once did on The Big Clock:
Not all film noir takes place in a seedy underworld; sometimes noir arrives on the commuter train wearing a custom-made suit. So it goes with John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), which sets its dark doings and flashback narrative in a top-flight New York corporation that occupies a swank (if somberly lit) Midtown office tower.
The hero (or if you prefer, since this is film noir, the primary sap) is family man George Stroud (Ray Milland), an executive in the massive publishing empire of Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). One night Stroud gets himself into a terrible pickle by getting drunk with Pauline York, played by Rita Johnson as a trampy soul with a chic exterior. Unfortunately for Stroud, Pauline is also Janoth’s mistress, and Stroud must exit her couch the next morning when their boss drops by unexpectedly. Mistress and magnate fight, and fifty years before anyone ever saw a Viagra ad, Pauline’s tirade shows off some choice euphemisms for “impotent”: “You think you could make any woman happy?...You flabby, flabby...” And that last word is one of the last Pauline utters, as Janoth bludgeons her to death with a sundial.
Well, what’s a self-respecting titan to do in such a situation, except use every last bit of his power to pin the blame on someone else? And the someone else just happens to be Stroud. The main twist in Jonathan Latimer’s highly twisty script (based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing) is that Janoth doesn’t know who he’s after, and Stroud must extricate himself without Janoth’s finding out...
it is Laughton who rules over The Big Clock. In Hollywood movies, most tyrannical managers are openly and loudly abusive. Laughton as Janoth keeps his voice low, forcing subordinates to lean close, which they wouldn't do otherwise. That’s because getting close means they have to look at Janoth’s weedy little moustache and the way he strokes it with one finger, in a gesture as suggestive as it is repulsive. He won't make eye contact, emphasizing his employees' wormlike status. And Laughton speaks every word in an affected, maddeningly casual drawl, underlining that he doesn't give a hoot if he just screwed up someone's life.
Finally, yesterday was the 100th birthday of the fabulous Lucille Ball, and there was a blogathon ball which the Siren, dearly though she loves all of Lucy's incarnations, could not attend, alas, as her opera gloves were at the cleaners. However, the roundup post is right here at True Classics, and the Siren strongly suggests that all Lucy fans click and start reading. The Siren has been working her way through all of them, and is in heaven. Some highlights (so far): Caftan Woman on Lucy's four films with Bob Hope; Clara at Villa Margutta 51 on the use of Spanish dialogue in I Love Lucy; old friend Ivan G. Shreve at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear on I Love Lucy's radio antecedents; R.D. Finch of The Movie Projector on fifteen character actors who appeared on the television show (jaw-dropping, the amount of talent it attracted); a post about Lucy's memoirs at Erin's Silver Screen Scribblings; Ivan again at Edward Copeland's wonderful blog with a 360-degree tour of Lucy's career; and Vince of Carole & Co. on the friendship between Lombard and Ball.
(The wonderful image of Lucille Ball in Stage Door, a movie that is high on the Siren's list of the best of the 1930s, is from the terrific tumblr blog Classic Film Heroines, which is full of such goodies.)