Anglo/Saxon Attitudes

Fiona was surprised to find a Kay Kendall biography in the library (see yesterday’s post for an evaluation of the Edinburgh library system’s limitations) and devoured it on sight, demanding supplemental viewing materials, stat. I had tried to sell her on THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE before, but this was now the perfect moment. She didn’t require quality, just so long as KK was prominently featured.

I’ve probably mentioned before my theory that Vincente Minnelli made Hollywood’s most nightmarish comedies — the best of them aspire to pure phantasmagoria, and are more oppressive that they are funny, though admittedly DESIGNING WOMAN is extremely funny and amiable. Often they rise to moments of surreal heightened anxiety, sometimes involving altered states of consciousness. One image from a dream sequence in FATHER OF THE BRIDE, of Spencer Tracy’s feet sinking through a carpet suddenly turned to quagmire was repeated without modification in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and served just as aptly in a horror movie as it had in a “family comedy,” Minnelli-style.This movie takes place during what turned out to be the last ever “season,” when society’s latest batch of debutantes (don’t known what it means) “came out” (don’t know what it means, in this context anyway). Sandra Dee plays the daughter of Rex Harrison, which is the first big laugh and the last for a while. Kay Kendall is the stepmother who sets about arranging the girl’s coming out ball, and trying to arrange her love life in a socially suitable way, hampered by S-Dee’s falling in love with a humble drummer played by John Saxon (very cute, and at times seeming to play the role on-purpose gay).This is John Saxon describing native love rituals witnessed in Africa.

“…and then he carries her off to his TENT.”

This is Kay and Dee reacting to him.(Kay dresses like Big Bird through much of the film.)

This kind of lighter-than-air stuff has to be very good to get by, because you’re trying to get laughs out of nothing. The play and its adaptation, both by William Douglas-Home, aren’t really clever enough to manage this, but laughs are still had, partly from the deft work of Kendall and Harrison, two of the best light comedians who ever lived, and partly from numerous moments where the script hoves perilously close to the foulest bad taste, due to dated sexual attitudes, stuff that could be dealt with lightly then but seems shocking today. And since surprise is part of laughter, we found ourselves laughing at Sandra walking in on daddy just as he plays the role of dastardly seducer to a sofa cushion (really, too complicated to explain) ~Harrison does a fantastic variation on the man determined to finish his sentence even though the changed circumstances make it quite unnecessary and his delivery of the words no longer carries any of the intended meaning. It’s a very familiar trope — think Baloo singing when his disguise falls off in THE JUNGLE BOOK — but Harrison has his own version of it that no one’s ever seen or imagined before. And Kendall has a great bit entering, being surprised, and folding up like a deck-chair as her limbs give way on her.

Peter Myers gives a very funny performance as an upper-class bore forever reciting elaborate tales of how he’s negotiated the traffic to get where he is — but he transformed into an inarticulate rape-hound when left alone with Dee. And here’s her adorable reaction when she quizzes daddy on his early love life and learns that his first amour was a French girl who worked in a house in Paris — a maid? — no, not exactly…The weirdest and best sequence is a hallucinatory montage of balls, with Harrison getting drunk at each one, suffering Deutsch-tilt hangovers in interstitial office sequences, and finally losing contact with reality altogether as his secretary, having just handed him a glass of bicarb, starts announcing guest’s names in a dubbed man’s voice — audio bleed from scene to scene as life literally BECOMES nightmare.It’s in his comedies that you sense that Minnelli was not an altogether happy man.

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7 Responses to “Anglo/Saxon Attitudes”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    The notion of “coming out” always reminds me of a favored line from THE WOMEN: “It’s one thing to come out. It’s quite another to go under the table.”

    Haven’t seen RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE. I am surprised, though, by your good words for DESIGNING WOMAN, which I saw recently and found fairly lame. (“George Wells won an Oscar for writing *this*?”, I kept thinking.) The sort of film where wit means dumping ravioli in somebody’s lap. At most I enjoyed the multiple narrators, how they seemed to imply LES GIRLS-like subjectivity, and the Stonewall-like notion of a dancer (Jack Cole) using his dance skills to triumph over macho thugs. That and, of course, Dolores Gray performing “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.”

  2. All I know of “Reluctant Debutante” is this Monty Python reference:

  3. Kay Kendall is featured in “Genevieve”, playing a flamboyant model with a St. Bernard she found during the Blitz (odd to have that war reference in the film’s benign world).

    The curious thing about “Genevieve” is that it’s such an engaging comedy despite having very few outright laughs. You just sort of enjoy their low-stakes odyssey to the auto meet and back.

  4. Mark Fuller Says:

    But has Fiona seen this Kay Kendall rarity ??? https://youtu.be/p-YVnwP1bk0

  5. She was just showing it to me!

    Genevieve really is more about charm than laughter, sort of like Roman Holiday and a few other things. Just the tiniest plot motor chugging away to stop it grinding to a complete halt, and charming people (mainly the girls).

  6. More Kay for Fiona –with Gene Kelly in Cukor’s “Les Girls” singing a Cole Porter ditty.

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