Pre-Code Makeover

You know I’m a sucker for pre-Code movies (as are most if not all of my readers), so I’m delighted to announce the Blu-Ray remasters of two superb specimens from that era, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT and MARY STEVENS, M.D. (both 1933, and now available from The Warner Archive Collection).

We pre-mies, of course, are more than familiar with each of these excellent titles. They often run on TCM, and have been in the Warner Archive Collection for years – the latter as DVDs. Now don’t get me wrong. These older transfers were quite good, but, damn, the new 1080p High Definition re-dos blew my mind. Truly, it’s as if I’m seeing these naughty nuggets for the first time. Mel Mantra #1: Never forget how well (if not brilliantly) these movies were lit and shot. Long story short, the difference between the DVDs and the Blu-Rays is the difference between “very nice” and “jaw-dropping gorgeous.”

A gender switch on convict redemption, as only pre-Code can deliver, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT is a first-rate vehicle for rising star Barbara Stanwyck, who can do more with a smirk and a look than a script packed with risque one-liners (never mind, they’re here, too – courtesy of a scenario by Brown Holmes, William McGrath, and Sid Sutherland). Interestingly, LADIES is based upon Dorothy Mackaye’s and Carlton Miles’s play, Gangsteress, recounting Ms. Mackaye’s 1928 ten-month imprisonment in San Quentin. Stany plays Nan Taylor, the proverbial hottie from the wrong side of the tracks (jaded in girlhood by religious wingnuts), who ends up taking the fall for the heads of the bad crowd she’s hooked up with (the lead noggin and her squeeze being – who else? – but Lyle Talbot). Enter sanctimonious radio preacher Dave Slade (Preston Foster), who instantly becomes attracted to a suspicious Nan; much to her dismay, she starts gets the physical vibes herself. That all goes south when, hormones aside, Slade causes the now conflicted (but mostly pissed off) Nan to be sent up the river.

The prison sequences are primo pre-Code, with new fish Taylor taken under the tutelage of sassy Linda (Lillian Roth in her best movie role). They BFF like nobody’s business, and Nan’s intros to the penitentiary’s lesbian contingent, Aunt Maggie (the ex-Madam of a “beauty parlor,” where men were the clients), and Susie (a Dave Slade-obsessed nympho, out to destroy Ms. Taylor, once the revivalist’s lingering attraction becomes common knowledge) comprise cinematic snarkasm from Heaven. There are attempted crash-outs, double-crosses, and triple-crosses before Nan finally realizes that her love for Slade is genuinely mutual (but only after she pays him back by shooting him).

In stir, Roth and the other goils put the frustrated sexual heat on sizzle, particularly in one scene where horndog (or is it “kitten”?) Linda tells Nan that the only things on their collective minds are “freedom…and MEN!,” the last word delivered with such lip-biting frenzy that the poor lass nearly gnashes her puckerers to the teeth. They also moan to pinup photos of their favorite male movie stars (coincidentally, all Warners contractees).

The cast is terrific with Babs additionally backed up by Maude Eburne (Aunt Maggie), Dorothy Burgess (Susie), and Ruth Donnelly, Harold Huber, Grace Cunard, Mary Gordon, and Robert Warwick. Director William Keighley (who codirected with Howard Bretherton, and also appears in a bit) moves the action at a lightning paced 69-minutes. As underlined above, this Blu-Ray is gorgeous, with John Seitz’s cinematography looking like it hasn’t looked since 1933! The music score by Cliff Hess and Bernhard Kaun is okay, highlighted by riffs of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Woman” playing throughout – almost becoming Nan’s theme. I Like Mountain Music, a vintage Merrie Melodies, which may have originally supported the LADIES playdates, is also included.

MARY STEVENS, M.D., gives so-fun-to-watch-her-suffer Kay Francis one of her best Warners pre-Code turns. As the title character, she is the brunt of many cruel, sexist snubs despite the fact that the lady sawbones is aces in her profession. Opening a clinic with her fellow graduate student pal Don Andrews proves to be…dare I say…a pill. Even with a guy in tow, a woman doctor has difficulties payin’ the rent (fortunately, she has wise-cracking Glenda Farrell as her all-purpose gal Friday nurse to keep the doom out of gloom). But Don has other plans: marrying a rich, beauteous harpy (the always welcome Thelma Todd) and getting her daddy to fund his super-duper clinic. Ta-ta, Mary. Turns out that although Dr. Andrews is a competent medical practitioner, he’s an absolutely brilliant drunk; he’s also a class-conscious, ladder-climbing under-achiever, who – even with all the breaks – can’t cut it (in or out of surgery; “the less I do, the more I make,” he smirks). Self-loathing, selfish Don is played by – who else? – Lyle Talbot. Prior to going on the lam for embezzlement, Andrews sets Mary up with an office in his swanky practice, transforming her into an overnight success. As a result, Stevens and Andrews move from just friends to friends with benefits – the main one being her soon-to-arrive little tax deduction (an adulterous encounter while ducking the authorities). Back then, all women of means, when faced with this situation, booked passage on the Loretta Young Cabbage Patch Tour. Mary, sporting a Rachel Maddow “do,” and accompanied by Glenda (that’s Farrell’s character’s name, too), takes off for Europe, eventually returning with a little bundle of joy.

Before the story ends with a surprising outcome for Drs. Stevens and Andrews, Mary proves that many things haven’t changed for career women in nearly 90 years. Unwanted pregnancy aside, the femme physician also deals with a brief suicidal moment and, more topically, a mini pandemic aboard an ocean liner because…well, you know, some folks don’t take precautions…like maybe wearing a masks when your brood is infected. All of this unspools at a sprightly 72-minutes. Warners house talent Lloyd Bacon moves Rian James’s, and Robert Lord’s script (based on Viginia Kellogg’s play, with William Keighley acting as dialog consultant) at a more-than-brisk pace. Like LADIES, MARY STEVENS utilizes some smokin’ Orry-Kelly frocks (when not wearing scrubs or prison gear) – so much so, that, frankly, he should share responsibility for Stevens’s blessed event. D.P. Sid Hickox, another Warners’ workhorse, shows us how terrific slick, quickly-made movies could look. The crystal-clear, shimmering monochrome is double-take stunning in this new 1080p High Def remaster. The fact that none of the female trouble (in both these sensational titles) would be “acceptable” within a year makes us grateful that this and all those other great pre-Codes made it to the theaters before mid-June, 1934.




(both 1.37:1; 1080p High Definition); 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. SRP: $21.99 @.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

One Dimension Three Dimension

Thank God for Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and the 3-D Film Archive for keeping true (and rare) stereoscopic Blu-Rays alive, as evidenced by the recent releases of a pair of 1970’s chop-socky “classics,” DYNASTY and REVENGE OF THE SHOGUN WOMEN.

Admittedly, neither of these two Chinese imports would hold any special merit in most film archives. At least, flat. In 3-D, they’re kinda a big deal. The Seventies had a handful of 3-D releases, mostly porn – after the super-smash of The Stewardesses. 1973’s Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (aka, Flesh for Frankenstein), too, made quite a splash. Other than that Third Dimension titles were kept to a minimum.

The 1977 unveiling of DYNASTY was practically an event picture for addicts of the process. The combo of 3-D and martial arts seemed like a natural. And it was. Add the Mystery Science Theater 3000 dubbing (even the horses are ludicrously synched, something I didn’t even envision possible!), the feature-length trailer plot, plus buckets of blood and flying limbs and you had an instant kitsch masterpiece.

The narrative (by Kuo-Hsiung Liu), taking place in the Ming Dynasty, hovers (like most martial arts pics do) around treachery, pillaging, and retribution. And, following that template, DYNASTY doesn’t disappoint. There’s even a Good, the Bad and the Ugly finale…on the side of a mountain!

Director Mei-Chun Chang pulls out all the stops, and the cast (Tao-Liang Tan, David Wei Tang, Taiko Rin, Kang Chin, Chang Ma, Yung-Hsing Chin, Chia-Chuan Tang) seems fairly game; costar Ying Bai even won a Best Supporting Actor award at that year’s Golden Horse Film Festival.

But the real star is 3-D (photographed in Super-Widescreen Super Touch 3-D 2.39 by Jung-Shu Chen, and supervised by Mike Findlay). Spears, swords, even body parts come flying out at the audience with great rapidity, resulting in many grindhouse “oh, shit!” moments. Even the non-effects shots are nicely-framed with background/foreground/center levels to enhance the feeling of 100% depth. Super Touch 3-D, BTW, was reportedly understandably a bigger hit in select Hong Kong movie houses, where it was showcased in the equivalent of today’s large format IMAX presentations. Producers didn’t scrimp on the sound, either. The tracks were recorded in the then-pre-digital/pre-surround catchword “Quad,” and, indeed, heralded on the posters as Quadrophonic Sound (the 4-track audio has been restored for this release, as have the 3-D elements – the latter nevertheless showing slight signs of negligence in the nearly fifty years since the pic’s debut; the audio is also accessible in 2.0 mono).

Knowing what we know about restorations (particularly in 3-D from a non-major), it’s amazing that DYNASTY looks this good. Can’t credit the 3-D Archive gang enough. And, as usual, they loaded this disc with a plethora of enticing extras, including The House of Terror, a 1953 3-D comic book (comics had their own 3-D run in the early 1950s in an attempt to cash-in on the brief Hollywood momentum), two 3-D slide presentations from the Fifties: Sold on Stereo and Inside a Mid-Century Department Store, “Go Away I Like You Too Much,” a 3-D music video from The Simple Carnival (by Jeff Boller), a featurette on the Super Touch 3-D process, and more.

The movie is available for viewing in three versions: the real 3-D edition for owners of the specially-required TVs and Blu-Ray players, an anaglyph version (with two pairs of red and blue glasses provided), and a standard flat version. Be prepared to gasp, laugh, and duck with great regularity – sometimes simultaneously.

With the impressive success of DYNASTY worldwide, it was inevitable that there would be a follow-up. But perhaps not as soon as REVENGE OF THE SHOGUN WOMEN, released the same year in many territories, originally under the title 13 Nuns. Utilizing the word “Shogun” to straddle the bandwagon of the wildly successful American mini-series was a standard ploy for kung-fu importers back then, so the pic was re-released under its more famous moniker in the early 1980s.

The plot for WOMEN (as concocted by Huang-Kun Lin and Terry Chambers) is a lollapalooza, even if the execution is less so. In 1797, thirteen gorgeous women are en route to a monastery to become nuns when they are ravaged by rapacious bandits. They “carry on” in the best stoic condition, and complete their journey which, we happily discover, includes the mastery of kung fu. Not surprisingly, once emboldened, the women decide to extract their vengeance upon the pigs who defiled them. See, this should have been a pip. But it becomes a strictly by-the-numbers exercise. Maybe it was the rushed production to ride the coat tails of DYNASTY, maybe there were behind-the-scenes problems…who knows? The femmes (led by Shirley Han, Hsiu-Shen Liang, Shisuen Leong, Di Lin, and others) are never allowed to exhibit any notable histrionics, save “angry face” and “angrier face.” The fight scenes themselves are often presented in wide long shots, detaching the audience even more from the action and the actresses. This “enthusiasm” seems to have infected returning director Mei-Chun Chang. As indicated, this should have been a cheering-for-revenge, sexy, kicking, garroting, spearing, chopping, horse stomping cinematic coup. But it isn’t. Fortunately, like he had in DYNASTY, producer Frank Wong opted to have the visuals lensed in 3-D (again, relying upon the photographic expertise of Jung-Shu Chen). This becomes WOMEN‘s saving grace, as there are some cool formation shots, decent weapons in your face moments, and a “watch-out, muthafucka!” sequence with a lethal braid (not the ladies, they’re heads are shaved, it’s a traditional male queue).

Like DYNASTY, the disc comes in three versions, as well as with some terrific extras, including two 1953 “nudie” shorts, College Capers and Persian Slave Market (screened in strip joints as a hopeful draw for the dying burlesque market). The latter defines “inept”; the former is a hoot with 40-year-old frat boys attempting a panty raid. Capers‘ 3-D is quite good, not surprising, as it is an early effort from the great d.p. Joe Biroc (plus, Ed Wood’s favorite babe, Dolores Fuller, is one of the co-eds). A third short, 1973’s Two Guys from Tick Ridge, is a redneck-made-good-in-Hollywood affair, exhibiting quite a bit of knowledge of the process’s Golden Age.

As a 3-D fanatic, I’m so thrilled that these obscure movies are available in these fantastic proper stereoscopic editions. I never thought they’d EVER see the light of day in the versions they were created for. Kino-Lorber and 3-D Film Archive, once again, I thank you!

DYNASTY. Color. Widescreen [2.39: 1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 surround, with 4-channel/2.0 mono English dubbed DTS-HD MA. CAT # K25285. SRP: $29.95.

REVENGE OF THE SHOGUN WOMEN. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [English dubbed]. CAT # K25609. SRP: $24.95.

Armin’ Hammer

A quintessential horror gem that I would usually save for my annual Halloween Blitz, MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN gets a special spring mention, due to the fact that this stunning, new Arrow Blu-Ray is a limited edition. LSS, they’ll likely all be gone by October.

Released in 1960 (with Alglo distribution on-hold until 1962), MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, the first Italian horror movie to be shot in color, and based on a genuinely creepy short story by Pieter van Weigen, is proof (very) positive of the ever-spreading influence of Hammer Films worldwide. As early as 1958, clueless producers began inserting color sequences in their product – figuring that was the Hammer magic touch. Indeed, it took AIP and Roger Corman a full three years to realize that gothic charm was the real carrot to the British company’s success. Even then, the U.S. Poe adaptations never quite match the early Terence Fisher masterpieces.

But it was more than merely goth and color. There was a new, insidious and addictive sense of eroticism liberally dousing the baroque prim-and-proper proceedings. Ironically, Roger Vadim’s 1959 entry Blood and Roses (the overrated director’s only great pic) “got it,” but still remains unreleased on Blu-ray/4K; fortunately, he wasn’t alone. Other talents on the European continent prevailed, and the primo result is this Italian-French co-production, nicely scripted by Remigio Del Grosso and Louis Sauvat, with uncredited assist from Giorgio Stegani, Ugo Liberatore, and director Giorgio Ferroni (wearing his two hats ably), and superbly photographed by Pier Ludovico Pavoni.

MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, surely a contender for one of the oddest movie titles of all-time, is possibly the most deliberate attempt to ape Hammer in style and content. And it’s the most successful. In brief terms, it can be categorized as House of Wax meets Eyes Without a Face with a side of The Man who Could Cheat Death and a nod to the Gorgon legend (which Hammer would tackle four years later). Quite a lot for an hour-and-a-half.

Played out among the hauntingly alluring Flemish countryside in the late Victorian era (and sumptuously filmed on-location in Holland and Belgium), MILL concerns the renowned artist Professor Wahl, who lives in an ancient mill/studio near the university where he teaches. But the mill is more than a mere residence. Housed on the main floor is an iconic museum featuring exquisite statues of females carved in orgiastic states of death and torture on a revolving carousel, created decades ago by the Wahl’s ancestor. To commemorate a celebration of this macabre crowd-pleaser, the community has commissioned Hans, a budding, young writer, to compose a monograph on the work and the family behind it. That he is also romantically involved with Liselotte, a beauteous promising student at the Professor’s academy is the enticing-icing on the cake.

As the unfaithful scribe is to learn, there are strange secrets at the mill, including Dr. Bohlem, a weird resident/voyeur who seems to pop in and out at inopportune times. But primarily there is Elfie, Professor Wahl’s (literally) drop-dead gorgeous daughter. Revealed to be suffering from a rare disease, the malady does not intrude upon Hans being a willing participant in Elfie’s seduction of the author. Since she is played by the sensually spectacular Scilla Gabel, it’s easy to see how this dangerous liaison happened. Soon, fetching locals are disappearing, most notably the popular model/whore, Annalore. Coinciding with these occurrences are new additions to the carousel…and remarkable recuperative powers from the oft bed-ridden (in more ways than one) vampiric succubus Elfie.

The chilling conclusion is an artistic kaleidoscope of visual fireworks – some hallucinatory, all sensational.

MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN had a varied release, in no less than FOUR different versions: the Italian, the UK, the French, and the U.S. ALL FOUR ARE INCLUDED IN THIS TWO-DISC SET, housed in a sturdy, handsome slipcover. While the Euro versions highlighted its stunning cinematography in Eastman Color, the American prints were Technicolor – and as good as the process gets. Pavoni’s lavish photography is as near to Hammer’s Jack Asher’s (my bid for Hammer’s top d.p.) as one could wish. This is indeed one beautiful-looking movie (and disc). Because the Euro editions tended to be more graphic, running times vary (between 90 and 96 minutes). It’s definitely worth exploring them all. Admittedly, the English dubbing is occasionally like something out of a Second City sketch, so I suggest the French or Italian versions (with excellent English subtitles). Aside from the extraordinary Gabel, MILL features a game cast, including Pierre Brice (Hans), Herbert Boehme (Professor Wahl), Dany Carrel (Liselotte), Wolfgang Preiss (Dr. Bohlem), Liana Orfei (Annalore), and Marco Gugliemi, Olga Solbelli, and Alberto Archetti, . The excellent mono track contains an appropriately moody score by Carlo Innocenzi.

The splendidly restored imagery in 1080p High Def is certainly reason enough to purchase this eerie triumph. But the enormous amount of extras that Arrow has embodied the set with pushes a mere reason into no-brainer territory. Included as supplements are, as indicated, a quartet of different cuts, restored (but different) British and American dubbing, a wonderful fully-illustrated booklet with writing by Roberto Curti, comparisons between the four versions by Brad Stevens, a fold-out double-sided poster with the original and newly-commissioned artwork (the latter by Adam Rabalais), six double-sided postcard-sized lobbycards, audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a visual essay by Kat Ellinger, archival interviews with Liana Orfei and Wolfgang Preiss, still galleries, a collection of international trailers, and more.

That MILL precedes Bava’s Black Sunday/Black Sabbath duo and The Whip and the Body is yet another reminder of how influential this pic was. In conclusion, this is a limited edition classic horror fans won’t want to miss!

MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Arrow Video. CAT # AV394. SRP: $59.95.

Minnelli Mirth

By the late 1950s, there was no doubt about it: Vincente Minnelli owned MGM. Now, by “owned,” I don’t mean that he physically had the Culver City studio as a property holding. I’m talking about artistically and, pretty much, commercially (by osmosis). The director had proved that he could practically do no wrong.

Everyone with even a small amount of functioning braincells knew that he was the master of the musical, Metro’s most recognizable genre. But, by 1956, he showed us some considerable dramatic teeth as well. The Bad and the Beautiful, The Cobweb, and Lust for Life hit all the right targets, critically and at the box-office. Most remarkably (and delightfully), the talented Mr. Minnelli exhibited a spectacular flair for comedy, brilliantly on display with the 1950 smash Father of the Bride (and the equally successful 1951 sequel, Father’s Little Dividend). It came as no tremendous shock that, after coming off the ultra tragic biopic of Vincent van Gogh, MGM’s Vincente decided to pursue an extreme change of pace, and, as usual, did so with great panache, wit, charm, and creativity – as evidenced via two outstanding CinemaScope works, 1957’s DESIGNING WOMAN and 1958’s THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE – both now available in stunning new High Definition Blu-Ray transfers from The Warner Archive Collection.

DESIGNING WOMAN shows Minnelli in top comedic form, as he effortlessly helps usher in the new “big” type of laff genre, so prevalent throughout the late 1950s-mid 1960s. What was new was the lavish budget, the emphasis on middle-upper-middle class characters, a fun albeit sneer-friendly wink-wink/nudge-nudge storyline, and the jettisoning of comedian stars in favor of pairings between actors/actresses you’d never expect in a wacky pseudo-sex romp. Here’s it’s Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall. He’s a sports writer, she’s a magazine fashion designer/consultant. It’s fish oil out of water antics from frame one, involving gangsters, ex-lovers, show biz denizens, the New York theater scene, and 1950’s decolletage. The movie’s so frothy and infectious – and belies the behind-the-scenes drama, so much so that it’s amazing any of the pic’s enjoyability factor ever reached the screen. LSS, DESIGNING WOMAN was not a happy shoot. Bacall’s great love, Humphrey Bogart, passed nine months prior to production, after a long and gruesome battle with cancer. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from Betty’s courageous “carry on” professionalism. She’s often hilarious. Peck genuinely adored her (they had known each other in New York during their salad days, and were old pals, so their chemistry is the real McCoy). Bringing up the rear is a wonderful supporting cast, including Dolores Gray, Tom Helmore, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jesse White, Ed Platt, Chuck Connors, Alvy Moore, Jack Cole (who also served as choreographer), Madge Blake, Richard Deacon, Don Dillaway, Dean Jones, Stuart Holmes, Sid Melton, Benny Rubin, Max Showalter, and May McAvoy. A sprightly music score by Andre Previn appends the lavish wrapping, superbly photographed in (gorgeously restored) MetroColor and CinemaScope by the great John Alton. A mammoth hit, the mystery surrounding DESIGNING WOMAN isn’t how it turned out so well despite the dire filming circumstances, but rather how George Wells won an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen when even uninformed movie-goers knew this was a reboot of 1942’s Woman of the Year (minus the political ballast and a way-too-precious Katharine Hepburn). Suggested by an idea from designer Helen Rose, the most original narrative aspect is a Rashomon device wherein lead characters explain their varying versions of situations to the camera.

DESIGNING WOMAN indeed paved the way for other they-ain’t-supposed-to-be-funny teamings, including Jose Ferrer/Gena Rowlands (The High Cost of Loving), Kirk Douglas/Susan Hayward (Top Secret Affair, originally slated for Bogart and Bacall), a post-Love Me or Leave Me/Man Who Knew Too Much Doris Day with Richard Widmark (Tunnel of Love), then, more prominently, opposite Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (their co-starring almost becoming a sub-genre), and, even, Clark Gable/Sophia Loren (It Started in Naples) and Charlton Heston and Elsa Martinelli (The Pigeon that Took Rome)!

Amazingly flourishing for a full decade, these boudoir romps only went limp via the new permissiveness. Not even Warren Beatty and Leslie Caron (Promise Her Anything) or the Newmans (Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, A New Kind of Love) could match The Graduate. It was the end of an era.

I must spend a bit more time than usual on THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE for the simple reason that I absolutely love this movie. And always have. The picture is relatively unknown, and thoroughly deserves to be rediscovered. It’s a top-flight sophisticated romp costarring real-life marrieds Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall as reel-life marrieds Lord and Lady Broadbent. She’s his second wife, and is lovingly determined to make the most of their privileged lifestyle. To this end, she has devoted herself to grooming Jane (Sandra Dee), hubby’s visiting American teenage daughter from marriage #1, as debutante of the year (the pic opens with the title “London, 1958, “THE” Season”).

Now, you reg’lar folks might be already yawning “who cares?” But, my fellow yanks, hold on to your hot dogs and apple pie, as this is a smooth, hilariously funny excursion performed by the best of the best. Harrison and Kendall are marvelous together, displaying an on-screen bonding relationship as good as any cinema romantic team. Kendall is perhaps the most underrated screen comedienne of the post-War era. It’s as if the word “madcap” was coined specifically for her (and I’m not alone. I can’t praise Eve Golden’s 2002 bio, The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall, highly enough; it’s simply one of the best entertainment biographies I’ve ever read). Indeed, the actress’s delivery, poise, beauty, and ability to segue from high-brow to slapstick never ceases to startle me. Her untimely death at 32 from leukemia was a true loss to The Movies (I can still remember my parents’ shock at her obit, both being big fans; not Flynn, Power, Gable, Cooper or Monroe rivaled their sadness. The only one who came close was Ernie Kovacs. That’s my mom and dad!). One scene had audiences roaring in ’58, and still bowls me over today. Kendall is talking to haughty friend Mabel Claremont (a wonderful Angela Lansbury performance) over the phone when she notices stepdaughter Jane poking around her proboscis. “Stop picking your nose!”, she ewws in disgust, then turns her apologetic attention back to Lansbury. Then the capper. “Oh, you were, too?” It’s comedy perfection.

I’m also stunned whenever I enjoy Rex Harrision’s thesp skills, knowing that apparently everyone in the business hated his guts. And out of the business. And even his own children; suffice to say, he and Kay didn’t exactly have the nicest (albeit brief) run of wedded bliss (nowhere near Broadbent harmony). To digress, I cite an infamous Harrison moment. While basking in the success of the Broadway run of My Fair Lady, the acclaimed actor was enjoying an after-theater drink at a nearby posh watering hole. An exuberant admirer approached him to tell the star how much he loved his Professor Higgins turn. Harrison responded by violently shoving the man out of his way. The theater-goer retaliated by punching Rex square in the face. Close-by observer Stanley Holloway (Eliza’s father in the show) made history by quipping to his drinking mate, “Looks like the fan hit the shit.” And that’s pretty much all you need to know about Rex Harrison.

But back to DEBUTANTE. The “coming out” preps, gaffes, and everything else in-between are handled magnificently by director Minnelli, working from William Douglas Home’s script (based on his own popular play). Correctly surmising that American audiences might shy away from the toffee-nose proceedings, MGM brought in Julius J. Epstein
(Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca) to “Americanize” it. He did so brilliantly, by simply making Lord Broadbent’s daughter, Jane, a Yank, residing in the U.S. The sidebar plots include a budding romance between drummer David Parkson and Jane (John Saxon and Dee) and even an eyebrow-raising aside about upper crust sexual harassment/entitlement. BTW, it’s easy to see why Dee prefers Saxon; all the male Brit candidates are dullards (and the twist-on-the-twist capper is…well…poifect). The rest of the cast is as game as the leads and includes terrific bits by Peter Meyers, Ambrosine Phillpotts, and a particularly lovely, understated piece of acting from Diane Claire (a role that could have been bitchy, but is refreshingly molded into a nice Dee/BFF sisterhood nod).

Like DESIGNING WOMAN, THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE was plagued by off-screen medical problems, namely Kendall’s already succumbing to the illness that would end her life the next year. On top of that, the actress’s doctors were not within reach, as the movie – although taking place in London – was actually entirely filmed in Paris. The reason was mercenary, as it was a tax haven dodge for Harrison despite his wife’s increasing health problems (it was later revised as being a legality issue, stating that at the time the actor could not work in either the U.S. or the UK; you be the judge).

Production dilemmas continued after the pic wrapped. Due to a musician’s strike, no original score was composed for the A-plus movie. In fact, no music could be recorded either. The entire score for DEBUTANTE is cobbled together from existing Metro library tracks, mostly from DESIGNING WOMAN, whose melody is heard over the main credits.

The picture debuted at Radio City Music Hall, where it did its best business. The reviews were ecstatic, but, once outside of the big cities, DEBUTANTE tanked big time. After cost/promotion deductions, the worldwide gross was an astonishingly tepid $3030! Minnelli, still at his peak, was not effected career-wise; two other MGM releases he directed in 1958 went through the roof: Gigi and Some Came Running. What a year!

The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray of THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE sumptuously befits its subject matter. The restored MetroColor looks sensational in 1080p High Definition (d.p. Joseph Ruttenberg would be quite proud) with an excellent mono track. Regarding the latter, the original audio was recorded in a pre-Dolby stereo process known as Perspecta (the logo is clearly seen in the credits). I imagine these tracks no longer exist, a big shame, although, as indicated, the sound reproduction is just fine.

With so little starring material on Kendall available, I am doubly thrilled by this Blu-Ray release. I at once contacted the aforementioned Ms. Golden, who likewise expressed her joy that this obscure title was getting another chance. “Kay has that wonderful offhand ‘just wandered in and making it up’ quality in DEBUTANTE that she brings to most of her films. Like Bob Newhart and Jack Benny, she plays very well off of characters who are idiots.” Eve also reminded me that in addition to the excruciating pain caused by the rapidly spreading leukemia, “she had also just broken her pelvis in a tobogganing accident.” Talk about a trouper! FYI, Eve’s Kendall book is now in paperback. You have no excuse! Buy it!

DESIGNING WOMAN and THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE. Both Color and Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.



These titles and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

also The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall by Eve Golden. SRP: $24.95.