When I heard that 2003’s What A Girl Wants was based on a play, my first thought was, “Really?”
For those who haven’t seen it, the movie follows Daphne Reynolds (Amanda Bynes), who leads a rather bohemian existence with her mom, Libby (Kelly Preston) in a fifth-floor walkup in New York’s Chinatown. Libby is a wedding singer and Daphne is a waitress. Daphne has spent years watching brides have their father-daughter dance with their dads while thinking of her own dad, Englishman Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth), who married her mom in Morocco after a chance meeting. They went off to their honeymoon on a camel, in case anyone’s curious.
When Daphne turns seventeen, she decides to take matters into her own hands. She jets off to England, where she finds out Henry is an aristocrat who’s renounced his hereditary seat in Parliament so he can run as a commoner. He’s also set to be married to the snooty, social-climbing Glynnis (Anna Chancellor) and become a stepdad to Glynnis’s equally if not snootier social climber daughter, Clarissa (Christina Cole). Neither one of them are exactly overjoyed to see Daphne, but Henry’s mother, Jocelyn (Eileen Atkins) is a duck and takes to Daphne immediately. So does Ian Wallace (Oliver James) the intriguing musician Daphne meets at her hotel.
Daphne doesn’t exactly fit with the society set, but she tries hard because it helps Henry politically. However, her natural free spirit self can’t help but come through, as well as the traits she shares with Henry. Among other similarities, they both like folding their toast and jam before eating it.
It’s a cute enough movie, and among other fun stuff we get to see the typically reserved Colin Firth in black leather letting loose like a rockstar, but nothing gets deep enough to make it seem like the offspring of the legitimate theater.
Au contraire, mes amis. What A Girl Wants is loosely based on the 1955 play, The Reluctant Debutante, written by William Douglas Home. It bears little resemblance to What A Girl Wants; Jane comes back to England after being educated in America, people plot against she and her family, Jane falls in love with a musician, and she’s given a debutante ball. Besides both stories having happy endings, that’s about it.
Home was a child of aristocrats and the brother of conservative party leader Sir Alec Douglas Home. Both men were well-versed and well-participated in politics; in fact, Alec was prime minister for about a year when the current Prime Minister had to resign due to health problems. Like Henry Dashwood, Alec rejected his hereditary position and ran as Sir Alec Douglas Home. Sadly, Alec lost the next election, but he stayed active in politics for almost the whole rest of his life.
William didn’t have nearly as much success. He tried on several occasions to win elected office but failed every time and turned his attention to writing.
The Reluctant Debutante made its debut on May 16 at the Theatre Royal in Brighton, running for five days, and from there it moved to the Cambridge Theatre in London, where it played for roughly two years. As with any successful or nearly successful play, Hollywood wanted to get in on the action, and the rights were bought by MGM for $150,000 before the play closed in Brighton.
From the beginning, the project had a lot going for it. Pandro S. Berman produced, Vincent Minnelli was brought on as director, Rex Harrison was set to star as Lord Jimmy, Kay Kendall as his wife, Lady Sheila, and Sandra Dee as Jane, with John Saxon in the role of Jane’s boyfriend, David. Oh, and we can’t forget Angela Lansbury as the conniving Mabel Claremont and Diane Clare as Clarissa Claremont, only Debutante‘s Clarissa is a much better egg than her counterpart in What A Girl Wants.
The only problem was, according to TCM, that the film was in danger of becoming too Americanized, and Minnelli hated the first draft of the script. Instead of chucking the whole project, though, Minnelli decided to bring in William Douglas-Home to fill in the blanks. Home took the Occam’s Razor approach and kept the script more or less identical to his original play.
Home’s instincts were correct on most counts, but while The Reluctant Debutante is utterly charming and a lot of fun, it lost money, especially with American audiences. Naturally, some critics were “Meh” about it as well. Clyde Gilmour of MacLean’s said that although the film had its funny moments, the overall product was “sluggish and the atmosphere strained.”
Variety‘s view was complimentary, saying the film was “refreshing and prettily dressed, a colorful, saucy film version of the William Douglas Home stage trifle.”
What A Girl Wants fared less well, although a lot of people, critics and audience alike, didn’t hate it. It currently has a thirty-six percent critics’ rating and a sixty percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes (Reluctant Debutante‘s ratings are fifty and seventy-four percent, respectively). The story is downright predictable, actually, kind of on the line of The Princess Diaries. Variety‘s Todd McCarthy and the peerless Roger Ebert both made that comparison, although Ebert was decidedly more diplomatic: “The movie is clearly intended for girls between the ages of 9 and 15, and for the more civilized of their brothers, and isn’t of much use to anyone else.”
This is true. What A Girl Wants isn’t the greatest film, but it goes to show that even the fluffiest of movies can hold a surprise or two.
The Singin’ In the Rain Blogathon is coming up on Saturday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…
What A Girl Wants (DVD), The Reluctant Debutate (DVD and Blu-ray), and William Douglas Home’s original play are available to own from Amazon.
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