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Film Friday: "It Started With a Kiss" (1959)

To celebrate Debbie Reynolds' 84th birthday, which happens to be today, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you one of my favorite of her films.

Original release poster
Directed by George Marshall, It Started With a Kiss (1959) tells the story of Joe Fitzpatrick (Glenn Ford) and Maggie Putnam (Debbie Reynolds), an Air Force sergeant and a dancer who meet at a charity ball, where he purchases a raffle ticket from her for a custom-built luxury car. After a two-day courtship, Joe marries Maggie and then travels to Spain to join his company. Maggie meets him there a month later, with the news that he has won the raffle, making them the proud owners of a 1955 Lincoln Futura. Although she is happy to see Joe, Maggie soon questions that sudden commitment to one another. Concerned that she might get pregnant before she can determine if they are suitably matched, Maggie declares they must have a trial marriage without sex for thirty days.

The following day, the car arrives at the port of Cadiz. As they drive back to Madrid, Joe and Maggie are spotted by Marquesa Marian de la Rey (Eva Gabor) and handsome matador Antonio Soriano (Gustavo Rojo). The American ambassador also notices the car and sends his aid, McVey (Carleton Young), to tell General Tim O'Connell (Fred Clark) that "a flagrant, ostentatious display of American wealth is very poor propaganda." O'Connell instructs Joe to send the car back to the United States, but he refuses, claiming that it would jeopardize his marriage. Later, Joe and Maggie receive an invitation to a party hosted by Marian and a bullfight, most likely due to the car. Taken with both Maggie and the car, Antonio invites the Fitzpatricks to his country estate the next day. The morning of their trip to the country, Joe learns that he owes several thousands of dollars in taxes on the car. Joe realizes he can resolve the monetary problem by selling Antonio the car, which upsets Maggie. After she gets drunk during a tour of Antonio's winery, Joe accuses Maggie of being selfish and leaves in disgust, moving in Marian's villa. A series of crazy misunderstandings ensues, but in the end it becomes clear to Maggie that she truly loves Joe and the two reconcile.

Maggie Putnam: Things are more important than people. You see, you can trust things, whatever they are — furs, clothes, jewelry, groceries, houses. Whatever they are, they don't change. They don't wake up in the morning and say, "Yesterday I was a shoe, but today I'm going to be a bicycle," like people do.

After the Motion Picture Production Code was fully enforced in 1934, Hollywood was required to obey a series of "general principles" which prohibited a film from "lowering the moral standards of those who see it." The Code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen, but also to promote traditional values, the so-called "correct standards of life." Consequently, issues such as miscegenation, the use of drugs, adultery, prostitution and sexual relations were strictly forbidden. In the 1950s, however, the Breen office's powers in Hollywood began to weaken due to the combined impact of television, influence from foreign films, bold directors pushing the boundaries and intervention from the Supreme Court. Areas of the Code were rewritten to accept subjects that had been considered taboo since the 1930s and increasingly explicit films soon began to appear, including The Moon Is Blue (1953), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), all directed by Otto Preminger.

Although sex has always been an issue, albeit an implicit one, in the majority of Hollywood romantic comedies, the loosening of the Production Code in the late 1950s and early 1960s contributed to the development of a new type of comedy: the "sex comedy." This term, however, was rarely applied at the time and contemporary critics tended to combined  variety of suggestive adjectives, including "adult" and "risqué," with more generic nouns such as "comedy" and "farce." The sex comedy is characterized by its "full use of the cinematic rhetoric of romance: passionate kisses, soft-focus close-ups, and emotion-enforcing music are entirely typical. However, this rhetoric is not necessarily used sincerely and, more often than not, romance is associated with the artifice of seduction, in opposition to the 'naturalness' of 'true' love. Seduction and romance are revealed to be based upon manipulation and commodification." Among such successful films as Teacher's Pet (1958), Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961), we find It Started With a Kiss.

Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford
It Started With a Kiss was the first property producer Aaron Rosenberg purchased under his new MGM contract. A former All-American college football player, Rosenberg began his Hollywood career in 1934, as an assistant director at Fox Film Corporation, merged a year later with Twentieth Century Pictures to form 20th Century Fox. He turned to producing in the late 1940s and was responsible for such films as Winchester '73 (1950), The Glenn Miller Story (1953), The Benny Goodman Story (1956) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

Based on a story by Valentine Davies, the director of The Benny Goodman Story, It Started With a Kiss was adapted for the screen by Charles Lederer, who also wrote Mutiny on the Bounty. Beginning his career writing additional dialogue for the Best Picture nominee The Front Page (1931), he soon became a major comedy writer, employing his acerbic wit to such films as His Girl Friday (1940), Love Crazy (1941), I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and Monkey Business (1952). For It Started With a Kiss, Lederer recreated a well-known sequence from RKO's Bringing Up Baby (1938), when Joe must walk in-step tightly behind Maggie in order to hide her torn dress.

Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford
To helm It Started With a Kiss, MGM chose the veteran George Marshall, one of the most versatile and prolific directors in Hollywood, who began his career early in silent era with The Committee on Credentials (1916). His at least 185 directing credits include Destry Rides Again (1939), The Blue Dahlia (1946), My Friend Irma (1949) and Fancy Pants (1950). The two lead roles of Joe Fitzpatrick and Maggie Putnam were assigned to Glenn Ford, a World War II veteran who began his film career in 1939 and achieved widespread recognition with the iconic noir Gilda (1946); and Debbie Reynolds, a former gymnast who began her rise to fame after co-starring with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Ford was going through a rough period in his life when he began working on It Started With a Kiss in late February 1959. His 16-year marriage to dancer Eleanor Powell was collapsing and he looked "dazed and depressed." Fortunately, Marshall, Ford's friend and favorite director, with whom he also worked in The Sheepman (1958) and Advance to the Rear (1964), was able to lessen his dark mood and keep his spirits high during production.  

Debbie Reynolds on the set
For her part, Reynolds was in the midst of a humilliating scandal. She had been married to teen idol Eddie Fisher, her co-star in Bundle of Joy (1956), and the two had been labeled by the fan magazines as "America's sweethearts." Fisher was the best friend of producer Mike Todd, who happened to be married to Reynolds' close friend Elizabeth Taylor. When Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, a grief-stricken Taylor was consoled by Fisher, with whom she soon became involved. As he was still married to Reynolds, the affair caused a major public scandal, topped only three years later when Taylor left Fisher to consort with Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra (1963).

The role of Marquesa Marian de la Rey was given to the Hungarian-born Eva Gabor, who made her film debut in Forced Landing (1941) at Paramount Pictures. Gabor would soon be embroiled in her own romantic scandal. She had become engaged to a New York stockbroker, Richard Brown. Before he got involved with Gabor, Brown had broken off a relationship with a model. Shortly after the film company returned from Spain, the model committed suicide, leaving a note which said she could not go on without Brown. Although Gabor had nothing to do with Brown ending his previous affair, the tabloid headlines called Gabor a "love pirate." Gabor married Brown later that year. They divorced in 1972.

Reynolds and Ford on location in Spain
Although Reynolds would become one of Ford's lifelong friends, they had a bumpy start on location in Spain. On the first day of shooting at a bullring in Madrid, rain caused a delay in the schedule.While awaiting their call to the set, Reynolds and Gabor sat in a trailer chatting to each other. As it began to get dark outside, they realized that cast and crew had left without them. Eventually, they found a car and Gabor offered the driver a piece of jewelry to take them back to the Palace Hotel, where the company was staying. When they arrived, they saw that Marshall, Ford and members of the crew were in the lobby bar. As Reynolds recalled, they were "drinking and smoking and laughing. They'd been there for hours. And Eva and I stood there and bawled them all out, and George, who was loaded, said we had no sense of humor, and then we ran to our rooms in tears. But from then on we were very well taken care of, and it was Glenn who made of that. Always running around checking, 'Did you get the girls? Make sure you get the girls.' And he became the big daddy, making sure nothing like that ever happened to us again."

After three weeks on location in spain, the cast and crew of It Started With a Kiss returned to Hollywood for several weeks of interiors on the MGM lot, where they remained until production wrapped in late April 1959. In the intervening time, Ford and Powell separated and she eventually filed for divorce on May 1, his 43th birthday. Despite Powell's hope to avoid publicity, it was a headline story and for weeks the gossip columnists speculated about the cause of the break-up. Reynolds, too, divorced Fisher in 1959 and he married Taylor shortly afterwards, on May 12.

Lobby card for It Started With a Kiss
It Started With a Kiss opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on August 19, 1959 to generally positive reviews from critics. A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that the film "appears to be the proper, weightless but palatable stuff for a summer's day." He also liked the two leads, saying, "Debbie Reynolds, as the romantically beleaguered newlywed, is impishly delightful and is a sight for tired, old eyes in clinging gown, negligee or suit. Glenn Ford, as the over-heated sergeant, is properly enthusiastic and glum, in turn." For their part, Variety called the film "highly amusing" and considered that "Ford and Reynolds make an appealing twosome." They also praised Reynolds' "bright, breezy approach to comedy that puts her just about in a class by herself."

All the publicity surrounding the film's leads contributed to making It Started With a Kiss a box-office hit. Also part of the publicity machine was the promotional tie-in with the car in the film, a $40,000 Lincoln Futura, dubbed "the car of tomorrow." Reynolds and the car made the cover of Life magazine. Reynolds' and Ford's private lives might have been a mess, but their careers had never been better. In fact, Ford ended 1959 as one of the year's top five box-office stars. That year, Ford and Reynolds reunited with Marshall to film The Gazebo (1959), a black comedy based on the play of the same name by Alec Coppel about a married couple who are being blackmailed.

Glenn Ford: A Life by Peter Ford (2011) | Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934-1965 by Kathrina Glitre (2006) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. Great post as usual! I caught this a couple months ago on TCM and enjoyed it. I like "The Gazebo" a little better though. My favorite line from this film was when Ford was reading the letter about the surprise to Harry Morgan and he said "The most wonderful thing that ever happened to two people, outside of an income tax refund, I don't know what else it could be."

    1. I was just updating my anniversaries page and noticed that Mon. will be the 50th anniversary of her film "The Singing Nun."

    2. Thank you. :)
      I love "The Gazebo." I was thinking of writing about it for Glenn Ford's birthday, actually.

    3. Yay! Can't wait to read it ;)


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