Here is a comedy born of a certain time and age when they made such trifles. It’s the kind of plot where you can read it off in a single sentence but it’s further cushioned by cutesy moments and musical asides. Where growing girls say “Mummy” and “Daddy,” always fussing and screeching and bickering over this or that.
It could all get tiresome and too sugary if it weren’t redeemed by how very pleasant it is in reflecting adolescence. Yes, you could even call it absolute claptrap but there’s something special thrown into the concoction: Her name is Deanna Durbin.
Perhaps I am overstating her significance and making her stake larger than it possibly could be but I’d like to think on the contrary. Deanna Durbin is presented as “Universal’s newest discovery” and what a find she was. Beginning a run of many successful box office hits continuing up on through the war years, she was a beloved part of Americana.
Here was a teenage girl who with a voice and a carefully groomed persona helped salvage an entire studio and became so well-known and admired that by 1941 she would be the highest paid woman in America and the entire world, bar none, at the age of 21 (Look it up for yourself but don’t quote me).
Three Smart Girls is a film that means the very best and Henry Koster guides it along this path of sunshine and cheerfulness. There are numerous moments that say as much as Penny (Durbin) floats along with her two sisters (Barbara Read and Nan Grey) on a lake riding lazily on their sailboat in Switzerland while she knocks out a tune. Maybe it’s the girls squealing as they make use of their father’s exercise equipment and we watch Durbin repeatedly swing toward the camera until her face completely fills up the frame.
But I’ve put it off long enough. Here is my one sentence of exposition. The Three Craig girls make it their mission to go to New York and break of their father’s (Charles Winninger) engagement to a young gold digger so he can get back with their mother (Nella Walker). It’s a noble project and it also has the touches of an early Parent Trap (1961) which takes obvious inspiration from this picture.
The girls bring their flurry of teenage drama into their father’s bachelor lifestyle as well as subsequent heartbreak and tears that do finally give way to marital bliss (of course they do).
There seems to be a paradox to Deanna Durbin’s appeal. She had the feisty sass of a younger girl and the voice of an older one that sweeps you off your feet. It’s the kind of voice that I must admit sounds dubbed at times. That cannot conceivably be her singing!
She makes a line of hardened cops do a double take when she breaks out into an opera number in the police station trying to pull off a little white lie that’s she’s a Parisian songstress. It almost works too.
Ray Milland is wonderfully witty as the rich young gentleman who finds himself pulled into the girl’s charade on a miscommunication. In fact, it’s easy to prefer him in these lighter roles to his more dramatic turns that sometimes leave him looking like a stuffy cad. He can be quite charming actually. Mischa Auer also shows up but unfortunately isn’t given much to do.
But in the end, this evolved very much into Durbin’s film anyways and she does well to oblige the audience while her sisters are happily saddled with eligible young men and her parents get back together. They’re all a happy family again and there Penny is standing at the center of it all smiling broadly.