It Started With Eve (1941)

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We enter a newsroom that feels like it could be ripped out of His Girl Friday (1940). The editor is lining up his copy for the following day with a big front-page spread on the renowned millionaire Jonathan Reynolds (Charles Laughton). They just need him to die and they can print it.

Of course, at this point, it looks like it’s all but in the books. He’s a very sick man, on his deathbed, straining at what look to be his final gasps of air. His son (Robert Cummings) is rushing away from his vacation to be at his father’s side before it’s too late. The doctor fears the worst but his son makes it back from Mexico City in time to catch his father.

They share some tearful exchanges. Then, comes the fateful moment where his dad asks to meet his new fiancee. Wanting to honor his father’s last wish, Johnny goes pell-mell to his fiancee’s hotel but she can’t be found anywhere and he tries everything.

In a frantic moment of duress, the man makes a decision that will forever alter the course of his life. A hatcheck girl at the hotel (Deanna Durbin) becomes the perfect stand-in for his fiancee on a dime.

Frantic, he promises her 50 bucks and takes her to his father’s bedside. They share a poignant exchange and Johnny thanks her for her services and thinks that is the end of it — of his father and his relationship with this woman — but he’s terribly mistaken on both accounts.

Against all medical opinions of the family doctor (Walter Catlett), Mr. Reynolds makes a miraculous recovery and is back to his old ways craving cigars and steak for breakfast. It’s joyous news until he wants to have breakfast with Gloria Pennington whose actual name is Anne Terry.

Now his son is in a jam and he pulls Anne away from her train to Ohio to keep his father happy by maintaining the charade. Now he’s in deeper than he wants with one “fiancee” hitting it off with his father and the other with her mother waiting to be introduced to Mr. Reynolds. Needless to say, the local bishop (Guy Kibbee) gets the wrong idea about the boy he has known from youth who has become a degenerate philanderer supposedly keeping company with two different women.

Johnny could care less. He’s still in a bind and his main goal is to get everything patched up by paying off this girl again and enlisting the help of the doctor to introduce his fiancee into their home very naturally before the big party his father is throwing. It’s easy enough to tell his father that they have a lover’s quarrel and the “engagement” is off.

And yet, Anne doesn’t let it go that easily and she returns to profess the error in her ways and make up. Because now she has a larger stake in this new relationship. She’s a struggling musician who has heaps of talent. It’s just that she’s never gotten a chance to share it with someone important. This is her one shot at a big break. But far from being an opportunistic girl, she also adores this man and to some extent likes his son for a certain amount of sensitivity that he has.

Durbin and Laughton are brilliant fun together because he remains the crazy glue that holds this “romance” together. While things look like they have run their course and Johnny has salvaged everything the way they were originally meant to be, Mr. Reynolds goes off script and does the unanticipated, he drops everything at his gathering to see Ms. Terry.

But of course, we already know they aren’t a real couple and so it makes for an initially awkward and then a surprisingly jovial evening, finished off with a lively round of the conga. Mr. Reynolds succeeds in almost giving his good doctor a heart attack and sends his son for a real loop. In another fit of Deja Vu, Johnny races after Anne’s departing train to catch up with her once more. This time for good.

Charles Laughton is undoubtedly the M.V.P. of the picture providing a delightfully grouchy yet lovable turn hidden behind a mustache and a happy old boy persona which channels a bit of a naughty schoolboy at that.

Cummings has a knack for the clumsy, flustered comedy that comes as a result of his initial bumblings. He and Durbin work through the hilarious miscommunications that ensue beautifully as standard procedure in such a screwball musical. Instead of kissing like normal people they giggle, cackle, pinch, bite and do about everything else including play fight around the interior study. But if that isn’t love then I don’t know what is.

4/5 Stars

 

Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)

Three_Smart_Girls_Grow_Up_poster.jpgThe Universal dream team of Deanna Durbin, producer Joe Pasternak, and director Henry Koster are back at it again in this follow up to the wildly popular comedy that propelled Durbin to international stardom.

The Craig sisters are back too and this one begins with a unique and rather hilarious opening title sequence as our three girls now grown up, as the title suggests, prepare their salutations for meeting the governor.

Most things haven’t changed as Penny (Durbin) is precocious as ever. The family seems joyous given the previous film reunited their estranged parents once more. But for some reason, it seems the men they were engaged to didn’t remain (conveniently for the sake of the sequel).

So the film proposes another slightly maudlin very straightforward problem that Penny puts it upon herself to solve: Her big sister is in love with one man, the young man who is just recently engaged to be married to their other sister. There’s nothing for it but to find another man who will be a distraction. Never one to be outwitted, Penny introduces an eligible man into the equation, an older musician (Robert Cummings) from the conservatory she practices at under her teacher (Felix Bressart).  But her concerned parents get the wrong idea with her bringing an older man around the house for dinner.

They forbid their daughter from going to her music lessons now. By the time she figures out what has happened, the fateful day of the wedding is almost upon them and so she does the only thing she can think of — go to her father — the same father who has been drowning in work as of late. Like any good father, he comes in clutch when it counts. The happy ending kept fully intact.

Ironically, Robert Cummings makes a passing remark about how he has no girlfriend and he’s waiting for Penny to grow up. Funny because he and Durbin would be paired in It Started With Eve (1941) just two years later as romantic interests.

Durban, on her part, was christened “Little Miss Fix-It” for these roles and though she was beloved for such fare there’s no begrudging her for wanting more meatier and mature parts. By and large, she wasn’t all that successful in getting the type of roles she wanted and it led to her retirement from acting in 1949. She would never make another picture after that and proceeded to live a life of relative seclusion with her husband in France.

It’s easy in this specific instance to make parallels with Greta Garbo’s own trajectory from top of the world to self-prescribed anonymity.  Except Durbin did it at an even younger age. There’s no overstating her importance to an entire generation of filmgoers. There’s no greater compliment than the attributed fact that Winston Churchill so loved Durbin’s films he would play them following British victories during the war years. She certainly does give you something to stand up and cheer about with her voice and a sparkling countenance alone.

3/5 Stars

Three Smart Girls (1936)

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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.

3.5/5 Stars

100 Men and a Girl (1937)

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It’s fascinating how history works. Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland came up at the same time. In their day, stars were groomed from an early age and MGM had both the starlets under contract. But instead of holding onto both talents it turned out that Garland remained and Durbin signed a new agreement with Universal.

The conventional wisdom was that you only needed one young singing girl at a studio. That niche was filled. Of course, that proved to be far from the truth as Durbin became a smash hit in her own right rivaling Garland.

100 Men and a Girl is only one film in a long list of successful outings she had in the 1930s starting with Three Smart Girls (1936). Most of these pictures were directed by Henry Koster and proved very popular with audiences.

This particular one surrounds Durbin with players including Adolph Menjou and has some My Man Godfrey (1936) castmates carried over from the previous year. There’s the inclusion of flabbergasted Billy Gilbert as the easily duped funnyman and other crucial character actors like Mischa Auer and Frank Jenks taking up posts as a flutist and a stymied cabbie respectively.

But front and center and most agreeable of everyone is this pleasant girl who unwittingly finds herself in high society and taken under the wing of a bubbly socialite (Alice Brady), who finds this girl’s demeanor charming perhaps for the very fact that she’s so sweet and well, a frantic force of nature. It’s delightfully refreshing and different from the snooty company the lady is used to having in her presence.

But Patsy Cardell can also sing quite stupendously and that’s to her credit. I’m hardly musically inclined but Durbin even at this age hardly seems a show tunes singer, sweetly navigating the utmost of classical compositions with a voice that feels beyond her years. My personal tastes are simpler but there’s no discounting her vocal abilities.

Still, the film is born out of an admittedly absurd idea and the light bulb flashes in a rapid burst of inspiration. Patsy’s father (Menjou) is out of work and so are 100 of his fellow musicians. What should she do? Starting a symphony orchestra is what she should do! It’s as clear as day and she motors forward determined to make her idea turn into something tangible with the promise of backing from Mrs. Frost (Brady).

The wind is in her sails and she’s not about to allow logistics or the scorn of others uproot her vision. Her goal is to get her daddy on Mr. John R. Frost’s radio show. It’s just what her father needs to get back to work. Presto! This is a film plot that might as well have gotten resolved with a puff of smoke. Just like that. Instead, she is crushed by the curmudgeon husband (Eugene Pallette), his wife now off in Europe out of sight. So Patsy has no recourse to go to the top and famed conductor Leopold Stokowski (playing himself).

The rest of the story relies on a number of convenient happenstances. False hopes and crushed dreams become real hopes and true dreams. Although it’s a pure pipe dream of a film, sometimes that’s just what we need whether we’re still wrangling with the Great Depression or in the here and now 80 years onward. Because films like this that are ethereal, fluffy, and light still give us something.

Durbin holds her own with cheerfulness and a certain amount of sass that doesn’t compromise her basic principles. She was instantly likable in her day and still much the same today.

Henry Koster will never get any respect for the kind of pictures that he made but that’s okay because he made films that were crafted with a genuine heart. That speaks to people in ways that other types of films can’t seem to manage. True, this picture can hardly claim the title of an artistic masterpiece for critics to fawn over and dissect to death with their immaculate vocabulary and academic analyses. That too is okay. Here is a film that’s wacky, fun, and it’s okay with being just that.

Deanna Durbin was credited with saving her studio from the pits of bankruptcy during the depression years with her voice and her spirit and a certain candor that made her a beloved girl-next-door icon for a generation. She was crystallized in that image and never quite broke out like she probably would have liked.

She also never saw the same acclaim from modern generations like a Judy Garland since she didn’t have a film like The Wizard of Oz (1939) for folks to rally around but in her time she was quite the attraction. All told, finding her again today is still a lovely revelation. She remains enjoyable to watch even for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes that’s enough.

3.5/5 Stars