Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Until this week, I used to confuse Deanna Durbin with Sonja Henie, imagining both of them as little 30's-era, skating Hilary Duffs. Now I know the difference: Henie was the cute skater and Durbin was the cute actress. A chapter in Jeanine Basinger's excellent book "The Star Machine" got me interested in seeing some of Durbin's films (previously, I'd only seen her adult turn late in her career in the noir CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY in which she plays the next thing to a hooker, decidedly not representative of her earlier films). THREE SMART GIRLS was Durbin's first movie; it feels like a mash-up of Andy Hardy, Heidi, and Disney's Parent Trap. Three teenage daughters live in Switzerland with their mother (Nella Walker), whose ex-husband, Charles Winninger, is a rich businessman in New York City. Walker still harbors the hope that they will get back together again, and the sisters, who haven't seen Dad in ten years, impulsively decide to go to New York with their accommodating housekeeper (Lucille Watson) to play matchmaker. Winninger is engaged to the gold digging Binnie Barnes (with her meddling mother, Alice Brady, always present), and most of his acquaintances don't like her, so they're only too happy to help the girls. A scheme is cooked up in which a business associate (John King) pays a drunken, down-on-his-luck Russian count (Mischa Auer) to show up at a nightclub and woo Barnes, making her think he's a better match, but signals get crossed and a real British lord with real money to burn (Ray Milland) is mistaken for Auer. One of the sisters (Barbara Read) falls for Milland, another (Nan Grey) falls for King, and that leaves the younger Durbin, too young to hang out in nightclubs, to right all wrongs and give everyone (except Barnes and Brady) a happy ending. Durbin is a great singer, getting not only a couple of pop tunes, but a little opera aria as well. She's lovely and perky; she's sometimes compared to Shirley Temple--older, less syrupy--but I think a more apt comparison is to Judy Garland. The movie is great fun, with good acting and strong production values, though the script is a little weak at times.

SOMETHING IN THE WIND comes eleven years later and is one of her last movies. When the rich patriarch of the Read family dies, it's discovered that he's been sending a monthly allowance to a mystery woman named Mary Collins. We find out Mary (Jean Adair) was Read's first love, but the family disapproved of her, so he married someone else (Margaret Wycherly) and, when Adair had to raise her late sister's child, also named Mary (Deanna Durbin), Read started sending her money to help out. Son John Dall investigates and assumes that Durbin was Read's mistress. Durbin, pissed off by being essentially kidnapped by Dall and Wycherly, plays along (and pretends to have a baby by Read) and says she wants a million dollars to keep quiet. Of course, even though Dall is engaged to someone else, he and Durbin fall in love. Durbin is still attractive and peppy, and gets to do some singing, most notably the semi-novelty "The Turntable Song," but she and the neurotic Dall have no chemistry at all--he would put that high-strung persona to better use the next year as a hedonistic gay killer in Hitchcock's ROPE. The real star of much of the show is the young Donald O'Connor as Dall's whimsical third cousin who is in love with Dall's fiancée; he and Durbin bond as they plot to get what they want, but at the end, I was disappointed that she and O'Connor didn't wind up together. O'Connor has a hyperkinetic number, "I Love a Mystery," which was clearly an inspiration for his even more spectacular "Make 'Em Laugh" a few years later in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Charles Winninger is here again as a mildly crazy uncle. It's watchable but it feels just a little off. I'd be open to watching some more Durbin movies in the future, and I'll get around to Sonja Henie tomorrow. [DVD]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that information about Deanna Durbin. You'll find that her first 10 movies are the most popular and well worth the viewing. Black & White films are making a comeback and I'm glad to see that considering the shocking productions that are coming out of Hollywood today!

Alex (DDD Administrator)