Years ago, on a visit to Universal Studios' Theme Park, it suddenly hit me: loudspeakers were blaring the theme from Lawrence of Arabia, actors were wandering around dressed as Laurel and Hardy, the Star Trek stage show was just about to start -- and none of it had anything to do with Universal Studios. Conversely, at that point in time anyway, most of Universal's real history was all but ignored. Abbott and Costello, the comedy team that kept Universal solvent throughout the 1940s and early-'50s, were relegated to a few videos in the gift shop. And Deanna Durbin, whose movies literally saved the studio from bankruptcy in the late-1930s, was utterly, shamefully forgotten.
There are still a few hard-core Deanna Durbin fans out there, but few today realize just how popular the pretty soprano-next-door was in her generation. Mickey Rooney, a contemporary of Durbin's, was a bigger juvenile star, but he had the might of MGM behind him, and his brash, low-brow musical comedies haven't aged nearly as well as Durbin's best. Additionally, Rooney never really left the spotlight; he gradually made the transition to character parts, and continues to appear in films, on stage and television. Durbin, however, abruptly retired in 1948, moved to France and never looked back.
Where, say, Abbott and Costello definitely made "vehicles," generic comedies tooled to their particular talents, Durbin's early films, those directed by her underrated mentor-director Henry Koster, are first-rate movies all by themselves, which in turn expertly showcase Durbin's talent and charm. Universal Home Video's Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack serves as a good overview of the singer-actress's oeuvre, with six films spanning her entire film career, from her first feature in 1936 to one of her last, released nearly a dozen years later.
Three Smart Girls (1936)
Though Durbin sings a few songs, this delightful film is really more a screwball comedy along the lines of My Man Godfrey (also 1936) than the song-heavy programmers that would dominate her later career. As the youngest of three daughters, 15-year-old Penny (Durbin) conspires with Joan (Nan Grey) and Kay (Barbara Read) to reunite their long-estranged parents on the eve of their father's new marriage to gold digger Billie Barnes. The secret to this and Koster's other films with Durbin seems to be that no matter how outrageous the story, Durbin's characters, her emotions and such, are very real and identifiable. All three girls love their parents, long for their reconciliation, and like the Greek chorus servants we the audience are pulling for them by the final reels. Charles Winninger, Mischa Auer, and a very young Ray Milland co-star. (****1/2)
First Love (1939)
Utterly charming melodrama is a thinly-disguised modern variation on Cinderella, and probably the best feature adaptation of that classic story. Orphan Connie (Durbin), newly graduated from an all-girls school, moves to New York to live with her acerbic Uncle James (Eugene Pallette, in a slyly subtle performance) and his outrageously selfish wife (silent star Leatrice Joy), daughter (Helen Parrish), and son (Lewis Howard, hilariously lazy). Connie falls for wealthy young Ted Drake (Robert Stack, in his film debut) and with the help of servants Charles Coleman, Jack Mulhall and others, shines at the big society ball. Director Henry Koster does something quite experimental here, cleverly rendering the hundreds of guests "invisible" at one point to focus on Durbin and Stack's intimacy. What might have been unbearably sappy in other hands is a sweet fairy tale of a movie sure to melt your heart. Kathleen Howard, often cast as W.C. Fields' amusingly domineering wife, has a good dramatic part as Durbin's music teacher. (****1/2)
It Started with Eve (1941)
On his deathbed, Jonathan Reynolds, Sr. (Charles Laughton) wants to meet his son's fiancee. When the bride-to-be can't be found, frantic Jonathan, Jr. (Bob Cummings) recruits hat-check girl/budding singer Anne Terry (Durbin) to play the part. When Senior unexpectedly recovers, he conspires to bring the two together for real. Pretty good comedy focuses on the Laughton-Durbin relationship at the expense of all else. The two are fun to watch (though Laughton is quite hammy), but so dominate the film that her eventual romance with Cummings's character is never believable. (***1/2)
Can't Help Singing (1944)
Durbin's only color film is a feast for the eyes with several good songs by Jerome Kern and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, but this faux Oklahoma! Western musical is otherwise routine. Deanna is a wealthy senator's daughter who follows her Cavalry boyfriend (David Bruce) to California but falls in love with card shark Robert Paige instead. This lavish but tepid musical does have its odd moments: Olin Howland (The Blob) sings "Swing Your Sweetheart," and during one number, "Californ-i-a," settlers dance and sing in a farmer's market filled with gigantic vegetables! Akim Tamaroff and Leonid Kinsky provide incongruous comic relief as inept Russian thieves. (**1/2)
Lady on a Train (1945)
Dreary comic-thriller-Christmas movie (originally released in August!) casts Durbin as the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate and a mystery novel buff who, arriving in New York City, witnesses a murder in a building outside her Pullman car window. As with Can't Help Singing, Universal misjudged Durbin's appeal. Where in Koster's films she had an everyday, wholesome charm and emotional verisimilitude, here they glam her up like Lizabeth Scott and mold her into an irksome Nancy Drew type. She's actually quite annoying, while as a mystery the film is a total failure. On the plus side the picture does offer good support from Ralph Bellamy, George Coulouris, and especially Edward Everett Horton, and features a good score by Miklos Rosza. Durbin sings "Silent Night" and "Night and Day." Be warned: the film also has a higher-than-usual quotient of black stereotypes and one especially racist line directed at the Japanese. (**)
Something in the Wind (1947)
Not bad formula musical about a radio star (Durbin) who turns the tables on a snobbish family that assumes she had an affair with their recently deceased, millionaire patriarch. Durbin's natural charm (and natural hair color) is again front and center, and the film boasts good support from Universal star Donald O'Connor, making his return to pictures after a two-year stint in the military. His big dance number, a tribute to mystery stories, is pracitically a clone of O'Connor's much more famous "Make 'Em Laugh" number from Singin' in the Rain, made five years later. John Dall is miscast as Durbin's love interest, but Metropolitan Opera star Jan Peerce is a delight as a singing turnkey. With an utterly superfluous fashion show, and a futuristic television studio straight out of Forbidden Planet. (***)
Video & Audio
Overall, Universal has done an expert job with these titles, with near-perfect transfers. Though there is the expected age-related wear, all six features look outstanding, with exceptional contrast and sharpness. Can't Help Singing, filmed in three-strip Technicolor, is a real knockout, the kind of transfer that looks so good, its colors so vibrant and sharp, you forgive its basic shortcomings. (Universal has done a mostly great job transferring their three-strip films; other Westerns on DVD, films like The Redhead from Wyoming and Duel at Silver Creek look equally splendid.) The label's budget packages (The Best of Abbott and Costello, etc.) have been rife with consumers complaints about discs jamming up, but all six Deanna Durbin movies played just fine on this reviewer's Sony player. Each film includes subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Songs are helpfully subtitled as well.
The only extras are trailers for Three Smart Girls, First Love, Can't Help Singing, and Something in the Wind. The latter features co-star Donald O'Connor addressing the audience directly, and that title also features an odd, 10-minute short which essentially offers complete versions of several songs.
Though the later films are of interest mainly to die-hard Deanna Durbin fans, both Three Smart Girls and First Love are exceptional, underrated films, worthy of Criterion-level attention. All six are worth a look, however, and with an SRP of just $26.98 (or just $4.50 per movie) The Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack is a real bargain, and one hopes Universal has a Volume 2 in the pipeline.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.