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Deanna Durbin Collection (100 Men and a Girl / Three Smart Girls Grow Up / It Started with Eve)

Kino // Unrated // June 9, 2020
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 4, 2020 | E-mail the Author
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. She made her feature film debut at age 15 in 1936, the same year as Judy Garland (initially at Fox, but thereafter at MGM), while the much younger Shirley Temple was already a huge star at Fox, the top-earning movie star of 1935-38.

Each became the main breadwinner for their studio. All three were profoundly talented, but Garland's early vehicles at MGM tended to be middle-brow schmaltz, the let's-put-on-a-show type corn favored by studio head Louis B. Mayer. Many of Temple's movies are charming (Stowaway is a particular favorite; she even sings in Chinese in that one) but Fox ran poor Shirley ragged with too many films over too short a period (Universal, wisely, limited Durbin to just one or two a year), and Temple aged out long before Fox would admit.

By comparison, Deanna Durbin's early movies were remarkably consistent, in part because all of them were made by the same producer, Joe Pasternak, with the majority directed with great skill by Henry Koster. They seemed to understand her appeal, and the kind of material in which she excelled. Further, Durbin's characters eased into womanhood as she did, a moved resisted by Garland's and Temple's handlers.

Kino's new Blu-ray set offers three fine examples - One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), and It Started with Eve (1941) - all in excellent high-def transfers.

One Hundred Men and a Girl, Durbin's second feature, is as fascinating as it is charming. Unlike the top studios, Universal didn't have much in the way of a house style, so this and most of the other Durbin pictures from this time borrow both the swanky, sophisticated look of Paramount, fusing it with the urban, working-class concerns of Warner Bros.

Classical trombonist John Cardwell (Adolphe Menjou), a victim of the Depression, turns up a concert conducted by the great Leopold Stokowski (as himself). He manages to speak briefly with Stokowski after the concert, but everyone gives him the brushoff. However, outside the theater Cardwell finds a lady's purse on the sidewalk. He tries to find its owner without success, and when he returns home to his boarding house and the landlady is in the process of evicting him and his daughter, Patricia (Durbin), he uses some of the found money to pay his back rent.

Having determined the identity of its owner, Patricia insists on returning the lady's handbag. In the midst of a swanky party, Mrs. Frost (Alice Brady) is charmed by Patricia, and when she explains her father's plight, suggests that she and her husband would gladly sponsor an orchestra of unemployed musicians. Cardwell and flutist neighbor Michael Borodoff (Mischa Auer) are doubtful of this at first, but eventually become as convinced as Patricia that creating an orchestra of unemployed musicians might just work.

However, when Mrs. Frost leaves the country for a trip to Europe, Patricia is forced to turn to her husband, grouchy John R. Frost (Eugene Pallette) for sponsorship, and when he insists no one will listen to an orchestra without a "name" attached, she turns to Stokowski, hoping that he'll agree to guest conduct their fledging group.

Though Durbin is a bit overly-hyper in this entry, One Hundred Men and a Girl is sentimental in the good sense. The desperation of the out-of-work musicians, and Patricia's indefatigable determinedness have an emotional genuineness that make this a real heart-tugger. The screenplay wisely makes even Stokowski a bit aloof, rather than a saintly benefactor merely inaccessible because of short-tempered gatekeepers. The final payoff of Patricia's efforts has real impact, contributed to in no small way by the excellent set design of Stokowski's home (credited to Jack Martin Smith and Scollard Maas), for reasons I won't spoil here.

There are many fine character vignettes, Patricia's relationship with an empathetic cabbie (Frank Jenks, later the co-star of my favorite forgotten sitcom, Colonel Flack) being especially strong. The mix of classical and popular music is good, with Stokowski soloing on piano for the "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" while Durbin gets to sing the "Drinking Song" from La Traviata.

It's odd that Kino did not include Three Smart Girls (1936), a charming film, and instead opted to include its first sequel, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, which has many nice moments but isn't as good. The first movie introduced Durbin as the youngest of three daughters, 15-year-old Penny, who conspires with sisters 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.

The sequel reunites most of the original cast, though replaces Barbara Read with Helen Parrish. Here, Joan becomes engaged to Richard Watkins (William Lundigan) but it's Kay who truly loves him. Hoping to bring Kay out of her deep depression, Penny invites pianist acquaintance Harry Loren (Bob Cummings) to dinner, hoping Kay will fall head-over-heels, but it's the engaged Joan who falls for Harry, all the while the entire family save savvy butler Binns (Ernest Cossart, in a sweet performance) thinks Penny's strange behavior is because she loves Harry.

The situation becomes a seemingly untangleable mess until Penny hits on the idea of letting Joan fall in love with Harry so that she'll break her engagement to Richard, and then he can marry Kay. Got that?

Though its final scene has a big, emotionally rewarding payoff, getting there is a bit of a trial. This time out, the characters are rich with an emotional verisimilitude, the three young women really interacting like loving, quarreling sisters, and there's a couple of sweet moments between Penny and her millionaire father, Judson (Charles Winninger). The problem is the script has many of them behaving with incredible selfishness and thoughtlessness.

Judson, for one, is amusingly absent-minded, but multiple times in the film Penny desperately tries to have a serious, father-daughter conversation, Penny at the point of tears, only to have him abandon her mid-sentence to answer the telephone, read a cable and the like, so obsessed is he with his business. So overdone is this he comes off as incredibly thoughtless and rude to his own obviously desperate daughter. When Penny brings Harry home to cheer up poor Kay, the engaged Joan muscles in like a man-eater. Love may be blind, but Joan comes off as outrageously greedy, blind to Penny's seeming interest in Harry, or Penny's plans to pass him off to Kay.

Scripting problems aside, the movie's climax offers a good payoff to the story, and Durbin and Winninger are quite wonderful, she also having a funny scene with Felix Bressart as her beleaguered music teacher. The picture's real find, however, was Bob Cummings, who'd been kicking around in pictures for a half-dozen or so years, unable to make much of an impression. Three Smart Girls Grow Up, however, showcases Cummings's great talent for light comedy, he utterly bemused by the whirlwind of these three young women all acting incredibly strangely toward him. Compared to bland William Lundigan, Cummings and his confused reactions are priceless.

It Started with Eve, the last of the films Durbin made for producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster, is one of her best, a sweet and screwbally comedy as much a vehicle for Charles Laughton as Durbin.

Famous millionaire Jonathan Reynolds (Laughton) is dying, and to his deathbed rushes in son Johnny (Bob Cummings again), a bit of a playboy but now engaged to socialite Gloria Pennington (Margaret Tallichet, the wife of director William Wyler). His voice barely above a whisper, Reynolds asks to meet his son's fiancée, the dying man's last wish. Johnny races back to his hotel, but Gloria and her mother (Catherine Doucet) are nowhere to be found. In desperation, Johnny grabs the hotel's coat-check girl, Anne Terry (Durbin), offering her $50 to pretend to be Gloria. Needing train fare to get back home to Ohio after unsuccessfully trying to break into the classical music scene as a soprano, she agrees and immediately warms the old man's heart.

To everyone's shock, Reynolds not only survives the night but miraculously recovers. Come morning, he asks to see "Gloria" again, putting Johnny on the spot. With his father's condition still quite precarious, he dare not admit to the ruse, but how long can he keep up the deception? Meanwhile, as Anne and Reynolds become ever-closer, he makes plan to throw a party in her honor, to introduce her to Big Names in the classical music biz (mentioned but never seen: Leopold Stokowski), an opportunity too good to pass up, even as Johnny strains to get rid of her.

It Started with Eve was a problem-plagued production. A key supporting part, Doctor Harvey, a character who gets progressively sicker worrying about the progressively healthier Reynolds, was played by Richard Carle for the first three weeks of shooting, before the actor dropped dead from a heart attack. All his many scenes had to be reshot, with Walter Catlett replacing him. Koster quarreled with writer Norma Krasna, who quit while the script was still being written, Durbin and Laughton both fell ill, and several members of the crew were seriously injured.

Worst of all Joe Pasternak announced he was leaving Universal for MGM, a huge blow to Durbin, who trusted the paternal Pasternak through ten movies, virtually her entire movie career. Soon after, she went through a long suspension for refusing to appear in her next scheduled film, and while she eventually continued making films for Universal, their quality gradually slipped and she was increasingly unhappy, retiring in 1948.*

None of these troubles are apparent in It Started with Eve, which is a delight from start-to-finish. Durbin sings a few songs, as usual, and the film even showcases her skills at the piano, but they don't stop the narrative in its tracks as in many of her other films, and she plays well off of wily rascal Laughton, who somehow manages to overact while underplaying, though amusingly so.

Video & Audio

Each film gets its own Blu-ray disc and case. All in 1.37:1 standard format and in black-and-white, all three films look great, with a pleasing level of film grain, excellent detail throughout and strong blacks. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is also very good and English subtitles are provided. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements include trailers and audio commentary tracks on two of the films, by Stephen Vagg for One Hundred Men and a Girl and by Samm Deighan for It Started with Eve.

Parting Thoughts

Though a bit odd Kino chose to kick off what one hopes will eventually result in a series of Deanna Durbin volumes with Three Smart Girls Grow Up instead of its predecessor, this is a fine set capturing the essence of Durbin's charm, in sparkling high-def masters. Highly Recommended.

• Universal's 1943 remake of Phantom of the Opera, a big Technicolor bust of a movie, is a real anomaly among the company's "second cycle" of 1939-46 horror films -- until one realizes it was initially developed for Deanna Durbin and Charles Laughton. Though one might assume Laughton would've been too fat to play the Phantom, in It Started with Eve the actor is almost shockingly thin, a profound weight loss mentioned repeatedly throughout the story.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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