Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Three Smart Girls

Format: DVD from Netflix on laptop.

I’ve had a couple of objections to films recently, so it’s mildly refreshing when I find one like Three Smart Girls that more or less demonstrates the other side of those rants. I complained, for instance, about people playing roles much younger than the actor’s actual age. In this film, Deanna Durbin plays a 14-year-old, but she was 14 or 15 when the film was shot. That works. I’ve complained about melodrama. Three Smart Girls has a large dose of melodrama in it, but it’s also a comedy, so it plays that for laughs. I find this still a difficult film to love, but it does enough right that it’s able to at least go down easily.

The biggest issue is that, once again from a film in the height of the Depression, it’s a rich white people problems film. Actually, it’s a precursor to The Parent Trap in a lot of ways. Three girls, Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read) and Penny (Deanna Durbin in her major debut), discover that their estranged father is about to be remarried. Their father has been estranged from the family for 10 years, meaning that none of the girls really know him that well and Penny barely remembers him. Nevertheless, since “Mummy” (Nella Walker) has carried a torch for 10 years, they determine to break up the impending nuptials and get their parents back together. Did I mention that the three girls live on their father’s money in Switzerland? Or that said father, Judson Craig (Charles Winninger) is a multi-millionaire banker?

Well, that’s the basic rundown, but since this is a screwball comedy, we can expect a number of wrenches thrown heartily into the works. The first is that the woman in question, Donna “Precious” Lyons (Binnie Barnes), is a gold digger. The girls suspect this immediately, of course, but we’re quickly given confirmation. Second is that one of Judson Craig’s assistant Bill (John King) is obviously and immediately smitten with Joan, and the feeling is evidently mutual. Bill wants nothing more than to get Precious’s claws out of his boss. His scheme is to hire Hungarian Count Arisztid (Mischa Auer), a drunk, broke, good-for-nothing, to woo Miss Lyons away by claiming fabulous wealth and social connections.

This naturally goes wrong and the girls mistake Lord Michael Stuart (a very young and slender Ray Milland) for the Count. He plays along because he is suddenly enamored of Kay. He louses things up pretty well playing along as best he can. Well, mostly. Some of what he louses up he does intentionally so that he can be around Kay more. Kay, against her wishes since she believes he is a drunk womanizer, begins to develop a tender spot for him. Fortunately, we don’t get a love interest for young Penny, meaning that we don’t need to deal at all with outright ephebophilia (that one’s just for you, Chip).

And, well, wacky hijinks ensue. The other thing that ensues is we get some musical numbers belted out by Deanna Durbin. I say that a bit glibly, I admit and far too dismissively because Durbin really was a talent. I don’t for a second disagree that Deanna Durbin didn’t have a tremendous talent. But when she ends a number in particular, she sings a couple of notes beneath dog whistle range. Yes, she’s in tune and on pitch, but dammit, it hurts.

Truly the best thing about Deanna Durbin’s films, at least the few that I’ve seen, are that they are not traditional musicals. The moments where she sings are certainly cobbled into the narrative, but she’s not suddenly breaking into song about her feelings. The other good thing from my perspective is that we only get a few songs per film.

Three Smart Girls was, more or less, the coming out party for Deanna Durbin as a star, and it catapulted her into a short career during which she was the most highly paid female star in the world. A big chunk of that was no doubt her voice. But credit also needs to be given to the fact that she was easy to like on screen. Oh, sure, she generally played a Shirley Temple style character, and in fact ultimately gave up the movies because she was tired of being the girl who fixed adult’s problems and broke into song at the drop of a hat. But there’s no getting around the fact that a big part of the film’s charm is her presence.

Not a lot happens here that is too shocking and everything comes out right in the end, just as we expect. It’s got some fun performances throughout simply because it’s silly all the way through. I could honestly live without the first two songs (the third is magnificent, really). This is another one I’ll likely never watch again, but I was entertained by it the whole time, and sometimes that’s enough.

Why to watch Three Smart Girls: It’s kind of charming in spite of itself.
Why not to watch: Despite its charm it will still make you want to stab yourself in the earhole.


  1. Fair review. There are other Diana Durbin films I like more than this one. I think she is a natural comedienne as well as a talented singer. There is something appealing about her. She is not "cute" like Shirley Temple but comes off as not taking herself too seriously.

    I really liked First Love, a modernized Cinderella story in which Durbin receives her first kiss (from a very young Robert Stack). It's pretty funny.

  2. I enjoyed this more than I did One Hundred Men and a Girl mainly because this was funnier and I loved seeing a young Ray Milland paying his dues before becoming a bigger star.

    Durbin had screen presence, no doubt about it.

  3. Okay, your aside made me laugh. Well played.

    This may amuse you since I tend to like both musicals and screwball comedies - two genres that tend to disappoint you more, but you liked this film more than I did. I didn't dislike it, but it felt more like a star vehicle for Durbin (who I had never seen) than a real movie. The times where the movies stops so she can sing did take me out of the movie more than a musical did because they felt more out of place. They weren't as much a part of that reality as songs in the reality of a musical.

    And like you I do agree she's got a helluva voice, especially for a 14 year old, but the movie didn't make me search out other songs by her.

    1. She could sing, but it helps that she could also act a bit. Oh, she's no Bette Davis, but she's not bad on camera.

      That said, I won't be going out of my way to track down a lot of her catalog.

  4. This was a cute, if flyaway, movie, The Parent Trap reference is most apt. It was fun to see Milland so young. A big plus for the film is that it has a talent like Binnie Barnes as the gold digging fiancée. With her regal bearing and distinctive voice she's one of those high quality supporting performers that when they showed up in a film you know no matter how bad the rest is the picture's not going to be a total loss.

    Still Deanna Durbin is the real reason to see it. I can’t honestly say I love every song she sings because of that high range but she was enormously talented. As you mentioned it’s her innate likability that puts her ahead of the crowd. You named checked Shirley Temple but I think she was closer to Judy Garland in terms of screen persona, there is none of the Temple preciousness about her. It’s rather a pity that Universal was where she landed, being at the time one step up from a Poverty Row studio they were content to stick her in the same basic story over and over again and count the dollars rolling in, she never had a chance to work with the top people as Judy did. It’s to her credit that she was able to make it work time and again.

    She was a solid child performer but I prefer her adult roles, she grew into a very beautiful assured woman with none of Shirley’s lingering coquettishness nor Judy’s jitters, that’s not meant as a slur on either of those two ladies-love them both-just saying Deanna was a bit more self-possessed on screen when given the chance. Probably a reflection of her off-screen self, she was reportedly quite scrappy and strong enough within herself to walk away from stardom when she found it unfulfilling, she made her last husband promise that he would make possible her one wish, to live the life of a nobody, before she consented to marry him at which point she promptly retired, moved to France and gave only one interview in the intervening 65 years before her death.

    If you haven’t seen them I’d recommend three of her later films none of which suffer from a case of the cutes as many of her pictures could. The first “Lady on a Train” is a pleasant little mystery which owes a debt to Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington. The next is a definite anomaly in her career, she sited it as her favorite of her films, “Christmas Holiday” where she plays a coded prostitute who is hiding out under an assumed name as a “roadhouse hostess/singer” from her psychopathic killer husband Gene Kelly! It’s loaded with allusions to sexual manipulation, prostitution, incest and self-punishment. The last is her best film “It Started with Eve” which costars Charles Laughton, it’s a highly amusing comedy of mistaken identity with both Laughton and she at their best.

    1. I'm not familiar with the three you mention at the end, but the middle one sounds like a blast. I should try to track that one down if only for the incongruity of those people in those roles.

      Judy Garland probably is the better callout for Durbin. And good for her for walking away on her own terms. Not enough people do that in general, and it's especially true that not enough people do that when it comes to the entertainment industry.

    2. There's an amusing story about Judy and Deanna. They had been friends from the beginning of both of their stardoms, having basically undergone an extended screen test together for MGM to which they were both initially signed-the short Every Sunday-which after viewing L.B. Mayer told his assistants "Drop the fat one." meaning Judy but his underlings took it that he meant Deanna who was promptly released and scooped up by Universal where she was an instant hit. They remained friendly rivals from that point on.

      Anyway once Deanna had walked away she completely disconnected but Judy during her first triumphant comeback at the Palladium in London reached out to her tracking her down in the French countryside and awaking her. Judy started out with "Deanna, tonight I had the greatest audience of my life!" and recounted her triumph after which there was a long silence. Then in a sleepy voice came the response "Are you still in that asshole business?"