Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Three Smart Girls (1936)

Universal Pictures

Director: Henry Koster

Universal promotes the introduction of their next star, the young and talented teenager Deanna Durbin, in Three Smart Girls. With the studio excited enough to give Durbin here very own title card to announce her cinematic debt the film is structured around the talents of the adolescent actress while still providing a film that provides much entertainment aside from its heralded featured performer. This comedy hosts a new realm in teenage characters, perhaps introducing the archetypes of teenage hijinks.

Three Smart Girls is a musical comedy where three sisters scheme to stop their father from remarrying in hope to reunite their parents. Upon the surprising news of their father plans to marry a New York socialite, sisters Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read), and the youngest Penny (Deanna Durbin) propose a scheme to impede the engagement by making a surprise visit and put a damper on the wedding plans. As a socialite, Donna (Binnie Barnes) along with her greedy mother (Alice Brady) seem more interested in the girls’ father, Jubson (Charles Winninger), for his money than for love. The girls’ arrangement to hire a man to woo Donna posing a wealthy European count leads to a case of mistaken identity, but ultimately works to thwart the wedding leaving the girls to reunite their divorced parents.

This light hearted comedy starts off with the titles letting you know of their gifted new star, Deanna Durbin, and it is clear that the film is structured in a way that manifests her beautiful operatic-like singing voice. With a small number of songs performed by the teenage star, of which none have no real tie to the plot, the picture only slightly revolves around the Penny character, leaving the film in actuality to not be labeled as a musical. Unlike other heavily structured pictures, like that of Shirley Temple films by 20th Century-Fox, this feature does not hinge on Durbin and her performance. Though she does provide wonderful energy and great talents, the picture makes for a delightful film on its own, one that audiences would enjoy on its own, as well as take note of its studio’s new find.

Directed by German-born filmmaker Henry Koster in his American debut, this defector of the motherland surprisingly knew very little to absolutely no English, making it very surprising how well this film seems to play so effortlessly. Having left Germany due to anti-Semitism and an altercation with a Nazi soldier Koster proves to understand the feeling and flow of an entertaining film, even taking Durbin under his wing to help coach in her feature film debut. Himself a Universal find out of Europe, Koster’s insistence to make Three Smart Girls pays off for himself, Durbin, and the studio, even being rumored to have saved Universal from bankruptcy with its earnings (which seems to be a common story for many studios in the days of the Depression with the success of any film).

The feature would not come with many recognizable names, and relies on the talents of a handful of debuting actors. The most notable names audiences would recognize would be Alice Brady and Charles Winninger, both of whom recently made transitions from long stage careers to the screen. Brady was recognized from her work in The Gay Divorcee and Gold Diggers of 1935 where she plays a ditsy middle-aged women, but here plays more of a greedy schemer and puppet master to her daughter Donna , played by Binnie Barnes. Winninger would made his first big movie in Hollywood reprising the role he performed on stage in the film adaption of Show Boat. Here Winninger is a central character for which the plot revolves and must play the part in a believable and enjoyable manner enough to make the picture work, which he succeeds at doing.

Aside from the debut of Durbin, Barbara Read, who plays her sister Kay, also makes her first film appearance, Nan Grey as sister Joan had done limited work, and Binnie Barnes playing the villain Donna is fresh to the Hollywood scene after coming over from England. To them the like of Ray Milland, playing Lord Michael Stuart, the man mistaken to perform the scheme of wooing Donna, was a veteran having been in Hollywood since 1930. With the side love story developed between the characters played by Nan Grey and Ray Milland the film is given a breather from over playing the singular plot dragged throughout the picture, a small but important aspect to a feature length film.

Of course the singular most notable facet to come out of Three Smart Girls is the debut of Deanna Durbin. The fourteen year-old makes her introduction and, I would say, steals the show if it were not for Universal shoving the star down your throat before she even takes to the screen. First signed on a very temporary basis of a try-out by MGM, Universal quickly snatched up the Durbin and is focused in as a major star in the making, while in the mean time MGM secured a young Judy Garland to a contract, whom Durbin screen tested with in a short film. Durbin would be an instant hit with audiences and pushed hard into future projects, but unfortunately as to Universal’s approach she would be cast in very similar style of pictures with plots not too different from that of Three Smart Sisters as a relationship fixer of sorts. Her vocal skills were of great importance and it is made center stage of the picture at a number of points despite having nothing to do with the plot, providing simple musical interlude with a small tie to the situation she is in at the time.

Three Smart Girls would provide large enough box office profits that the studio was saved from possible bankruptcy. After years of relying on cheap horror films riding the coattails of their original monster classics Universal would start to rehash Deanna Durbin films over the next decade. This idea would even provide two sequels to Three Smart Girls with Three Smart Girls Grow Up in 1939 and Hers to Hold in 1943. Universal would even feel the joy of some critical notoriety with this feature, even receiving Academy Award nominations for best picture, best sound, and best original story. Durbin a couple years later would receive a special juvenile Academy Award for her early cinematic contributions, a special honor whose only previous recipient was Shirley Temple.

With Three Smart Girls audiences are introduced not only to Deanna Durbin and a new line of films by Universal, but also a new age in film featuring teenagers with a sense of purpose and chicanery, where children of this age could be sophisticated enough to follow as main character, but still be goofy enough to show their lack of wisdom, and have the overall need to cause trouble. Deanna Durbin can be seen as the first Hollywood teenager-type, a model that would change over the years, but overall be seen a character that could possibly hold the attention of a whole feature emotionally. With that audiences welcomed the career of Durbin and the coming age of the teenager.

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