One of the more overlooked stars of the Golden Age, Deanna Durbin gets the first of what one hopes will be several collections of her entertaining screen work in the Deanna Durbin Collection I.
The Production: 4/5
The story of Deanna Durbin’s rise to stardom is fairly well known: she was signed to a six-month MGM contract at age fourteen, but the opera film the studio had planned was shelved, and she was rushed into the short film Every Sunday with another teenager, thirteen-year old Judy Garland, where Durbin sang classical soprano and Garland sang hot swing, both girls possessing voices far more mature sounding than their years. At the urging of MGM studio music maestro Roger Edens, Garland was retained as swing was seen as the next big thing in music and Durbin was dropped. Universal snapped her up to star in Three Smart Girls which made a fortune and established Deanna as the studio’s top box-office star. For the next twelve years, she starred in a series of A-list pictures, mostly comedies with music interludes but all of which featured the radiant Deanna as the appealing focus of the movies. Kino Lorber’s Deanna Durbin Collection I collects three of the films she made in her first five years of stardom, all produced by Joe Pasternak and directed by Henry Koster, a dynamic duo who were responsible for many of the star’s best features. The included films are 100 Men and a Girl, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, and It Started with Eve.
100 Men and a Girl – 4/5
Struggling trombonist John Cardwell (Adolphe Menjou) is pretty much broke and at the end of his rope when his perky daughter Patricia (Deanna Durbin) gets the idea to gather together a hundred out-of-work musicians and offer them to mogul John R. Frost (Eugene Pallette) to serve as the orchestra on his radio hour. Frost knows a band without some kind of name singer or conductor wouldn’t spur much interest, so Patricia makes it her job to recruit Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski to serve as the band’s conductor for their inaugural concert. But getting the manically busy Stokowski to agree to be their “big name” is perhaps a task even the plucky Patricia will find impossible to achieve.
The Charles Kenyon-Bruce Manning-James Mulhauser screenplay (based on an Oscar-nominated story by Hans Kraly) keeps the precocious Patricia that Durbin plays constantly on the move breathlessly trying to explain herself to anyone who’ll listen (which isn’t often; she’s constantly not allowed to complete a sentence by the adults whose problems she’s trying to solve). The script also allows time for Durbin to sing two popular numbers “It’s Raining Sunbeams” (by Frederick Hollander and Sam Coslow) and the standard “A Heart That’s Free” as well as two classical pieces: “Alleluja” by Mozart and the “Brindisi” aria from La Traviata. She’s a delight throughout flitting from one adult to the next looking for help: dim-witted socialite Alice Brady, combative sponsor Eugene Pallette, loving dad Adolphe Menjou, flighty flautist Mischa Auer, big-hearted cabbie Frank Jenks, and inevitably the gently temperamental conductor Leopold Stokowski. Director Henry Koster stages one especially impressive scene when Patricia brings the unemployed musicians into Stokowski’s home and they play with grandeur Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody with Stokowski’s growing excitement at their gifts engaging him thoroughly and Koster filming it from every possible angle drawing us into the overwhelming passion of the music and the moment.
Three Smart Girls Grow Up – 3/5
When her oldest sister Joan (Nan Grey) announces her engagement to the handsome Richard Watkins (William Lundigan), youngest sister Penny Craig (Deanna Durbin) notes that middle sister Kay (Helen Parrish) is hiding her disappointment having crushed on the swarthy Watkins for a few years. Penny decides to match make for sister Kay and chooses wildly talented Harry Loren (Robert Cummings) who attends the same music school she does. But Harry only has eyes for Joan, and when Penny senses Joan’s mutual feelings for Harry, she realizes she’ll have some tricky bait and switching of couples in order for each sister to have her dream catch.
Though the movie was a big hit in its day, the angst-ridden screenplay by Bruce Manning and Felix Jackson is more frustrating than entertaining. Durbin’s Penny spends almost the entire movie trying to get someone, anyone to listen to her plans for making her sisters’ love lives work out, but instead, her every move is misunderstood by her parents (Charles Winninger, Nella Walker) and her sisters leading to a ridiculous amount of gnashed teeth, tears, and quivering lips. And it’s ironic that Robert Cummings is the man she selects for her older sisters since the very next year he’d play a man pursuing her in Spring Parade and would again be her leading man in It Started with Eve contained in this set. Though it’s much more comedy than musical, Durbin does get four song sequences including two classical selections and two lighter tunes “The Last Rose of Summer” and the very popular “Because” that became a big hit record for her. Director Henry Koster does fine with this lesser material and stages a climactic wedding that’s memorably filled with surprises.
It Started with Eve – 4.5/5
With his millionaire father (Charles Laughton) on his death bed, Johnny Reynolds (Robert Cummings) is eager to introduce his fiancé Gloria Pennington (Margaret Tallichet) to his father before he passes, but she is nowhere to be found at the critical moment so in desperation, he convinces coat check girl Ann Terry (Deanna Durbin) for $50 to play his fiancé for his father’s few final minutes of life. Surprisingly, Johnny’s father doesn’t die but instead is rejuvenated by the vivacious young girl putting Johnny in a tough spot: reveal his subterfuge to his father the shock of which might actually kill him or keep the pretense going much to the consternation of his real girl friend.
The Norman Krasna-Leo Townsend screenplay is a bright farcical romance that allows the three top-billed stars to have a field day, and this is very likely the best film of Durbin’s career and certainly one of the most notable comic performances of Laughton’s. Charles Laughton is especially captivating as the wily old roué who finds his son’s girl the perfect match for him as the two young people tumultuously fall in love amid the crazy quilt of misunderstandings that they’ve generated. Durbin gets to sing three ditties, “Goin’ Home” and “When I Sing” (adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty) the most notable of them, but this is one of her few vehicles where her comic performance is more singularly important than her musical one. Henry Koster’s direction is most effective in the early deathbed scene where the tenderness is almost unbearably palpable, and he handles a frantic conga at a nightclub and a farcical chase around Reynolds’ enormous living room with equal aplomb (Durbin and Laughton dance the conga hilariously and also perform delightfully nifty lounge chair acrobatics during the chase). Of the supporting players, Walter Catlett as the bamboozled Doctor Harvey has a career high point, and many familiar Hollywood utility players of the period like Rosalind Ivan, Mary Gordon, Bess Flowers, and Clara Blandick make brief but welcome appearances.
3D Rating: NA
All three films are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios of 1.37:1 and are offered in 1080p transfers using the AVC codec. 100 Men and a Girl (4.5/5) has a slight white scratch here and there, but it’s mostly very solid with excellent sharpness, a strong grayscale with especially rich black levels, and an image that retains the grain structure of the original film presentation. Three Smart Girls Grow Up (5/5) looks the best of the three films in the set with pristine picture quality throughout. Sadly, the best film in the set has the weakest image quality. It Started with Eve (4/5) features enough small scratches, dirt, and little digs to make themselves known, and there’s some kind of frame/soundtrack misalignment at around the 1:13:00 mark for a couple of seconds. The films have been divided into 8 chapters.
All of the films feature a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix. The tracks have been wonderfully cleaned up and are pristine examples of the era’s mono sound quality. Dialogue and song lyrics are easily discernible and have been combined expertly with background music and sound effects. There are no problems at all with hiss, flutter, pops, or crackle.
Special Features: 3/5
100 Men and a Girl Audio Commentary: film historian Stephen Vagg offers a very informative if somewhat crowded commentary track offering many facts about quite a few of the behind-the-scenes artists as well as the actors on-screen. He also has enough time to sketch in Durbin’s entire film career while he’s at it.
It Started with Eve Audio Commentary: film historian Samm Deighan spends the film’s running time not doing much of a video analysis of the movie but rather giving us extensive biographical information on Durbin, Cummings, Laughton, Koster, and Pasternak with no mention of anyone else connected with the movie.
Three Smart Girls Grow Up Theatrical Trailer (2:02, HD)
It Started with Eve Theatrical Trailer (2:50, HD)
Kino Trailers: The Bride Wore Boots, Christmas in July, The Young in Heart
One of the more overlooked stars of the Golden Age, Deanna Durbin gets the first of what one hopes will be several collections of her entertaining screen work in the Deanna Durbin Collection I. Featuring very good to outstanding video and audio transfers, this collection of light comic delights earns an easy recommendation.