Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


THREE SMART GIRLS (1936). Director: Henry Koster.

Dorothy Craig (Nella Walker) has been divorced from her wealthy husband, Judson (Charles Winninger) for years, when she discovers that he's keeping company with a marriage-minded gal named Donna (Binnie Barnes). Her three daughters, who haven't seen their father in ten years, jet from Switzerland to New York City -- along with nanny-maid Martha (Lucile Watson) -- to break Judson and Donna up and reunite their parents. Three Smart Girls sort of glosses over the fact that there's no excuse for a father not to see his own daughters in a decade, but as he's played by the "lovable" Winninger, it's made more palatable, if not quite excusable. You have to wonder why Judson would have the slightest interest in seeing his wife again let alone remarrying her. The three sisters are Joan (Nan Grey of Dracula's Daughter), who falls for her father's associate, Bill (John King of Charlie Chan in Honolulu); mousy Kay (Barbara Read), who is unaccountably pursued by Lord Michael Stuart (Ray Milland); and Penny (Deanna Durbin), who is the youngest and most high-spirited of the bunch. Universal obviously put the publicity push strictly behind Durbin, giving her several song numbers to showcase her glorious voice, and letting the other two gals sink or swim. Grey had quite a few credits before Three Smart Girls, while this was the first picture for Read, who had a few later credits. Except for a short, this was also Durbin's first movie. Whatever its flaws, Three Smart Girls is amusing, entertaining and well-acted by all, with Barnes especially good as Donna, and Alice Brady [Beauty for Sale] scoring as her mother. Mischa Auer is quite funny as a man hired by the girls to romance Donna. Followed by Three Smart Girls Grow Up.

Verdict: Cute picture with a winning Durbin and others. ***.


angelman66 said...

Hi Bill, this was indeed a star-making debut for Durbin, very fun. Need to see it again.

Judy Garland was soo jealous of Deanna Durbin, who became a big star with this picture after being dropped by MGM and signed by Universal. It took a couple more eyars till Judy's star buildup surpassed her old rival Durbin. Did you ever see the short "Every Sunday," which featured a duelling Garland singing swing and Deanna doing classic soprano?

William said...

No, but it sounds terrific! Considering what happened to Garland in her later years, Durbin may have been glad she retired -- at 27!

Mark said...

People always say that Judy's star at MGM surpassed Deanna's at Universal, but I'm not sure that's true. Of course, both girls were wonderful and both deservedly became top stars at their respective studios, but Deanna, at the height of her popularity, was a genuine worldwide phenomenon. She was such a hit in the U.S. that she received invited at the premiere of her second film to plant her hand and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, an act recognizing throughout the industry that a star had staying power, and within 2 years of her film debut, she received a special career achievement Oscar for "bringing to the screen the Spirit and Personification of Youth and as a Juvenile Player setting a high standard of ability and achievement," and she was even more popular outside the U.S. than she was in it. She went on to become the highest paid woman in the United States for several years in the 1940s before deciding to retire. THE WIZARD OF OZ enabled Judy to graduate from starlet to star, but she spent her next three years supporting Mickey Rooney before MGM really got behind her as a solo star in her own right with FOR ME AND MY GAL in 1942. Judy really hit her stride in the mid-late 40s, about the time Deanna's career went into something of a decline in the post World War II era, and she deservedly became one of the iconic figures of 20th century entertainment after the break with MGM. Still, Deanna would have had quite a story to tell if she'd chosen to do so. Anyway, they were both terrific and I'm glad we have their films and music to savor and review.

William said...

Thank you so much, Mark, for the information about the respective careers of Garland and Durbin -- you've made some excellent points. Garland perhaps became more of an "icon" because of her tragic later years and early death -- and her daughter continuing her legacy -- but Durbin was very, very big and influential in her day, as you note, and is still remembered by many old and new fans. You're right about these two young ladies being great performers, very different from each other, but both very talented stars that made millions of people very happy.

I much appreciate your comments. Best, Bill

Mark said...

Thanks, Bill: I should add that Deanna's first two films, THREE SMART GIRLS and ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, both received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, and I imagine that was partly due to Deanna's great success in them. Judy, of course, first made a bit hit with "Dear Mr. Gable," and her career began to take off when MGM stopped casting her as a pro-active "Durbinesque" belter in films like EVERYBODY SING and created a more demure, wistful and lovelorn screen (and vocal) persona for her. Amazing that they both came along at the same time, and even started out at MGM together.

Incidentally, you had mentioned earlier that given Judy's troubled later years, Deanna may have been glad she chose to retire at 27. In a tribute Robert Osborne wrote to Deanna in his HOLLYWOOD REPORTER column to mark her 80th birthday, he quoted Judy on Deanna's decision to retire: "She was the smartest one of us all."

William said...

Very interesting! But one wonders if Durbin ever had any regrets throughout those fifty-three years after her self-imposed exile from Hollywood. I believe she always denied it, but she might have had moments ... we'll never know.

Mark said...

Very true, Bill! People often say that Deanna "hated making movies" (Or similar comments, including, most recently, Sonia Darin, who appeared as an extra in at least one Durbin film, and also played the sarcastic "book seller" who sneers at Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP.

But in her one official interview with film historian David Shipman, Deanna said that she enjoyed making movies, liked the people with whom she worked, and, after the "first day's nervousness" felt completely at ease in front of the camera. A quality that I think comes through in her performances. She also wrote to at least one fan that she loved her career and it was by no means easy to give it up, and she also kept up her singing after she retired (reportedly purely for her own pleasure.)

I do believe her when she says she hated living in a goldfish bowl, and like most "Giurl Next Door" actresses, including Judy Garland, resented studio efforts to keep her image wholesome and childlike as she matured into a beautiful young woman. Her desire to avoid intense publicity, and to have to promote her projects, was reportedly one reason she decided not to write her memoirs or to continue to make records after she retired from movies.

Still, if the reports are to be believed, she had many opportunities to resume her career, with the sort of material any working musical actress would sell her soul for (the female leads in MY FAIR LADY and the film version/London production of KISS ME KATE, a "blank check" to perform a one night concert in Las Vegas, etc.), so I think overall, she did really want to "live the life of nobody" after she retired.

William said...

Sounds like you're right about Durbin's desire for privacy. I know many actors say they aren't prepared for the fame and can't handle it, and hate it once they get it, which is so ironic as most actors are absolutely dying for attention, and I don't believe that ever goes away. But apparently Durbin was one of those rare birds who, like Garbo, really did want to be let alone, LOL!

Thanks for your very interesting comments!