18 April 2009 | lugonian
THREE SMART GIRLS (Universal, 1936), directed by Henry Koster, gives indication as a movie set in a classroom revolving around three intellectual students competing in keeping their names on the honor roll or dean's list. Though it does present three school age teenagers as major attractions, it's basically an uplifting story serving as a promotion for three bright stars in the making: Barbara Read, Nan Grey and "Universal's Newest Discovery," Deanna Durbin. Aside from her special billing in the opening credits, Durbin acquires enough attention and close-ups to come as no surprise which one of the "three smart girls" is to become an overnight sensation.
The story introduces three teenage sisters, Kay (Barbara Read), Joan (Nan Grey) and Penny (Deanna Durbin) living together in the country home in Switzerland with their mother, Dorothy (Nella Walker) and housekeeper, Martha (Lucile Watson). Through a newspaper article, the girls find, to their displeasure, that their New York millionaire banker father, Judson Craig (Charles Winninger), whom their mother divorced ten years ago, intends to marry, Donna Lyons Binnie Barnes), a young socialite he affectionately calls "Precious." Donna, along with her mother (Alice Brady), it turns out, are actually fortune hunters after Craig's money. Because this news has hurt their mother, who still loves him, Penny suggests paying Daddy a visit to break up this union. With "Mummy" remaining in Switzerland, the girls, accompanied by Martha, take the next boat to New York, after which they surprise both Daddy and his future bride-to-be while dining in an exclusive restaurant. A series of schemes and mishaps follow, including the hiring of Count Arisztid (hilariously played by Mischa Auer), a drunken unemployed Hungarian gigolo, to woo Miss Lyons. Along the way, the elder sisters encounter young men of interest, Bill Evans (John King), who manages Craig's investments; and Lord Michael Stewart(Ray Milland).
Reportedly a huge success for Universal, earning an Academy Award nomination as Best Picture of 1936, it shows how important it was for both studio and 14-year-old Deanna Durbin. Being her feature film debut, with only the musical short, "Every Sunday" (MGM, 1936) opposite Judy Garland, to her credit, Durbin turned out to be one smart girl for this production. Energetic, vibrant and talented in the singing category, she opens the film singing "My Heart is Singing" while rowing the sailboat with her sisters. "Someone to Care for Me" (by Gus Kahn, Walter Jurman and Bronislau Kaper) started off earlier with Binnie Barnes attempt to sing while entertaining her guests, in turn serving Durbin to advantage singing it to her father (Winninger). Durbin's final number is the classical piece, "Il Bacio" where she sings in a police station for the police chief (John Hamilton).
With other capable performers in the cast, Ernest Cossart co-stars as Craig's manservant, Binns; Charles Coleman (Stevens, the butler); Franklin Pangborn (The Jeweler); and Hobart Cavanaugh (Wilbur Lamb, one of Craig's assistants).
One of the most revived Durbin films to air on commercial television during the 1960s, THREE SMART GIRLS turned up quite frequently on cable channel American Movie Classics (1993-1996) before shifting over to Turner Classic Movies where it premiered January 14, 2007. Prior to that, THREE SMART GIRLS did get further exposure when distributed to home video in the 1990s. Interestingly, when displayed to DVD a decade later, it became a companion piece with a much latter Durbin musical, SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947) instead of its sequels, THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP (1939) and HERS TO HOLD (1943). As popular as the original turned out to be, with its blend of music, comedy and sentiment, the sequels were equally successful, though virtually forgotten due to limited television revivals or hard to find VHS copies.
THREE SMART GIRLS not only opened a whole new career for Deanna Durbin, but marked the beginning of a whole new cycle of teenage movies later carried on by Judy Garland and others over where Durbin actually got her start, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (***)