The name Deanna Durbin may not be immediately familiar to today’s audiences, but between 1936 and 1941 she practically carried Universal Pictures single-handedly—and she remained one of their biggest stars till she retired from movies in 1949. She had an operatic voice and was that rarest of things—a completely appealing and non-cloying child star. First Love was a huge deal in 1939, presenting Durbin in her first adult role and getting her first screen kiss from newcomer Robert Stack. It also turned out to be one of her best—possibly the very best—films. The storyline is essentially a modern variant on Cinderella told in terms of a screwball romantic comedy. And it’s amazingly adept at being a screwball comedy while being almost giddily romantic, striking just the right note in both capacities. Perhaps no child star ever made such a seamless transition to adult movies, but then Durbin was no ordinary child star. It helped immensely that Universal surrounded her with seasoned players who knew the ropes when it came to comedy, especially Eugene Pallette, who had played a similar role to the one he has here in My Man Godfrey (1936). Also on hand is the great Kathleen Howard—a former opera star best known to movie fans as W.C. Fields’ loud and domineering wife in It’s a Gift (1934) and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)—as Durbin’s sharp-tongued, but sympathetic music professor. If you’ve never seen a Deanna Durbin movie, there’s no better place to start.
The story finds orphan Constance Harding (Durbin) graduating from boarding school and going to live on the charity of her Uncle Jim Clinton (Pallette), a seemingly cold and irritable man, and his less-than-delightful family. Daughter Barbara (Helen Parrish) is a spoiled, stuck-up socialite with a closet of dresses that’s bigger than most people’s bedrooms. Son Walter (Lewis Howard) is sarcastic and has taken the art of laziness to new heights. Wife Grace (silent star Leatrice Joy in her first film in nine years) is an astrology-obsessed airhead. (If the characters seems familiar, they’re essentially copied from My Man Godfrey, but they’re good copies and are given good lines.)
Connie’s salvation comes in the form of the servants, who she charms by singing “Amapola (Pretty Little Poppy)” and her natural niceness—especially when contrasted with the rest of the family. Of course, there has to be a Prince Charming and he comes in the guise of wealthy Ted Drake (Stack). The plot adheres closely to its Cinderella source with the servants as fairy godmothers, Barbara as the nasty step-sister, a dress ball and even a lost slipper (though not a glass one). The finale is stage-managed by yet another fairy godmother (Kathleen Howard) and includes a very good rendition of Puccini’s “Un Be Di” (in a nice English translation) from Madame Butterfly that gets every bit of emotion out of the aria. Oh, it may not be a great movie, but it’s a remarkably entertaining one that deserves to be better known than it is.