OK, it’s Valentine’s Day weekend, which I guess means it’s the season to be sappy. Oh, I know it’s not the sort of moviegoing thing that most people—especially of the male persuasion—are apt to admit to liking. Indeed, it’s common to decry the existence of such movies with great disdain, cynicism and even claims of outright nausea. I can be as guilty—if guilty is the right word—of this as anyone. I’d as soon stick a fork in my mother’s back as willfully sit through Dear John, and all the star-power on earth couldn’t get me to watch Valentine’s Day a second time. I take great comfort in Oscar Wilde’s assessment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop—“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”—and I actually like Dickens.
But let’s be honest. Most of us have our weaknesses in this area. Oftener than not, if you scratch a cynic, you find a sentimentalist—often a wounded one, but a sentimentalist all the same. When we think of filmmaker Billy Wilder, we think of the cynical Wilder—the Wilder of Double Indemnity (1944) or Ace in the Hole (1951) or One, Two, Three (1961). But is that the whole picture? How do you account for the gentle whimsy of The Emperor Waltz (1948) or the romantic comedy of Sabrina (1954) and Love in the Afternoon (1957)? For that matter, what of his take on Sherlock Holmes as a wounded romantic in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)? (Yes, I know there’s a literary precedent, but it’s significant that Wilder focused on it.) These are part of the man, too, and though there’s a degree of satirical comedy in all of them, they’re not ultimately cynical works. (And strictly between us, I’ll take any of these movies over Ace in the Hole, which I find thoroughly repellent and pointlessly depressing.)
With all this mind, I’m going to take the occasion to openly admit that I absolutely love most Deanna Durbin movies—and before you laugh, remember that the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was a great admirer of her movies. Of course, I realize there are probably just as many of you asking, “Who is Deanna Durbin?” Well, at one time she was the biggest movie star in the world—and the highest paid (she got $400,000 per movie in 1941)—but that was some time ago. For that matter, La Durbin married one of her directors and retired to France in 1948.
I discovered her on the late show one Sunday when they showed Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939). I probably started watching it because my mother told me I wouldn’t like it—the last time she’d told me that was my introduction to W.C. Fields, so I did not find her a reliable source in such matters. More likely than not, the reason I kept watching it was it was a Universal Picture and it had Bob Cummings in it. Universal, after all, was the home of horror and that was a plus, and I’d been crazy about Cummings’ TV show when I was younger. I was about 12 when this happened and that was enough. Plus, I really liked the movie, which was Durbin’s last film as a child star (she was 18). And so she was added to the list of people whose movies I scoured the TV Guide listings for.
The Canadian Durbin had first appeared in an MGM short film called Every Sunday (1936) where she was paired with Judy Garland. Garland sang pop music and Durbin sang classical. Legend has it that when the film was run, Louis B. Mayer said, “Drop the fat one.” No one dared to ask him which was the “fat one,” but somebody decided he meant Durbin, so they signed Garland and let Durbin go. In reality, he meant the opposite, but by the time the mistake was discovered Universal had already signed Durbin. Apocryphal? Possibly. But it reflects badly on Mayer and that’s good enough for me. Whether I believe the follow-up story that someone had Durbin’s picture printed on a roll of toilet paper and sneaked it into Mayer’s private bathroom is another matter, but I’d like to believe it.
Whatever the case, it was a break for Universal—about the only one they had and probably the only reason the studio survived the next few years. Signing Durbin marked the only time that the new head of production, Charles R. Rogers, made a good decision. Rogers had been installed when the Standard Capital organization took over the studio from the Laemmle family and briefly rechristened it “New Universal.” He then proceeded to cancel the studio’s bread-and-butter horror movies, hamstring their star director James Whale and generally run things into the ground. But he did sign Durbin and he did sign refugee German director Henry Koster to develop her first picture, Three Smart Girls (1936). It was a huge hit, as was Koster’s follow-up 100 Men and a Girl (1937).
I’m not going to make the case that as child stars go, Durbin was remarkably fresh and not in the least saccharine—though that’s true enough. Her first pictures were well made, but it would be impossible to make a case that they were anything other than glossy, rather silly entertainments. Koster brought a light touch to the first two, but cinematically the most noteworthy thing about them was his often arbitrary—and somewhat amusing—use of Universal’s famous Broadway crane to follow the action. This crane—designed by director Paul Fejos for his 1929 film Broadway—was indeed a remarkable contraption that made possible many still amazing moving shots. But whether it really added anything to have it swoop down on Durbin singing is debatable.
Her pictures were, yes, kind of sappy affairs, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my personal favorite, First Love (1939)—which marked her first adult role—wasn’t pretty darn sappy. Yes, it successfully navigated Durbin from child star to movie star in a way no other picture ever managed (most child stars of the era didn’t survive the attempt as Shirley Temple proved all too well). But it’s still a sappy affair. In fact, it’s my pick for the sappiest movie I love. There. I’ve said it. It’s sappy and I love it.
First Love is, in fact, a fairy tale. It’s really nothing more than Cinderella remonkeyed into a modern setting and no attempt is made to downplay the fact. Durbin plays Connie Harding, the orphaned niece of filthy rich Jim Clinton (Eugene Pallette), who, upon finishing boarding school, is taken to live with the less than warmly inviting Clintons in Manhattan. In keeping with its basics, she’s treated pretty shabbily by the family, who are a screwball comedy rethinking of the one in Cinderella—with only one wicked step-sister (Helen Parrish) in the form of a cousin, a ditsy aunt/step-mother (Leatrice Joy), a sarcastic and terminally lazy male cousin (Lewis Howard), and the seemingly cold, distracted and sharp-tongued uncle.
It’s hardly original in another sense, because it’s essentially a reworking of Gregory LaCava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) right down to casting Eugene Pallette as the father. But it works. Throw in some sympathetic servants and former opera star Kathleen Howard (frequent W.C. Fields nemesis) as Durbin’s voice teacher/fairy godmother Miss Wiggins and newcomer Robert Stack in the Prince Charming capacity, and you have First Love.
What keeps the film from becoming too gooey—and God knows it tries to get there—is the frequently witty script, the no-nonsense playing of Pallette and Howard, the chemistry of the cast and Durbin’s screen presence. The film has the good sense to have Durbin’s character earn both the sympathy of the cast (at least the nice characters) and the viewer. At the onset, she’s a bit too gloomy and too sorry for herself (the latter gets her a talking to by Kathleen Howard). But after a few minutes of this she decides to try to make friends with the servants, tackling the butler (Charles Coleman) on the topic of music and proving her mettle by singing “Amapola (Pretty Little Poppy)” in a spirited rendition where her innate sense of self-possession comes through. Suddenly, the servants respond to her and so does the viewer.
Of course, it’s not going to be easy sailing—after all, this is a Cinderella story. This means that Connie has to fall for the hottest guy in town, Ted Drake/Prince Charming. Naturally, wicked cousin Barbara wants him, too. (Everybody, in fact, seems to want him, which is a little hard to fathom, since the young Robert Stack is all wavy hair and pearly whites and comes across as rather vapid.) All of this is working toward—you guessed it—a ball where Drake will become smitten with her. Here, the film fully embraces its full sappiness with a shot of the two of them waltzing and the others dancers fading from view till it’s just the two of them on the dance floor. I think it’s the fact that the film never pretends not to be absurdly romantic here that makes it somehow appealing. I know it helps that the moment is brief and that we’re soon in the realm of Connie having to make her midnight Cinderella getaway—complete with lost slipper (not glass)—when her deliberately delayed (thanks in part to her not-so-cold-after-all uncle) family arrives.
The last scene where—as promised—Miss Wiggins fixes things and causes the course of true love to run smooth is unabashed in its romanticism, allowing a tearful Durbin to let loose with “One Fine Day” (in a nice English translation) from Madame Butterfly. But the film has the wit to toss in some knowing humor and even an inside joke with opera star Howard mouthing the words Durbin sings. Still, let’s be honest, it’s assault on the tear ducts (with that song it can’t be anything else) and as such it can fairly be called sappy. And I don’t care and it works on me every time.
OK, so there you have it—my Valentine’s Day confession that I am not immune to sap. At least I’m not immune to it when it’s done in a certain way. Am I the only one willing to confess to this?