Deanna in the 1940s
I haven’t the drive or ambition to clarify who did what—after all, in the end, what could it possibly accomplish?—but the screenplay of Three Smart Girls (1936) is credited to Adele Comandini and Austin Parker. Neither had long enough careers in the movies to mount an oeuvre, nor is there much in the filmography of director Henry Koster to warrant some ham handed declaration of auteurist principles. With the exceptions of It Started with Eve and The Bishop’s Wife, he was a journeyman hack who specialized in mediocrity. (Flubbing the erotic possibilities of Ava Gardner in The Naked Maja should’ve gotten him banished from Tinsel Town forever.) The last name in the credits belongs to Joe Pasternak, which is quite suitable given that this movie is clearly a producer’s work—calculated, neutered, bland and simpleminded.
A Depression-era musical-sitcom, it’s the kind of froth that kept Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley in the chips before the war, only without elaborate dance numbers…or music, for that matter, other than when the action pauses for star ingénue Deanna Durbin to belt out an aria. She was Universal Pictures’ great white hope, fifteen-years-old and a more developed vocal talent than Judy Garland, albeit without Judy’s stirring emotional command. A few short years after Three Smart Girls, Deanna dethroned Shirley Temple as America’s reigning sweetheart and was pulling down close to a quarter of a million dollars annually at a time when a loaf of bread cost less than a nickel.
What struck me about Three Smart Girls wasn’t Deanna or Henry or top-billed Binnie Barnes (a woefully undervalued beauty who ended her career in one of my guilty pleasures, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows). As common as muck, its screenplay and handling of dialog is brimming with the unsettling ugliness of what’s now commonly (and perhaps modishly) referred to as dysfunction. In this case, the ills that pox a family in a perpetual state of denial and fear, real or unfounded, presumably under the rule of a bullying oppressor. But it doesn’t reveal who the bugger is, because the picture as a whole is trapped in its own thick, suffocating fog of repression.
For an hour and a half, not one character is honest with another character. Information is constantly suppressed, people walk on eggshells, subterfuge abounds. Children of divorce (and a hefty alimony settlement affording them a lakeside chateau in the Swiss Alps), the three ‘smart’ teenage girls attempt to lure their absentee father (a Manhattan-based tycoon) back into the arms of their long-suffering spinster-mother before he marries a younger, gold-digging socialite. A trio of eligible bachelors fib their way into the scheme, along with a bogus European Count, a flustered butler and a meddling governess, standard ingredients for 1930s Hollywood romance.
If one or two of the characters were tight-lipped and loath to express their feelings or thoughts, the scenario could be believable. But in creating a universe motivated entirely by deceit, Koster and/or his writers have transformed reality into an extension of a singularly troubled mind. In its most telling part, Deanna, about to spill the beans to a police lieutenant (John Hamilton, TV’s Perry White), the scene cuts away abruptly, as if the script itself were running from the truth. When the girls speak, voices are elevated and shrill—low self esteem jockeying for recognition, straining to be heard, yet only to spread more lies and half-truths. This is a horror show.
All of which reminds me that Christmas and New Years are upon us and I’m committed to visiting households swathed in such secrecy. Does the bigoted old man know that his young granddaughter is sleeping with an unemployed man of another race, and that he has three kids with another woman? Or that a nephew drinks himself into blackouts three or four days a week? Or that we’re not suitable for someone who’s found a home in a more affluent wing of the clan to get away from the rest of us? Or that one of our lofty ‘middle class’ couples has had to refinance their mortgage again, only this time adding car payments and thousands of dollars in credit card debt to the nut…while they drop thousands more on their children for the holidays? What about the abortions and DUI’s and drug rehabs and other dirty little secrets? The list goes on and on, but parties have agreed to stay mum in front of other parties. One assumes this is what ‘family’ is all about, therefore my displeasure over Three Smart Girls may be a reflection of my own disgust over the lack of communication in everyday reality…and my hope that January 2 will get here as soon as possible.
Labels: Capsule reviews, Une affaire de Flickhead