Sunday, February 21, 2016

Film Review: Three Smart Girls

"Three Smart Girls"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

All's fair in love and war when "Three Smart Girls" (1936) try to reunite their divorced parents in this Universal Pictures romantic musical - comedy.

The Academy Award nominee for best picture, "Three Smart Girls", may not been very well remembered by today's movie fans however at its time of release Universal Pictures was betting heavy on this light romantic musical-comedy because it was set to star the studio's latest discovery, Deanna Durbin, making her feature film debut and credited as the studio's "new discovery".

Outside of us old-timers few may remember the soprano singer, Ms. Durbin, who began her acting career playing a sweet, innocent teenager with an incredible singing voice who had an impressive vocal range. Initially signed to a contract with MGM, Ms. Durbin was seen to be competing with another impressive young female singer, Judy Garland. MGM allowed Ms. Durbin's contract to expire before doing more than featuring her in a short movie called "Every Sunday" (1936), which Ms. Garland also appeared in. By that time Universal Pictures immediately signed her up and introduced the public to her in this feature length movie.

The plot behind "Three Smart Girls", which was written by Adele Comandini and was nominated for an Academy Award, centers on three sisters; Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read) and Penny (Durbin) who find out their father, Judson (Charles Winninger), who they have not seen in 10 years, is going to marry an American socialite Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes). This, the young girls suspect, will crush their mother, Dorothy (Nella Walker), who is still in love with their father. What can the girls do? The girls, who currently live in Switzerland with their mother, decide to visit their father in New York and prevent him from remarrying.

Upon meeting Donna and her mother (Alice Brady), the girls believe Donna is a gold digger and hatch up a plan. The only way to prevent Donna from marrying their father is by making Donna believe a man with even more wealth than their father is interested in her. Since Donna doesn't love Judson she will follow the money and this will end the girls' problem.

With the help of one of their father's employees, Bill Evans (John King), the girls hire a penniless Hungarian count, Arisztid (Mischa Auer) to make advances at Donna and take her out on the town. Due to a comedy mishap however Arisztid never meets Donna as the girls mistakenly confuse Arisztid for Michael Stuart (Ray Milland) who really is wealthy.

In true romantic-comedy style there is almost an eligible bachelor for each sister to find love along the way with as well. For Joan there is Bill and for Kay there is Michael. In the case of Penny, she is shown to be too young to worry about boys. Instead her character is used to soften the image of Judson. Since he has not seen his daughters in 10 years and at one point in the movie doesn't even remember their names, audiences require a reason to like him and even want him to reunite with his ex-wife. As "Three Smart Girls" progresses a bond is shown forming between Judson and Penny showing Judson to be an "acceptable" father.

Although "Three Smart Girls" is a light movie and an extremely pleasurable piece of Hollywood escapism the movie does enforce some gender stereotypes. Judson is presented as a man perhaps going through a mid-life crisis. As a result of this crisis he may marry a much younger woman. The woman he may marry is shown to be a gold digger, an old stereotype associated with women - all they care about is money. The three daughters are schemers. The ex-wife is still in love with her husband and wants him back.

It is however the light plot which makes "Three Smart Girls" work. The movie doesn't seem to have much ambition and succeeds in the goals it reaches for itself namely being a breezy entertaining Hollywood movie. This is accomplished thanks to a very good supporting cast of character actors. The names Charles Winniger, Alice Brady, Mischa Auer and Franklin Pangborn may not mean much to those unfamiliar with classic Hollywood movies from this era but their presence adds a great deal of humor to the movie. Much of the movie's success lies on their shoulders as much as it does on Ms. Durbin's.

That was the great thing about the old studio system. You could get so many good character actors in a movie, each that had their own following, and bring them all together, give each a scene or two to display their comedic abilities and move on. By the end of the picture you had several good scenes would made an audience laugh or smile.

There are admittedly plot holes in "Three Smart Girls". One has to suspect too many scenes were edited out to keep the length of the movie short and to make sure there was not too much going on that did not involve Ms. Durbin. Remember, according to Universal Pictures, Ms. Durbin was the strong selling point of the movie.

One scene rather bizarrely cut from the movie has to do with Bill discovering the Hungarian count never did meet Donna and demanding the money back which he gave the count in order to make a good impression. Why would you not include this scene in the movie? At the very least it would have been worth a laugh or two. Can you imagine Mischa Auer cowardly defending himself attempting to provide Bill with an explanation?

Much more could have also been done with the situation involving Michael Stuart being mistaken for the Hungarian count and his disinterest in Donna and interest in Kay. Many laughs could have come from this scenario and it could have been used to slowly build the romance between the two characters engaging in comedic jealousy.

And even though Ms. Durbin does have a very good singing voice there aren't any good songs in "Three Smart Girls". This has to make one appreciate Cole Porter or George Gershwin. Those composers would write scores for Broadway shows and would sometimes have two or three hits songs in a show. Some composers are lucky if they get one hit song in a movie or play.

The director, Henry Koster, was born in Germany as Herman Kosterlitz and had only directed a handful of German language movies and one Hungarian language movie prior. "Three Smart Girls" would be his English language directorial debut. Due to the success of "Three Smart Girls" Universal Pictures would have Mr. Koster direct several more musicals starring Ms. Durbin including "One Hundred Men and A Girl" (1937), "First Love" (1939) and this movie's sequel, "Three Smart Girls Grow Up" (1939). However Mr. Koster's career would extend beyond Deanna Durbin musicals. He would also direct "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) for which he would receive a best director Academy Award nomination as well as the Danny Kaye vehicle "The Inspector General" (1949) and "Harvey" (1950) starring Jimmy Stewart.

There may be some who wish "Three Smart Girls" would do more but they are missing the point and ignoring the pleasures to be had in "Three Smart Girls" for exactly what it does. This isn't great drama, great romance or great comedy. What it is however is really good Hollywood entertainment which makes you smile and has a fun collection of characters. That is why you should watch "Three Smart Girls".