Deanna Durbin passed away in the spring of 2013, and in late December, TCM aired this film as part of its In Memoriam tribute. It made a memorable impression on me, and I still remember some of Robert Osborne’s wraparound commentary. He mentioned how it was her only Technicolor film, and it had the largest budget of any motion picture the studio had made up to that time. In other words, it was big and important in every way imaginable. But I think the smaller, more whimsical elements of the story are what make it so much fun to watch.
The comedy is very well played– I would even go so far as to say the light humorous moments are as painstakingly choreographed as the musical numbers. So there’s a smooth and airy feeling to carry things along from one grand show-stopping number to the next. Another thing that works in the production’s favor is that Deanna is obviously quite happy while making this film. From her very first moment on screen singing the title song in a carriage, she is full of joy. In other films, her leading men tend to be comedians, but this time around she’s paired with Robert Paige who did plenty of musicals at Universal.
He’s not comedian, so Deanna and her costars Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey take up those duties. Tamiroff and Kinskey are a pair of lovable crooks who tag along as our heroine joins a wagon train out west to catch up with the man she intends to marry. In Mr. Osborne’s 2013 commentary, he said those roles were originally planned for Abbott and Costello, Universal’s other big moneymakers. But there was a disagreement about billing; and the duo did not want to be seen as playing supporting roles. I’d say the three roles are fairly even in terms of screen time but of course Deanna gets to play the love story and sing, so it really does become her movie. Tamiroff and Kinskey are able replacements and Tamiroff’s performance probably couldn’t have been topped.
The film was shot largely in Utah. The TCM database notes indicate the producers chose Utah because of the lush green scenery, the cloud formations and the lack of modern technology in remote outdoor settings. Capturing the glorious landscapes are countless panoramic shots of the wagon train, and some excellent tracking shots when Deanna is carried through fields.
There’s a sequence where she wanders off and has a song in a forested area that reminded me of the opening number in ‘The Sound of Music.’ Ultimately it doesn’t matter if they spent all the money in the world to make it. With Deanna singing and relating to her natural surroundings, it’s so sublime that you can’t help loving it.
CAN’T HELP SINGING is directed by Frank Ryan.