Part 1 of 2:
The pictures Deanna Durbin made at Universal are all special. Though the ones from the beginning of her career are probably the best. FIRST LOVE is a fantastic early vehicle for the actress. It borrows from Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale Cinderella, which means the audience is able to quickly see where the plot’s headed. But with Deanna playing Cinderella, nobody’s gong to complain.
In addition to providing a basic romantic storyline, FIRST LOVE features musical numbers that showcase Deanna’s vocal skill. More importantly, the script allows her to grow up on camera. She gets her first kiss in this movie, something the studio milked for a lot of publicity when it was originally released in late ’39. The prince charming who kisses her is 20 year old Robert Stack in his motion picture debut.
The story begins with a girl named Connie graduating from an all-girls finishing school. She’s an orphaned teen who has no real family of her own. Seeing the other girls’ parents at a commencement ceremony causes Connie to have a meltdown at the beginning. But with prodding from Miss Wiggins, a crotchety headmistress (Kathleen Howard), she pulls herself together. She agrees to go to New York City for the summer to spend time with her Uncle Jim (Eugene Pallette) and his family. The uncle had generously paid for her education. If things don’t work out, then Miss Wiggins will find Connie a job teaching music at the school to new students in the fall.
This is the basic scenario, and from here, things progress. The sequence where she arrives at the uncle’s posh mansion presents her as a fish out of water, and it also introduces a unique set of supporting characters. Through the servants, we see how household activities are conducted. We learn how the uncle is perceived by his employees, and just as interestingly, how the uncle’s wife and two bratty children are viewed.
Connie does her best to get along with everyone, but she’s seen as a nuisance and hanger-on by her female cousin Barbara (Helen Parrish), who’s only a year older. Barbara’s brother Walter (Lewis Howard) loafs around and seems to derive a sadistic pleasure from the way Barbara treats everyone, especially Connie. Meanwhile Aunt Grace (Leatrice Joy) is an airhead who’s into astrology, and there are some good running gags with her. But I’d say the most interesting person at the mansion, aside from Connie, is the uncle. He goes out of his way to avoid his wife and kids, and he hides in the den most of the time when he’s there.
Connie’s love interest isn’t introduced until the end of the first act. Young Ted Drake (Stack’s character) is initially presented as the intended love interest of Barbara. There is a mix-up when Barbara sends Connie to an equestrian club to stop Ted and other young society friends from riding off without her. Connie is almost run over by a horse, gets mud on her face and makes quite an impression. Barbara sends her home when she finally arrives, but Connie is now smitten.
In true Cinderella fashion, there’s to be a ball held at the Drake home the following week. Connie’s invited as a courtesy, but of course nobody expects she will want to attend. But she does, as it means she will be able to see that handsome lad again. Soon the household staff has helped Connie come up with a beautiful dress, one that looks more exquisite than cousin Barbara’s gown. When Barbara sees it, her jealousy takes hold, and she devises a plan to ensure that Connie stay home and miss the ball. Connie is crushed. She looks on despairingly as the others drive off without her.
Coming up: Fate intervenes…
Part 2 of 2:
We know that Deanna Durbin’s character will make it to the ball, because what’s the point of the film if she doesn’t go to the dance and get her first kiss. The household staff are upset by Barbara’s schemes and determined to help Connie overcome this setback. While lamenting the fact she has been excluded from the dance, there’s an interesting scene where Connie talks to herself in the mirror. Her heart wants to be with Ted so much, and she feels quite alone in this huge mansion.
The home’s mausoleum-like quality is conveyed with spacious sets constructed on the Universal soundstage. Production designers have gone to great lengths to show how opulent, yet austere Uncle Jim’s place is. The mansion set is spectacular, and it’s easy to see why the film was nominated for an Oscar for best art design. Director Henry Koster uses some elaborate tracking shots with characters going up and down the humongous staircase.
Connie gets to the dance with help from a police escort. This occurs, while Aunt Grace, Walter and Barbara are detained along the road in their car, supposedly driving without proof of ownership. Those three end up going in front of a judge. Meanwhile Connie shows up at the ball, makes new friends and sees Ted again. There’s a particularly funny scene where an opera singer, the night’s entertainment, is being introduced and Connie thinks they heard she can sing. So she performs an aria, which is beautifully sung, while the temperamental diva storms off.
After the aria, it’s clear that everyone’s been charmed by Connie. Ted has definitely fallen for her. This leads to a delightful waltz scene with other couples fading in and out of view. To where it’s just our young couple dancing alone.
Ted says there are too many people around, and he takes Connie outside on the balcony for some air. And of course, that’s where he kisses her. It’s been a perfect evening. Until she realizes what time it is and how she needs to get home. Of course, she loses a slipper on the way out.
At the same time Barbara and the others have finally arrived. Barbara glimpses Connie running off and becomes incensed to learn Connie had danced with Ted. She heads to the mansion to confront Connie.
At the mansion Connie learns Uncle Jim arranged for the police escort. He also arranged for his family to be jailed. Though he wishes they hadn’t gotten out. Connie stands up to cousin Barbara and admits she went to the ball and that she loves Ted. In anger Barbara fires the staff and Connie leaves the next morning. The whole household has been turned upside down. Astrology-minded Aunt Grace blames everything on a bad constellation. But she believes the stars will be back in alignment soon. Of course the stars will not be properly aligned until Ted finds the girl who lost her slipper.
Uncle Jim storms into the room where his wife’s astrology books and charts are located, and he trashes everything. He’s upset Connie left the house and tells his wife to stop obsessing about the stars and get back down to earth, or she’ll really be seeing stars! He then gives Barbara a spanking and kicks Walter so hard in the derriere that he flies through a set of French doors. A comeuppance for each one of them. Meanwhile Connie’s taken a train to her old school to teach music. Headmistress Miss Wiggins welcomes her back to become a spinster like herself. Miss Wiggins had also lost love.
Connie then meets some of the new students. She is asked to sing ‘One Fine Day’ from a Puccini opera. Of course we know Connie can’t end up an old maid. Cinderella got her prince in the end, and so will Connie. And in the last scene, while she’s singing from Puccini, Ted shows up (with the other slipper). We learn the headmistress arranged for him to find out where Connie had gone. He comes into the room, and Connie sees him while finishing the song. She rushes into his arms. They leave together…