Essential: CAN’T HELP SINGING (1944)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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CAN’T HELP SINGING is directed by Frank Ryan.

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Essential: IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941)

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When Universal decided to tinker with its winning formula, Deanna Durbin’s films lost a lot of their earlier charm. But it didn’t start with EVE. That’s because EVE starts off and ends quite well, thanks to smart musical selections and delightful romantic comedy. The team of producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster who guided Deanna’s earlier successes, were responsible for this confection. It was the last picture they did with her before Pasternak moved over to MGM.

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Critics consider this one of Deanna’s best motion pictures. Again she’s surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Robert Cummings is the love interest. He plays the son of a dying millionaire (Charles Laughton) who wants to please dear old dad before it’s too late, and introduce him to the girl he’s chosen to marry. Laughton is a rascally old coot who thinks a stranger from a train station (yes, you guessed it) is his son’s fiance.It wouldn’t be a problem, but Laughton’s health dramatically improves and of course he’s so taken with this girl that the real fiancee and her mother get shoved into the background. Deanna tries to run away from an impossible situation, until she realizes there’s a lot in it for her– so she decides to stay and fight for what should be hers. It becomes a farce of epic proportions, and they all have a blast with the material.

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One critic thought Laughton was very inventive as the elderly character who gets a miraculous second chance at life. And I would agree. Not only is Laughton inventing new ways to be funny in this film, he is doing it with remarkable restraint, which is certainly an accomplishment if you’ve seen his other exaggerated performances. Laughton and our young leading lady work so well together that Universal paired them in another story five years later– BECAUSE OF HIM. It’s clear they enjoy working with each other.

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What makes the film great, in addition to the concept and performances, is there’s a deeper meaning. We get the sense that father and son did not know how to live life to the fullest until this outside person came into their home. It might have seemed random in the beginning, but it probably was fate. They make a complete unit, and the word “in-law” takes on a very positive connotation. If she hadn’t shown up when she did, there would have been no merriment or joy for them. And there would have been no movie for us. To have no movie like this would just be so wrong on so many levels.

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IT STARTED WITH EVE is directed by Henry Koster.

Another conversation piece part 2

Continuing my discussion with Joan, a former child actress and classic film fan:

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TopBilled: Okay, so you said you also worked with James Stewart, is that right? Can you tell me more about that experience?

Joan: Sure. I worked with him in 1958-ish. I was on a weekly CBS series on Sundays that aired at 12:00 noon eastern — live of course! It featured Sonny Fox, Jimmy Walsh and myself. We did one show in Los Angeles at a Boy Scout Jamboree in Chavez Ravine before Dodger Stadium was built. And Jimmy was helping us build a campfire, for some unknown reason! I mean since it was broadcast at noon in NY, we all had to be there at 6 am to prepare for a 9am broadcast.

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TopBilled: Jimmy Stewart helped you build a campfire?

Joan: Yes…I knew he was some kind of big star and had beautiful blue eyes. I hated my brown ones. He was very tall, very gentle, soft and kind. Kids can tell that. Unlike Sonny Fox who was also very tall but more rough around the edges. Well, during the show, the wind kicked up, making it difficult for us to start a fire and when we finally did the smoke blew right in our faces. It was stinging our eyes and we were all crying and had nothing to wipe away our tears or runny noses.

TopBilled: I can see it happening just as you described with the wind and the smoke in your eyes. Live TV, so of course you had to stay put and couldn’t run off.

Joan: And there were no commercial breaks. So we had to turn around and wipe our noses on something.

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TopBilled: Okay, you also did an episode of TV’s Naked City. Describe that.

Joan: I had only worked with three cameras never with a film camera.  I didn’t know the difference. I had to do a scene in which I witnessed a good friend getting hit by a car or a truck. We were shooting on location on some street in lower Manhattan. The camera was across the street. I cried my eyes out while we did the scene a few times. I thought we were finished when I heard the director say, “Real tears. We have real tears. Bring it in for a closeup.” I thought we had already done that – that they were using a closeup lens!  By this time my eyes were bone dry.

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Joan: So I went into a tenement building and tried to get some more tears.  In my mind, I killed off everyone in my family. I killed my friends. I saw my dog fall out of our window. I poked myself in the eye. Nothing.

TopBilled: I don’t think the casual viewer realizes what child performers have to go through.

Joan: So I picked up dirt from the floor. It stung, but at least my eyes watered a bit and I went out to the set and had to do the scene with watery eyes. Nothing ran down my cheeks. I shamefully had to tell the director I had already used up my tears.

TopBilled: Maybe your mom should’ve gone to the store to buy an onion!

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Joan: I hated watching that show. The episode was called ‘Let Me Die Before I Wake.’ Don’t ask me how I remember. One funny thing. My mother walked over and asked a “cop” if she would get a ticket where her car was parked. He said, “I don’t know. I’m an actor.”

TopBilled: That’s great. You have the best stories. Thanks Joan.

Another conversation piece part 1

Several months I ago I had the pleasure of chatting with a classic film fan who also admired Maureen O’Hara. Then I found out, she once worked with Maureen.

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Joan: I usually don’t talk about this ancient history but I was Judy Miniver in the TV version of ‘Mrs. Miniver.’ Maureen played the lead, and I played her daughter.

TopBilled: Oh that’s very interesting, Joan. According to Maureen’s filmography on the IMDb, it was produced in 1960. I clicked on the page for this production. A very young Keir Dullea was a German pilot in it, and I see your name listed as well.

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Joan: I saw Keir at the tribute to Kubrick at the Director’s Guild. It hadn’t started yet and he was standing in the audience by the stairs leading up to the stage. I walked over to him and said, “Hi. I’m Judy Miniver.” I’ll never forget his expression! He nearly feel over backwards. I told him what my mother used to say about him. “You Just play around with Peter (who played my brother and I had a huge crush on) and look at Keir, he just works all day long, rehearsing with his friend.” He laughed and told me that he only did that because he had to learn how to speak German so it sounded real.

TopBilled: I love Keir Dullea. He seems like an intense actor/performer. I notice Maureen did another TV project with the same director (Marc Daniels) that year.

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Joan: Really?  I know he really liked working with her. I was very impressed when he needed her to cry in one scene with us and he just said, “okay. turn on the onions.” And boy did she ever…what bloody control she had. We were sitting “outside” and she was reading to us and our brother flew overhead and cut his engines three times to say hello…she continues reading through her tears…and there were many.

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TopBilled: Your anecdotes are so interesting. I love the phrase ‘turn on the onions.’ Wonder if a lot of other directors say that too. I agree she must have had amazing control as an actress, you can really see it in THE QUIET MAN and most of her other performances.

Coming up in part two: Joan talks about working with James Stewart on another production.

Essential: IT’S A DATE (1940)

For a month-long review of Deanna Durbin films, I’m starting with one of the more well-known productions. Like her other hits, IT’S A DATE was made by Universal and she’s surrounded by a cast of veritable pros. When producer Joe Pasternak moved over to MGM, he remade the story with Jane Powell as NANCY GOES TO RIO. Both films are in the TCM library and receive frequent airplay on the channel.

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I think the earlier film is a little more special. It doesn’t have Technicolor or Metro’s glossy production values, so it must rely on the charm of the performances which it has in spades. Durbin plays a Broadway hopeful eager to duplicate the success of her mother (Kay Francis), a fading stage actress. As the story gets underway, she is offered an important role that was initially promised to her mother, now deemed too old. This of course causes complications between the two.

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A romantic problem also occurs. The owner of a pineapple plantation (Walter Pidgeon) becomes a prospective beau for them both, though he’s more suited to the mother. Kay Francis had recently finished her long run at Warners; and Walter Pidgeon was borrowed from MGM– and they give credible performances. The film also showcases the comedic genius of Eugene Pallette; Fritz Feld; and S.Z. Sakall before his days as “Cuddles” Sakall.

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Though the story begins in New York, it quickly moves to Hawaii where there are plenty of island rhythms and dance numbers. The remake switches the exotic setting to Brazil, and it attempts sensational musical sequences (with Carmen Miranda). But the original story keeps things simple, less grand, and as a result, we really do feel the struggles faced by the female characters. The mother is afraid her career is in decline; and the daughter fears her own talent and skill as a singer might throw too much of a shadow on her mother. It’s sensitively portrayed.

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At this point Deanna Durbin had been churning out hit films for a few years. All of them had been big moneymakers for Universal. She was now beyond her apprentice period– a guaranteed box office attraction. There’s great competence in her musical scenes, and she plays her dramatic scenes with considerable skill. And while other young actresses might have let the stardom go to their heads, Deanna would always retain a down-to-earth quality that made her one of the most beloved sweethearts of her generation.

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IT’S A DATE is directed by William A. Seiter

Characters that are thankful

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Kate Mackay always gives thanks when the family dog doesn’t eat her prized daisies.

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Veda Pierce is grateful her mother gave her a solid upbringing.

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Rocky Balboa appreciates having an excellent trainer.

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Tacy Collini is thankful her long, long trip in a mobile home with Nicky is over.

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Elizabeth Bennet’s sisters are happy she found love with Mr. Darcy so they can also get married.

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Knute Rockne is glad his team won one for the Gipper.

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Thelma and Louise are grateful there’s a way to escape the police.

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Essential: DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)

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This is probably a film Bond fans either love or hate. Interestingly, Roger Moore did not like it– he thought it went too far into the realm of the unreal and made MOONRAKER seem more believable. But I feel that if you allow the filmmakers to just tell the story they had in mind and suspend disbelief in certain parts, it’s actually very imaginative and entertaining.

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Moore didn’t like the invisible car. And yes, it’s a stretch– representing the latest and greatest gadget created by Q (John Cleese, who was called R in the previous flick). The car’s a gimmick, but it allows us to delve into science fiction AND fantasy. Such technology seems amazing and undefeatable, but Bond still has to know how to use the invisible vehicle with skill. Especially if the camouflage mechanism fails to operate correctly.

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In addition to two Bond girls, there are two Bond villains (Rick Yune and Toby Stephens). This means two thrilling climaxes where our super agent battles and defeats each one in separate locations. Both of the bad guys are North Koreans, something some Korean moviegoers objected to– though one camouflages himself as a westerner thanks to a fantastic bit of plastic surgery and reprogramming where he doesn’t have to sleep.

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The action begins and ends in North Korea. As events come full circle, Bond is on a quest to find out who betrayed him and caused him to be a prisoner of war for eighteen months. The P.O.W. scenes are not glamorous at all, and Brosnan looks rather unkempt in those scenes. This segment of the film is like I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG meets THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, but it works.

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Bond’s relationship with M in this installment feels a bit more prickly and has a little more dimension to it. She says getting him out of North Korea cost the British government too much. Not exactly what you’d call gratitude after so many successful missions in the past. Yet when Bond goes AWOL, she realizes what he is up to and develops newfound respect for him.

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While he’s on the run, Bond beds several sexy women. We wouldn’t expect anything less, would we? One is the American agent Jinx (Halle Berry), and another is a British double agent (Rosamund Pike). Berry seems harder than other Bond girls– but her no-nonsense attitude is refreshing. She kicks butt and gets the job done. In that sense, she’s perfectly matched with our hero. Bond also kicks butt. Except for those months as a P.O.W., there was never a time when he didn’t.

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DIE ANOTHER DAY is directed by Lee Tamahori.