Tuesday, January 23, 2007

DEANNA DURBIN: SWEETHEART PACK (Universal 1936-1945) Universal Home Video

Deanna Durbin: Sweetheart Pack (1936-1945) is Universal’s celebratory offering of their adolescent soprano that MGM discarded after screen testing her opposite Judy Garland in the musical short Every Sunday. In hindsight, MGM’s decision to can Durbin was sound, though after the success of her debut L.B Mayer was probably kicking himself.

However, although Durbin is a pre-teen operatic sensation she lacks the dramatic acting chops needed to make her a full fledged musical star. Not that anyone noticed during her tenure at Universal. In fact, Durbin was one of the most popular and most successful of that studio’s creations. But her films lack in effervescent abandonment – the essential for all truly great musical offerings. Ironically, this collection of Deanna’s ‘greatest’ hits DOES NOT contain her most popular film 100 Men & A Girl (1937).

It does, however, begin with the film that started the Durbin craze, Three Smart Girls (1936) – a leaden maudlin filmic experience. Durbin is Penny Craig, a precocious youngster who conspires with her two sisters to unite their divorced parents. The script is chalked full of musical numbers to cleverly hide the fact that Durbin’s primary asset is her singing ability. As standard musical tripe, this film is tuneful but with zero staying power.

First Love (1939) is a Cinderella fable in which Durbin is Connie Harding, an orphan sent to finishing school by a philanthropic uncle. There, she finds true romance with wealthy man about town, Ted Drake (Robert Stack). Ironically, the solid story is buttressed by only a few songs. Clearly, Universal knew the dramatic portion was above par for a Durbin vehicle and tempered their urge to go all out on a song fest.

It Started With Eve (1941) is a delightfully wacky stint that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a screwball comedy or musical. When the son of a millionaire, Jonathan Reynolds (Robert Cummings) suspects that his father (Charles Laughton) is dying, he decides to fulfill his last request; namely that his father should meet his fiancée. However, when she isn’t available, Jonathan grabs hat check girl, Anne-Terry (Durbin) as a quickie replacement. But his deception backfires when dad makes a speedy recovery and wants to know when the wedding will take place.

Can’t Help Singing (1945) is aptly named – a robust Technicolor musical (the only color film in this collection) that follows the story of Caroline Frost (Durbin), a head strong girl from back east who tackles the old west by running away from her father to be with her fiancée, cavalry officer Robert Lathum (David Bruce), but instead discovers new romance in the arms of stubborn free spirit, Johnny Lawlor (Robert Paige). Universal spared no expense in mounting this outdoorsy excursion – designed to repeat the success of Broadway’s Oklahoma! for the big screen. It even contains a song called ‘Cal-i-for-i-a’.

Lady on a Train (1945) is a curious sour note in Durbin’s repertoire. She plays amateur sleuth Nikki Collins, determined to solve a mystery opposite handsome writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce, again). There’s more than the prerequisite amount of twists and turns in this convoluted tale but this film is no Strangers on a Train (1951) and, with the inclusion of predictable songs, it really can’t decide whether its’ a musical masquerading as a noir thriller or the other way around. Ultimately it winds up being a mutt, half and half: uninspired and pretty forgettable.

Something In The Wind (1947) wraps up this collection with a grossly misleading premise for a film musical. Durbin plays Mary, a disc jockey who gets mistaken for her mother, also named Mary. Mary Sr. has been collecting support payments from her dead lover’s estate for some time. However, when relatives mistake young Mary as the beneficiary, they plot to destroy Mary’s credibility as a means of getting the support payments to stop. Once again it’s the musical program that rescues this film from melodramatic oblivion.

Universal hasn’t paid much attention to the overall quality of their remastering efforts on this collection. The gray scale on Three Smart Girls and First Love is a travesty of weak contrasted images cluttered with a barrage of age related artifacts. The quality improves slightly on the rest of the B&W films in this collection but overall the films appear worse for the wear. The one exception is the Technicolor feature. Here, the saturation is vibrant, bold and quite enveloping. Reds are blood red. Flesh tones are quite accurately rendered. Whites are miraculously clean and blacks are deep velvety and solid. Some edge enhancement, pixelization and shimmering of fine details crops up on all of these discs. These are 'flipper discs' - two films per side with the exception of Can't Help Singing.

Sonically speaking, the films are presented at an adequate listening level. Hiss and pops are heard throughout the soundtracks of the first two films in this collection. The rest of the audio recordings seem more clear and balanced. There are NO extras. Ultimately this isn’t an outstanding effort – either from Durbin, Universal or the stellar capabilities of the digital format. This set is therefore only recommended for die hard Deanna Durbin fans.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Three Smart Girls 2
First Love 2.5
It Started With Eve 3.5
Can't Help Singing 3.5
Lady on a Train 3
Something in the Wind 3

Three Smart Girls 2
First Love 2
It Started With Eve 3.5
Can't Help Singing 4
Lady on a Train 3.5
Something in the Wind 3


No comments: