ONE-HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL: Blu-ray (Universal, 1937) Kino Lorber
When MGM dropped contract player, Deanna Durbin in favor of Judy Garland, it effectively acquired one of the truly great all-around artists of the 20th century, but sacrificed another, capable of generating a highly lucrative stream of revenue for the company. With her angel-winged soprano, classically trained by Andrés de Segurola (a former Metropolitan Opera bass), Deanna Durbin did not remain unemployed in Hollywood for long. And Universal’s acquisition of the eager star would continue to fill its coffers for nearly a decade. What set Durbin apart from many of her contemporaries was her ability to carry the acting load as well as a tune. When she emoted, she reigned as a believable bright young thing who sparkled with sincerity, and when she sang…well…it was absolutely thrilling. Thus, this Canadian-born chanteuse, later to retreat to France in her emeritus years, would mature from winsome ingenue to chart-topping musical movie star under Uni’s auspices throughout the 1940’s. Director, Henry Koster’s One Hundred Men and A Girl (1937) benefits two-fold; first, from Durbin’s magnetic personality, already tested and proven the year before in Three Smart Girls (1936, and, the picture credited with pulling Universal back from the brink of bankruptcy) and second, from the curious drawing power of Leopold Stokowski, the imminent conductor, whose frizzy long-haired command of the podium - sans baton - and Toucan Sam-sized schnoz, ear-marked him as one of the most readily identifiable figures in classical music.
In his time, no name in classical music meant more to a movie marquee than Stokowski, to achieve ever-lasting fame in the flicks as the conductor of Walt Disney’s animated concert masterpiece, Fantasia (1940). Stokowski was also music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony of the Air and several others, in addition to founding the All-American Youth Orchestra, the New York City Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra and the American Symphony Orchestra. Despite his third billing in One Hundred Men and A Girl, it is Stokowski’s visage first to appear after the iconic mid-thirties’ art deco mirror globe Universal logo; the grand master, conducting what appears to be the Philadelphia Orchestra in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor: Fourth Movement, under the main titles. In reality, Stokowski had pre-recorded the picture’s classical repertoire on a then state-of-the-art multi-channel stereo system, with that aforementioned group of musicians at the Philadelphia Academy (of which he was principal ‘guest’ conductor). But the faces we see in the movie are those of L.A. based players, merely miming to these recordings.
One Hundred Men and A Girl is a charming case of epic misdirection, the screenplay by Bruce Manning, Charles Kenyon and James Mulhauser inveigling Ms. Durbin in what otherwise could be considered a terrible brouhaha with Stokowski who, at least by today’s standards, appearing as himself, remains a remote, and arguably, rather uncompromising figure. Apart from its stature, as an Oscar-nominated Best Picture, One Hundred Men and A Girl provided audiences with the opportunity to bask in the afterglow of some truly outstanding symphonic works. Lest we forget, in Depression-era America, only the privileged were likely to have studied ‘music appreciation’, much less, attended a live concert. So, mass exposure to the likes of Mozart, Liszt and Verdi, was rare and largely left to the movies to exploit. And, at least in One Hundred Men and a Girl, the public was not to be disappointed. Stokowski conducts Hector Berlioz’s Rakoczy March, the overture from Ferdinand Hérold’s Zampa, ou la fiancée de marbre, Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III, and, Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor: Lento a capriccio. Durbin is given the opportunity to accompany the great man in A Heart That’s Free, Mozart’s Alleluja: from the motet 'Exultate, jubilate' (K.165), and, in the grand finale, warbles Libiamo ne' lieti calici, from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. She also sings the bouncy pop tune, ‘It’s Raining Sunbeams’ expressly written for the picture by Frederick Hollander and Sam Coslow.
To suggest One Hundred Men and A Girl as high art is a bit much. Rather, it is pulpy, sugary sweet and decidedly slanted to appeal to the popcorn-muncher, albeit, with a transfusion of the highbrow to offset its treacle. The picture was produced by Hungarian-born zeitgeist, Joseph Pasternak, who later would do for Jane Powell over at MGM, what he did at Universal for Durbin – namely, to make juvenile sopranos pop icons of their time. Indeed, every girl of that certain age wanted to sing like Durbin. And Durbin’s wide-eyed approach to acting, unaffected in these early films, made it at least appear as if every girl just might, given half the opportunity and the right breaks in life. In One Hundred Men and A Girl, Durbin is Patricia Cardwell, the precocious teenage daughter of John (Adolphe Menjou), an unemployed trombone player. For months, John has been desperately trying to broker an audience with Stokowski. Indeed, he has not worked in his profession in a little over the year, and, presently, is nearing eviction from the tenement house he shares with his daughter. As John’s big break is not forthcoming – Stokowski practically has his manager, Russell (Jameson Thomas) and stage doorman (Jack Scott), toss John out on his ear after crashing the concert backstage – fate smiles indirectly when well-to-do scatterbrain, Mrs. Frost (Alice Brady) drops her beaded handbag outside the concert hall. Attempting to do the right thing – give it back – and thoroughly thwarted in this endeavor, John bitterly returns to the tenement, lying to his landlady, Mrs. Tyler (Alma Kruger) about having secured a place in Stokowski’s symphony orchestra. He pays for his overdue rent with money from Mrs. Frost’s stolen handbag and reluctantly lies to Patricia too.
Naturally, the girl is overjoyed – at first, as is John’s best friend, struggling flutist, Michael Borodoff (Misha Auer). Pulling Michael aside, John confides the truth – the two conspiring to keep it from Patricia. Alas, the next afternoon Patricia sneaks off to the concert hall to watch her father rehearse and is devastated to learn firsthand from Stokowski he has openly lied to her. Returning home hours later, having spent the afternoon at a popular hangout for unemployed musicians, John keeps up appearances until Patricia tearfully confesses, she knows the truth. John also admits to stealing the handbag. Now, Patricia elects to return the handbag to Mrs. Frost. The socialite is in the middle of entertaining friends at her fashionable penthouse but is amused by Patricia’s impromptu arrival, moreover, when Patricia gets Frost to admit she does not remember the contents of the purse and gets a fellow party guest to pay her ‘reward’ for its return – the exact amount of $52.30 John spent to pay the rent – thus, returning the amount to Frost and calling it even. Learning Patricia can sing, Mrs. Frost commands she perform for her guests immediately. Patricia dazzles the crowd and afterward, Frost proposes that if Patricia is serious about helping her father, she should form her own orchestra. Rather obtusely, Frost promises to have her husband, John R. Frost (Eugene Pallette) promote them on his radio program.
Elated and taking Mrs. Frost at her word, Patricia rushes back to share the good news with her father and his friends. They have a sponsor and must, with all speed, begin rehearsals in preparation for their big debut. John hires a garage for the practice sessions. However, the owner (Billy Gilbert) demands immediate payment for these facilities, forcing Patricia to run off to Frost’s penthouse to acquire an advance on their money. Instead, Patricia finds Mrs. Frost has already sailed for Europe and Mr. Frost is quite unwilling to indulge his wife’s whimsy on an unknown and unproven orchestra. What they need is a name. To this end, Patricia crashes Stokowski’s rehearsals and, after barely eluding the doorman, greatly impresses Stokowski with her spur-of-the-moment vocal accompaniment. Though impressed, Stokowski absolutely refuses to even entertain the notion of helping Patricia and her father promote their orchestra. Deeply wounded, Patricia elects to throw a fly in the ointment when, having skulked off to Stokowski’s private office, she inadvertently suggests to New York Times’ editor, Ira Westing (Edwin Maxwell), Stokowski will likely postpone his European concert tour to direct an orchestra at home, composed entirely of unemployed musicians. In a Depression-era America, this proves quite a story, confounding Mr. Frost, while also encouraging the pompous windbag to reconsider featuring John and his musicians on the radio. Predictably, rather than endure a scandal over a retraction of the story, Stokowski does delay his departure for Europe and conducts John’s musicians after Patricia sneaks everyone into Stokowski’s mansion to play for him after dark. At the resultant concert hall venue, Stokowski brings out Patricia who, for the first time, is quite unable to speak in front of the audience, but nevertheless, manages to trill magnificently to close out the picture.
“Everybody said you can't top Three Smart Girls,” Pasternak mused years later, “I said you can top anything as long as you're honest, you don't fool yourself, you get the right subject and you create a public taste for it.” Indeed, One Hundred Men and A Girl (initially titled, 120 Men and One Girl) proved wildly popular with audiences. At the time of its release, Stokowski was already on his way out as co-conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra – citing political and creative differences with conductor, Eugene Ormandy who, in Stokowski’s absence, would assume total control over the orchestra’s future. The controversy might, in fact, clarify why the city and the orchestra billed as Stokowski’s in the movie are never clearly identified. For One Hundred Men and A Girl’s soundtrack, a new stereophonic system of audio recording was developed. And although the picture’s soundtrack was recorded in mono, creating stereo masters for its classical orchestrations, isolating and remixing the sound later, resulted in a new sonic clarity that greatly impressed the critics. It also spectacularly dovetailed into Walt Disney’s passion for Fantasia – eventually conducted by Stokowski, in genuine 6-track stereo – a complex system of recording and reproduction, dubbed ‘Fantasound’ by Disney.
Reportedly, the casting of Stokowski was Durbin's idea. However, given Durbin’s own success in pictures had only just been cemented a year earlier, this story may be apocryphal at best. At the outset, the production encountered one minor snag when Paramount Pictures suggested they had signed Stokowski to an exclusive contract. However, as this proved only to be a verbal agreement, Stokowski reneged and joined Universal instead. While One Hundred Men and A Girl was not Deanna Durbin’s first musical at Universal, it was, for some years thereafter, her highest-grossing endeavor, and, in 1949, its theatrical reissue marked an end to her 13-year tenure at the studio. Viewed today, One Hundred Men and a Girl remains a charming programmer from the Universal stable – tricked out in decidedly more finery and funds than the studio was used to lavishing on single productions. Clearly, they were willing to gamble on Durbin, whose fresh-faced appeal had already rung cash registers around the world the year before. The father/daughter chemistry between Durbin and Menjou is palpably engaging here. Interestingly, Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady appeared as an old married couple the year before in Gregory LaCava’s champagne cocktail of a screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey (1936). Although delightful in One Hundred Men and A Girl, the pair are rarely to appear in a scene together. Brady’s Mrs. Frost is actually jettisoned entirely from the story after its first act when, presumably, she sails for Europe, leaving the particulars of the mess she has begun to be straightened out by her curmudgeonly husband. The loss of Brady’s nutty society dame remains the one genuinely unforgivable sin committed in the movie. Billy Gilbert is hilarious in his cameo as the unnamed garage owner, while noted comedian, Frank Jenks does a funny bit of business as a nonplussed taxi driver. In virtual walk-ons, Howard Hickman and Jed Prouty as a pair of amiable swells who enjoy playing practical jokes on Pallette’s John Frost, practically steal every moment in which they appear. In the last analysis, One Hundred Men and A Girl is an adorably escapist romantic fantasy – the affair des artistes, between Durbin’s teenage Miss and the long-hair, Stokowski, an odd, yet serviceable pairing to say the least. Given the heavy-hitting competition of 1937, this movie’s Best Picture Oscar nomination seems conciliatory at best. Personally, I think Victor Fleming’s Captain’s Courageous ought to have taken home the honors. As it stands, The Life of Emile Zola walked off with the honors.
One Hundred Men and A Girl arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber’s alliance with Universal Home Video. Predictably, Uni’s efforts here are just a B-, at best. Likely, no original elements survive on which to base a full-blown restoration. But there are still some basic considerations Uni ought to have applied to ready this deep catalog title for its hi-def debut. For starters, the image throughout is severely afflicted by gate weave. On smaller monitors, the results are minorly distracting. On large screens, and in projection, this shortcoming is equilibrium-altering, the image bobbing from side to side or up and down, depending on the shot. For some inexplicable reason, only long-shots appear to suffer from this problem. As at least half the movie is made up of these, at least half the run time causes considerable eye strain as picture instability, even within the frame, creates an uneasy and distracting bounce. The B&W elements are, mostly pleasing. Contrast is adequate. The image is rather grain-dense, with grain itself often adopting a slightly unnatural ‘clumpy’ quality. There is also some slight edge enhancement and intermittent age-related artifacts, plus damage baked into the image. Fades, dissolves and opticals are plagued by residual softness. Given the stature of the movie – at least, in its day – one would have hoped for Uni to take the high road and remaster it properly for Blu-ray. Alas, no. The audio is 1.0 DTS mono and, regrettably, strident in spots. I am sincerely wondering if any of the original stereo tracks for Stokowski’s orchestrations have survived the interim. What’s here is mono. The orchestral portions sound quite good, but Durbin’s soprano often grates on the acoustic nerve – especially when she hits those high C’s. Historian, Stephen Vagg offers a fairly comprehensive audio commentary on the making of the movie as well as anecdotal tales from behind the camera. Good stuff here and well worth a listen. At present, One Hundred Men and A Girl is only available as part of Kino’s Deanna Durbin Collection, Vol. 1. The unspoken promise of any collection billed in ‘volumes’ is a promise of more likely to follow. We’ll see. Bottom line: a good, solid little movie with lasting appeal, given short shrift by Uni’s lack of vision, time and money not spent to make it perfect on home video. For shame!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)