Three Smart Girls (1936)
Director: Henry Koster
Cast: Binnie Barnes, Charles Winninger, Alice Brady
Synopsis: Three sisters scheme to reunite their divorced parents before their wealthy father marries a conniving gold digger.
Deanna Durbin’s first film features her in essentially the same type of role she would play throughout her brief career, that of the sweet but single-minded teenager determined to put right that which she perceives to be wrong in the lives of those closest to her. It’s clear from both her billing (as “Universal’s Latest Discovery”) and the amount of screen time she receives, that Durbin was being built up to be a major star at the time, and she gives a typically engaging performance, although her screen presence perhaps isn’t as fully developed as it soon would be.
The storyline is a piece of fluff, typically family-oriented nonsense that takes place in a never-never land of idyllic countryside and plush hotels in order to provide depression-era audiences with some relief from their difficult lives. The three smart girls are sisters, living an idyllic life with their mother (Nella Walker) in Switzerland, who discover through the newspaper gossip columns that their estranged businessman father (Charles Winninger) is to marry an ‘international beauty’ and immediately embark on a trip to America to prevent this marriage from taking place. Considering they haven’t seen or heard from their father in ten years this eagerness on the part of the girls to prevent him from remarrying seems a little unlikely, even though their motivation is explained by the sadness of their mother at the impending nuptials. As Three Smart Girls is a light 1930s comedy there are no difficult questions for Dad when the girls finally catch up with him, just squeals of girlish delight and hugs all around. The girls’ disapproval is reserved for Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes), the ‘adventuress’ after their Daddy’s millions. For all her materialistic desires, Donna is actually almost a sympathetic figure; it is her grasping mother, portrayed with teeth-grinding shrewishness by Alice Brady who is the real wicked witch of this tale. With the help of Bill Evans (future waffle restaurateur John King) one of their father’s aides, the sisters hatch a plot to manipulate Donna and her mother into sinking their claws into another target.
Overall, Three Smart Girls is a reasonably entertaining light comedy (with rather awkwardly inserted musical interludes from Durbin) which would soon be eclipsed by better efforts from her. A solid cast, which includes a young Ray Milland as the romantic interest for one of Durbin’s sisters, and Mischa Auer in a small part as a drunken count, gives her some expert support, and there are a number of funny moments that amuse. My only real problem was with the character of the girl’s father, played by Charles Winninger, who seemed far too indecisive for a high-powered businessman.
(Reviewed 13th August 2005)