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***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** "Mad About Music" (Universal, 1938),
directed by Norman Taurog, is Deanna Durbin's third feature film, and
ranks one of her finest in many ways, especially with a delightful
storyline and Durbin's likable charm, but unfortunately, this is one
overlooked treasure from the golden age of teenage musicals.
The story opens with Gwen Taylor (Gail Patrick), a celebrated movie actress, placing her hand prints in the cement block at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Unknown to many, Gwen has been separated from her daughter for ten years because of her great popularity, and finds that she cannot reveal to her fans that a glamor girl like herself is a mother of a 14-year-old girl. Gloria Harkinson (Deanna Durbin), the daughter in question, is being educated at a Swiss school for girls. Well liked by her classmates, she is immensely disliked by one in particular, Felice (Helen Parrish), who is not only jealous of her popularity around school, but is very eager to learn more about Gloria's questionable family background, especially when she refuses to believe that Gloria's father is a famous African explorer. To cover up her lies, Gloria has her middle-aged friend, Pierre (Christian Rub) back her up by writing letters to her, signing them from "her Dad." Because her little white lies are getting her deeper and deeper in trouble, Gloria, realizing that she is being followed by her classmates as she is heading for the train station, suddenly approaches a man named Richard Todd (Herbert Marshall), and his valet, Tripps (Arthur Treacher). Before Todd realizes what has happened, the distinguished gentleman finds himself suddenly acting as Gloria's father and coming to her school where he impresses the girls by talking about his "hunting adventures in Africa." More problems arise when Gloria learns that her mother is visiting in Paris, and must manage to sneak away from the school without arousing any more attention.
The storyline to "Mad About Music" may sound corny in print, but in reality, it is highly amusing and entertaining throughout its 98 minutes screen time, and it's easy to see why Durbin became such a box office attraction, having both voice and personality. The supporting cast consists of a younger William Frawley playing Dusty Turner, Gwen Taylor's agent; Marcia Mae Jones as Olga, Gloria's best friend; Elisabeth Risdon as the school official; Jackie Moran and Charles Peck as military academy students interested in Gloria and Olga; Franklin Pangborn seen briefly as the hotel manager; plus a cameo appearance by Sidney Grauman of Grauman's Chinese Theater in the opening segment of the story. One scene finds Frawley's character in a sentimental moment as he tells Gloria that she mustn't see her mother, as much as he knows in his heart that seeing her mother would mean a lot to her. The way this scene is handled is well done, showing the warmer side of Frawley, a fine character actor known for his grumpiness and his sarcastic comedic one-liners, especially used to great advantage in the immortal long running TV series from the 1950s, "I Love Lucy," starring Lucille Ball. It is also interesting to see the young and sassy Gail Patrick cast against type playing a mother.
New songs by Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh include: "I Love to Whistle," "Ave Maria" (by Charles Francois Gounod); "Chapel Bells" "I Love to Whistle" and "Serenade to the Stars." Aside from Durbin's singing, the Capps Barros Harmonica Players also participate in a song number.
"Mad About Music" resembles the story lines used by MGM, especially those Jane Powell Technicolor musicals of the late 1940s, mainly because it was produced by Joe Pasternak, who brought over his charm of teenage musicals from Universal to MGM, revamping the formula he originated in the Durbin films. Universal-International would remake "Mad About Music" as "The Toy Tiger" (1956) featuring Jeff Chandler, Laraine Day and Tim Hovey in the Marshall, Patrick and Durbin roles. While "The Toy Tiger" did get some television exposure on American Movie Classics in the 1990s, "Mad About Music" at present, did not. This Durbin original is available on video cassette. After watching this, it would be impossible not to become "Mad About Deanna." (****)
Deanna Durbin is irresistible as 14-year-old Gloria Harkinson. Living
at a ritzy girls' school in Switzerland and blessed with friends and
talent, Gloria is nevertheless lonely for a parentand gets herself
into a mess by writing herself letters from her imaginary
Composer Richard Todd (Herbert Marshall) steps off a train in the small Swiss village and finds himself recruited to play the role of that father; Marshall gives a most charming performance as the initially reluctant phony parent who rather quickly takes to Gloria and looks to help her out.
Durbin sings beautifully .the picture opens with a bicycle-riding gang of girls singing "I Love to Whistle"; she sings "Ave Maria" in front of a boys choir; and she performs a beautiful number called "Chapel Bells" with Marshall (a composer, after all) sitting at the piano.
A strong cast includes Gail Patrick as Gloria's movie star motheralthough she misses her daughter, she follows the guidance of her agent (William Frawley), who thinks his "glamor girl" client's fans would be shocked if it were known that she even had a daughter. Arthur Treacher is amusing as Marshall's (very) English valet.
The best supporting roles belong to the kids: Jackie Moran as Gloria's young would-be suitor; Marcia Mae Jones as her loyal friend Olga; and especially Helen Parrish as Felicesuspicious from the start of Gloria's tales about her father, she is eventually softened by kindness received.
The plot is of course fantastic, but when characters are this charming, who cares? It all comes across as the kind of thing we would love to believe if only it could be true. And I guess that's what the movies are all about.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Director: NORMAN TAUROG. Screenplay: Bruce Manning and Felix Jackson.
Based on an original screen story by Marcella Burke and Frederick
Kohner. Photography: Joseph Valentine. Film editor: Philip Cahn. Art
directors: Jack Otterson and John Ewing. Costumes: Edith Head, Vera
West. Vocal supervision: Charles E. Henderson. Music: Frank Skinner.
Music director: Charles Previn. Songs: "I Love To Whistle" (Durbin
accompanied by school girl chorus; reprized by Harmonica Band, Durbin
and entire cast except Treacher), "Serenade To the Stars" (Durbin with
piano accompaniment; reprized by Durbin with full orchestra), "There
Isn't a Day Goes By" (Harmonica Band only), "Chapel Bells" (Durbin),
all by Jimmy McHugh (music) and Harold Adamson (lyrics); Gounod's "Ave
Maria" (Durbin and the Vienna Boys' Choir). Assistant director: Frank
Shaw. Sound recording: Joseph Lapis and Bernard B. Brown. Producer:
Joseph Pasternak. Executive producer: Charles R. Rogers.
Copyright 11 March 1938 by Universal Pictures Co., Inc. New York opening at the Roxy, 11 March 1938 (ran 2 weeks). U.S. release: 4 March 1938. Australian release: 26 May 1938. 10 reels. 96½ minutes.
SYNOPSIS: Boarding school girl manufactures an explorer father.
NOTES: Academy Award, Deanna Durbin, for her "significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth and as a juvenile player setting a high standard of ability and achievement".
Also nominated for Original Story (Boys Town), Cinematography (The Great Waltz), Art Direction (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Music (Alexander's Ragtime Band).
Remade in 1956 as The Toy Tiger.
COMMENT: Despite its dated, old-hat story, "Mad About Music" is still amusing and entertaining. Fortunately, it is directed at a fast enough clip to maintain the interest and the cast is a delight. Christian Rub has a nice part which he plays to the hilt, while Pangborn makes entrances and exits in his usual splendidly flurried manner. Helen Parrish is most effective as the spiteful Felice, and though he tends to overdo it Treacher has some capital moments. Good old ever-reliable Herbert Marshall carries off his stooge role with customary ease.
True, neither Gail Patrick nor William Frawley are particularly convincing, but praise be! their roles are limited to the front and end of the picture.
As for Deanna, she is of course absolutely marvelous. At both singing and fibbing she is an absolute charmer. The songs are wonderfully pleasant.
Production values are top-drawer (despite obvious Swiss mountain backdrops and a Paris process screen). Over-misty photography tends to date the film in some sequences, though Valentine's lighting is consistently most attractive. The fine sets deserved their Academy nomination.
Noted around Hollywood for his easygoing nature and his ability to gain the confidence and rapport not only of his co-workers (they literally fought to get on his set) but of children, teenagers and "difficult" stars (like Elvis Presley), director Norman Taurog has handled all his chores with artistry and skill.
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