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In this reworking of Cinderella, orphaned Connie Harding is sent to live with her rich aunt and uncle after graduating from boarding school. She's hardly received with open arms, especially by her snobby cousin Barbara. When the entire family is invited to a major social ball, Barbara sees to it that Connie is forced to stay home. With the aid of her uncle, who acts as her fairy godfather, Connie makes it to the ball and meets her Prince Charming in Ted Drake, her cousin's boyfriend. Written by
Daniel Bubbeo <email@example.com>
FIRST LOVE (Universal, 1939), directed by Henry Koster, stars Deanna Durbin in one of her ever popular movie roles. Basically a retelling of the old "Cinderella" story set in contemporary New York City, the youthful Durbin, making her sixth screen appearance, and Robert Stack, in movie debut, are supported by fine movie veterans, namely gravel voice Eugene Palette, Leatrice Joy (former lead actress of the silent screen), and Kathleen Howard in a small but important role as the crusty but wise old-maid school teacher with a heart of gold. Aside from her previous works opposite W.C. Fields in three classic comedies of the mid 1930s, this is one of the few times where Howard's talent as a true character actress is fully realized. And now back to Durbin's FIRST LOVE.
The plot begins at a high school graduation with the gathering of classmates receiving their diplomas, one being Constance "Connie" Harding (Deanna Durbin). With her parents dead and no relative in attendance, Connie is invited to spend the summer with her closest friend, Marcia (Marcia Mae Jones), but in good faith for all the financial support awarded her, she decides to stay with her uncle, James F. Clinton (Eugene Palette), a business tycoon, and his family. Afraid to face the challenge that awaits her, it is Miss Wiggens (Kathleen Howard), her former teacher, who encourages to move on, bringing hope and happiness to those around her. Although Connie does win over her uncle's servants, she's made to feel like an outsider by his wife, Grace (Leatrice Joy), spending much time studying astrology; Walter (Lewis Howard), their lazy son who'd rather be served than working; and Barbara (Helen Parrish), the stuck-up daughter who delights in giving orders and not taking them. Very much interested in high society's Ted Drake (Robert Stack), Barbara makes every effort keeping Connie away from him. Though invited to attend the ball with her mother and brother, and hope of meeting Ted again, Barbara purposely arranges for Connie to remain at home to entertain a visiting uncle from Washington during their absence. Feeling pity towards the disappointed Connie, the servants arrange having the family chauffeur (Jack Mulhall) purposely detain the Clintons by getting arrested while giving the opportunity for Connie to attend with the understanding she'd have to leave by midnight. After a grand evening with Ted, Connie, nearly forgetting the time, makes a hasty departure the very moment the Clintons arrive, leaving behind her one slipper found by Ted. When Barbara finds that Connie did attend the ball, their confrontation forces Connie to leave, causing Clinton, who cares for Connie, to become deeply ashamed for what his family has done.
In traditional thirties films depicting rich families, the Clintons in FIRST LOVE could very well be that of the Bullocks from the 1936 Universal comedy, MY MAN GODFREY, starring William Powell and Carole Lombard, each casting Eugene Palette as the millionaire with family he would rather forget. Instead of casting Alice Brady as the scatterbrained wife, Leatrice Joy is given the assignment, as did Lewis Howard's good-for-nothing son over Mischa Auer's freeloading protégé. There's no butler named Godfrey this time around, but good natured servants enacted by lesser known actors as Mary Treen (Agnes, the maid); Dorothy Vaughn (Ollie, the maid); Lucille Ward (The Cook); and Charles Coleman (George, the Butler). Other familiar faces as Frank Jenks (a Policeman and friend of the family servants); Samuel S. Hinds, Thurston Hall and Doris Lloyd fill in the void in lesser roles while Durbin highlights with her grand singing of "There's No Place Like Home," "Amapola." "Spring in My Heart" (by Johann Strauss) and "Un Bel Di" (One Fine Day) from Giacomo Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Regardless of its title and Durbin's then publicized first screen kiss, FIRST LOVE is far from being trite formula. In fact, it's one of her and the studio's top productions of the year. Not having to resort to storybook fashion of "Cinderella," FIRST LOVE simply modernizes an old fairy tale, resulting to something quite original thanks to the fine screenplay, and natural, low-key performances by Durbin and Palette. Palette's great moment comes when he finally lets out steam telling off his selfish family, while Durbin adds humor during the ball by unwittingly stepping onto the platform in the place originally intended for another guest singer (Grace Hayle). There's also a touch of creativity in movie making in the ballroom sequence where all the guests virtually disappear in Connie's mind (and viewers) while dancing and conversing with Ted, and reappearing the very moment Connie returns to reality.
In spite of Durbin and her movies being the box office attractions at the time, presently appears to be of minor importance. Due to lack of television broadcasts since the 1980s, the time when FIRST LOVE had some exposure on public television, along with home video distribution in 1996, the Durbin products appear to be less popular due to its sugar sweet reputation. Having Durbin movies on DVD packages labeled "The Sweetheart Package" doesn't help matters either, yet looking back at these particular films whenever possible shows the entertaining values and certain star quality that has delighted audiences in an era so different from what's presented today. (***1/2)
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