Dashing reporter Vincent Bullit has just returned from covering the Spanish Civil War. His boss, newspaper magnate Fullerton, has more plans to send him off to China. However, first Fullerton invites Bullit to the peace and quiet of his own home to write a series of European affair articles. When Fullerton's adolescent daughter Alice develops a crush on Bullit, her suitor, boyscout Ken Warren, doesn't seem to stand a chance. Mr. and Mrs. Fullerton, Ken Warren, and even Vincent Bullit himself do their best to sway young Alice's feelings away from the older man. It's a difficult task though, as she is at 'that certain age.'Written by
Gary Jackson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
High-powered Deanna Durbin vehicle offers prototype for a genre
It's quite possible that the teen musical genre began with THAT CERTAIN AGE (1938), Deanna Durbin's fourth starring role in two years and the first to feature a large cast of supporting teens. It certainly seems to have been the precursor of the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-"Let's put on a show" brand of musical that burst forth from MGM the following year with BABES IN ARMS (1939). Here, the kids, based in an affluent community in Mount Kisco, New York, are indeed putting on a show, with local rich girl Alice Fullerton (Durbin) in the lead role ("Lady Iris") and her sort-of boyfriend, Ken Warren (Jackie Cooper), a Senior Patrol Leader in the local Boy Scout troop, serving as director. The production they create is an elaborate operatic-type show with a "Carmen"-like theme, at least as far as we can tell from the few tantalizing bits offered.
Complications arise when Alice becomes infatuated with her parents' summer house guest, Vincent Bullitt, a renowned foreign correspondent in his 30s (played by Melvyn Douglas, who was 37 at the time to Deanna's 16), who works for her father (John Halliday), a newspaper publisher who seems to have way too much time on his hands. Alice decides that Bullitt needs her more than the show does and the show suffers accordingly--in the short run. Bullitt appears to be based on Vincent Sheean, a swashbuckling left-of-center journalist of the time whose autobiographical account of his own reporting adventures, "Personal History," had come out the previous year.
The problem with the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals was Mickey Rooney. Having re-watched the four films again a couple of years ago (BABES IN ARMS, BABES ON Broadway, STRIKE UP THE BAND, GIRL CRAZY), I was struck by how manic Rooney was—and desperately unfunny. Sure, he had a lot of energy and performing ability, but his characters in those films managed to come off quite abrasive at times and downright creepy at others. Poor Judy was overshadowed in each of them. (Fortunately, she was rescued by Arthur Freed's unit at MGM and placed in films worthy of her talent.) Unlike Rooney, Jackie Cooper doesn't sing or dance or try to be funny as Durbin's leading man, although he sometimes IS funny. He's got a straightforward manner and comes armed with abundant sincerity. He was about a year older than Deanna and plays her devoted friend, with secret romantic feelings, who is absolutely heartbroken when he learns how she feels about Mr. Bullitt. His gracious "best man won" concession speech to Bullitt is the older man's first inkling of Alice's infatuation and provokes some amusing comic reactions from Douglas. Cooper's lovelorn scenes are funny, but quite moving. This is, after all, the kid who made millions of grown men blubber like babies with his final scene in THE CHAMP (1931). He knows how to break your heart and does it without any tricks.
Deanna sings five or six times in the film, more than in most of the films of hers I've seen. Four songs are listed in the opening credits, all by the team of Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson: "My Own," "That Certain Age," "Be a Good Scout" and "You're as Pretty as a Picture." (The team also wrote songs for Durbin in MAD ABOUT MUSIC, also 1938.) Deanna also sings a couple of classical pieces from her lyric soprano repertoire, although those aren't listed in the credits. The title song is sung as a chorus under the opening credits and then reprised by the ensemble in the film's final minutes. Deanna never sings it solo, although I wish she'd had.
Deanna herself is a force of nature, a mesmerizing young star who dazzled us in exquisite closeups and whose every smile melted hearts. And she could sing beautifully, too. She is quite something and one can easily see why Universal Pictures bet the ranch on her—and won! I won't claim that THAT CERTAIN AGE is a better musical than BABES IN ARMS, but I will say it's a better film and a more satisfying and often quite compelling piece of entertainment.
Ironically, Rooney and Durbin shared an Honorary Oscar that year. The citation was worded, "Special Award to Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement." The two films with Durbin that prompted the award were MAD ABOUT MUSIC and THAT CERTAIN AGE. (I don't know what Rooney films they were thinking of.) Universal eventually came up with its own answer to the Rooney-Garland films in a series of musicals with Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan in the early 1940s, including TOP MAN and THE MERRY MONAHANS. If only those films would come out in a DVD box set.
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