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NICE GIRL? (Universal, 1941), a Joe Pasternak Production, directed by William A. Seiter, stars Deanna Durbin in one of her current attempts of changing her screen image from vibrant teenage soprano to attractive young woman. Still relatively a teenager and a soprano with a very fine singing voice, this product, based on the play by Phyllis Duganne, returns Durbin to earlier material from THAT CERTAIN AGE (1938) where her character finds herself interested in an older man (Melvyn Douglas) and ignoring a boy (Jackie Cooper) of her own age. Not quite original but an attempt to make something very special out of this material, and in true essence, works out quite favorably.
Following the glittering Universal logo, and before the opening credits reach the screen, a mailman is seen leaving the post office to start his daily duties. After the conclusion of the title credits, the story, set in Danbury, Connecticut, begins with character introduction: Hector Titus (Walter Brennan), the postman, heading towards the Dana household delivering their mail. The Dana home consists of Cora Foster (Helen Broderick), the housekeeper and Hector's romantic interest; Professor Oliver Wendall Holmes Dana (Robert Benchley), a widower with three daughters, Jane (Deanna Durbin), the eldest who not only studies the habits of rabbits, but tires of the stigma tagged to her name as a "nice girl"; Sylvia (Anne Gwynne), an ambitious actress wanna-be; and Nancy (Ann Gillis), the instigating youngest with two teenage boyfriends fighting over her affections. Jane loves Don Webb (Robert Stack), her childhood sweetheart, but plays second fiddle to his custom-made futuristic-style automobile. When Dana receives a telegram from the Van De Meer Foundation sending Richard Calvert to pay him a visit, Jane, expecting a bearded elderly gentleman, drives over to the train station to greet him. While there, she finds her imagined older gentleman Calvert (Franchot Tone) a 36-year-old distinguished gentleman. Originally planning to spend time in a hotel, Calvert is invited to stay over as their guest. After the 4th of July gathering comes to a close, Jane borrows Don's car to take Calvert to the train station bound to New York. Arriving too late to board the train, Jane drives Calvert to his home instead. Along the way with the top down, they get caught in a rain storm and are drenched. Calvert invites Jane into his home to dry off and change into his sister's clothes. Being very much alone, with the exception of Austin, the butler (Leoanard Carey), misunderstanding occur to have Jane leave rather than spend the entire night with a single man. As Jane drives back in the early morning hours alone, she is spotted by nosy neighbors assuming the worst, followed by talk of the town rumors about Jane's "nice girl" reputation. And how does Don feel about that?
NICE GIRL can be best described as Universal's delayed answer to Warner Brothers' dramatic story of FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938). For NICE GIRL?, there's only three daughters, a widowed father and a housekeeper in a small quaint town. While portions of the screenplay may sound dramatic, it's actually a leisurely paced, wholesome family-friendly production with doses of quaint humor.
With Durbin in the cast, there's song interludes added for her singing talents. Song interludes include: "Perhaps," "Beneath the Lights of Home," "Swanee River" (the old American classic by Stephen Foster); "Love at Last," "Beneath the Lights of Home" (reprise); and "Thank You, America." As much as "Swanee River" had been vocalized by other legends of song as Bing Crosby in MISSISSIPPI (Paramount, 1935) and Al Jolson in SWANEE RIVER (20th Century-Fox, 1939), Durbin's rendition is quite beautiful, as is the film's best song of all, "Beneath the Lights of Home." Interestingly, following the "Thank You, America" finale, there's an alternate ending to another patriotic song, "There'll Always Be an England" displayed on both 1999 home video release, DVD, and premiering on Turner Classic Movies November 20, 2016.
As with other Deanna Durbin movies of the thirties and forties, which were extremely popular at the time with critics and audiences alike, NICE GIRL? certainly has faded away to obscurity until brought back on public television on various public television stations in the 1980s after being out of commercial television in various states for nearly two decades. With Durbin as its star attraction, the supporting cast is secondary to none. Franchot Tone, formerly of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1933-1939), offers no great demands in his role but properly cast as the visiting gentleman. Robert Stack, who gave Durbin her first screen kiss in FIRST LOVE (1939), returns the favor here once again, but this time off camera. Walter Brennan, unrecognizable and looking very German with his mustache and glasses, playing both postman and musical conductor. Helen Broderick, best known for her droll humor and wisecracks from the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals as TOP HAT (1935) and SWING TIME (1936), offers little promise through her limited scenes. Others in the cast are: Elisabeth Risdon (Martha Peasley); Tommy Kelly (Ken Atkins); Nella Walker and Marcia Mae Jones, among others.
A reflection of the times long ago and far away from today, especially when family invites perfect stranger as their guest into their home, NICE GIRL?, at 95 minutes, a nice movie about a nice girl,and another winner from the Deanna Durbin movie gallery, is something to consider. (***).
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