Nice Girl? (1941)
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Robert Benchley is wonderful as the father raising three daughters with the help of his housekeeper in a small American town. Durbin plays the middle daughter, Dana, and she has her sights set on sophistication, however improbable that prospect seems. Her boyfriend, hunky, blond Robert Stack, is often filmed, bless him, in a skimpy shoulder-less undershirt whilst busying himself under the hood of the beloved car that he seems to value more than Durbin herself. When a mature man of the world, the charming Franchot Tone, shows up to do business with Dad Benchley, all three sisters fall in love with him, and Durbin decides that now is the time to take that final step towards adulthood, with ALL that it entails! "Who wants to be just useful and contented? After all, I am not a cow", Deanna Durbin complains, as she is about to flirt with disaster, preparing to be ravished by Tone in his boudoir of exotic trophies. Durbin hardly looks the Jezebel she makes a stab at, but she does look like a million bucks in her borrowed turban and black evening dress.
The dialog is snappy, often surprisingly racy for its time, the songs are classics ('The Old Folks at Home', 'Beneath the Lights of Home' etc.) and felt as well as beautifully sung by Durbin. It may not have quite the giddy strength of other Durbin movies such as 'First Love', but it is still a delightful experience.
But once the attractively sophisticated Calvert (Tone) arrives, the focus shifts to preserving Durbin's iconic virginity. In short, her virtue wobbles while in the overnight company of bachelor Calvert. And though there are still amusing moments, much of the earlier charm diminishes. Nonetheless, Durbin shines, especially in close-ups, while getting to show off her highly musical voice. The song selection, however, is undistinguished, except for Old Folks At Home. At the same time, the approaching big war is sensed in the two patriotic compositions coming at the end.
Too bad that Durbin is largely forgotten today. But then social norms reflected in her career have changed drastically. Nonetheless, she was a highly talented performer whose close-ups continue to project a timeless magic.
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. (***).
Copyright 4 March 1941 by Universal Pictures Co., Inc. New York opening at the Paramount: 26 March 1941. U.S. release: 21 February 1941. Australian release: 15 May 1941. 9,430 feet. 104 minutes. The full-length version was released only in Australia. The movie was cut to 95 minutes in the U.S.A.
SYNOPSIS: A nice young girl falls in love with a much older man and makes a few mild attempts to induce him to return her affection.
COMMENT: Even in the full-length Australian version which includes an additional Durbin song, Nice Girl? strikes me as a very routine offering. True Miss Durbin's admirers will be stimulated no end, but more critical entertainment seekers will most likely think they've been short-changed. The single-gimmick script is slight in the extreme and it is here spun out to wearisome length. The tedium is compounded no end by William A. Seiter's leadenly dull direction.
On the other hand, as there is really no question mark at all about Nice Girl's niceness, it is certainly a pleasant and amiable film, attractively played by the entire cast, and delightfully sung by Miss DD as well. True, it would be hard even for the heavy-footed Seiter to go too far wrong with players like Franchot Tone, Walter Brennan, Robert Benchley and Helen Broderick. I certainly got a few laughs out of it. Despite some dated war-time jingoistic sentiments abetted by a "God Bless America" song, I found Nice Girl? overall quite acceptable entertainment.
With a romantic leading man like Robert Stack (too busy exploring those potatoes in mufflers rather than tomatoes in skirts), why Durbin would take notice of the rather long-in-the-tooth Franchot Tone is rather confusing. She of course gets to sing, but the songs are rather ordinary, more homespun and later patriotic considering the climate of the world in 1941. But Stack is rather unbelievable being cast as the young non-romantic fool more interested in mechanics than girls. In major supporting parts, Brennan and snappy Helen Broderick as Benchley's housekeeper, are extremely amusing. Broderick reminded me of Mary Wickes in the later Doris Day musicals "On Moonlight Bay" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" where her housekeeper was the Greek chorus commenting on everybody's comings and goings. Benchley basically plays the same character he played in all of those MGM shorts.
The whole premise of the title (with the question mark) is that Durbin wants to shake up her reputation, but she is simply too lovely to be believable as someone who fears she will end up as a spinster. She makes an effort to be funny, but unfortunately the script does not deliver in the laughs department unless Brennan, Broderick, and Benchley are on screen.
On the one hand, there are the musical numbers, mostly solos for Durbin. They are often very beautifully and movingly performed. Simple, but deeply felt. Some of Durbin's best singing.
And then there is the rest of the movie, the plot. It is paper thin, not developed, not interesting, not worth watching.
Which left me wondering: why didn't Universal put at least a little effort into creating a decent script to showcase Durbin's beautiful, moving performances? The cast is fine. All of the leads had given great performances in great movies. They could have handled much better material easily.
Why didn't Universal bother to come up with something for them? Why did they leave Durbin stranded with nothing to work with? A mystery.
The dull and slow-moving plot finds Mr. Oliver Dana (Robert Benchley) trying to raise his three daughters with the help of his housekeeper (Helen Broderick). The main focus is on Jane (Durbin) and whether or not she'll get the slow-witted Don (Robert Stack) or Richard Calvert (Franchot Tone). As for Don, he's much more interested in cars than sex and Richard is downright old compared to Deanna (he's 16 years her senior). It's all punctuated with Durban singing and ends with her singing a rousing patriotic tune--which varied depending on if you lived in the US or UK!
As I said...slow and dull. Not a bad film but one that never help my interest and was far from one of Durbin's best.