Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: First Love (1939)

Film trailer still
Retellings of classic fairytales in all forms always seem to be popular, so it's a little surprising as well as a pity that this clever and charming interpretation of the Cinderella story, set in 1930s New York City, isn't as well known. Never mind the rather generic and unimpressive title (one source says it was originally supposed to be called Cinderella 1939, which would at least have been a bit more descriptive of the story!). There was a flutter of publicity around the movie when it came out, because it contained singing star Deanna Durbin's first screen kiss—but in spite of their popularity when first released, Durbin's films do seem to be largely forgotten nowadays except among her particular fans.

Courtesy deannadurbindevotees.com
After graduating from boarding school, Connie Harding (Durbin) goes to live with her wealthy relatives, the Clintons, and quickly falls into the position of a typical poor relation—often overlooked, fetching and carrying, and generally living in the shadow of her pretty but spoiled cousin Barbara (Helen Parrish). Her scatterbrained aunt (Leatrice Joy) and supremely lazy cousin Walter (Lewis Howard) aren't much help either. Uncle Jim (Eugene Pallette), a man of few words, is only visible ducking between his workplace and his study when the coast is clear, seemingly making it his object in life to spend as little time in his family's company as possible—and it's hard to blame him. But Connie quickly endears herself to the servants, who become her firm friends and allies.

Courtesy deannadurbindevotees.com
Prince Charming enters the picture in the form of Ted Drake (Robert Stack, in his film debut), an eligible young man whose attention Barbara is bent on monopolizing. After an awkwardly comic first meeting on the grounds of a country club, Connie is rather smitten too, and sets her heart on attending a ball hosted by Ted's parents. Barbara, by no means welcoming competition, does everything possible to prevent her from getting there, but Connie's friends the servants pitch in to see that she has a suitable dress, and conspire with the cook's policeman brother (Frank Jenks) to keep her relatives from getting to the ball before midnight. (The butler, played by perennial movie butler Charles Coleman, delivers one of my favorite lines here: "You will have an escort of six white bikes, miss!") Though the ball proves to be a dream come true, the stroke of midnight of course heralds disaster...and it's up to Connie's old schoolteacher and friend, the grim-faced Miss Wiggins (Kathleen Howard) to play fairy godmother and try to mend the situation with the help of a silver slipper.

The movie does a lovely job of translating the Cinderella story into the modern setting, with just enough original touches to keep it from being only a carbon copy of the fairytale. Although for the most part the movie is in the everyday world, there are a few little surprises with special effects—including the ball scene, where the other dancers fade away to leave Connie and Ted waltzing alone in the empty ballroom, to the dreamy strains of a melody from Strauss's "Roses from the South."

Courtesy deannadurbindevotees.com
Helen Parrish is particularly good as the spoiled Barbara—I'd seen her in a couple of movies before where she played the complete opposite, a sweet, naive type of character, so I was impressed by her performance here. There's a lot of wit and humor in the script, such as the scene where the Clintons are delayed by the policeman on their way to the ball, and an amusing bit where Barbara and her so-called friend (June Storey) sweetly trade barbs about each other's clothes and dispositions. And the scene where Uncle Jim finally blows his top and lets his family have it is hilarious.

As in any Deanna Durbin film, there's some wonderful music—a spirited rendition of "Amapola," a medley of Strauss waltzes for the ball scene, and finally, Puccini's "Un bel di" (sung in English), in a context totally different from the one for which it was written, but fitting beautifully into the new one.

First Love is on DVD, but only as part of a Deanna Durbin box set (which I believe is also available through Netflix). Click here to see more stills and some behind-the-scenes pictures from the movie.

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies is a weekly blog event hosted by Todd Mason.


Melissa Marsh said...

Never heard of this movie before - it looks great! Will have to try and find it.

Todd Mason said...

This does sound charming...I'm trying to remember what I've seen featuring Durbin, as I know I've seen Parrish and most of the rest of the cast over the years...a very young Stack!