Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tonight's Movie: Nice Girl? (1941)

NICE GIRL? is a wonderful slice of Americana, a lovingly rendered depiction of life in small-town Connecticut in the early 1940s.

Oliver Dana (Robert Benchley, in a pleasantly subdued performance) is a high school principal and scientist on the verge of publishing a book on nutrition. He has three daughters: glamorous Sylvia (Anne Gwynne) is an aspiring actress; little Nancy (Ann Gillis) is boy-crazy and prone to verbal gaffes; and middle daughter Jane (Deanna Durbin) is a musically talented "nice girl" with a good head on her shoulders.

Jane longs for excitement and romance, but the hunky boy next door (Robert Stack) is more interested in working on his car than in courtship. Then a dashing publisher's representative (Franchot Tone) comes to town to see Jane's father...

The entire cast is wonderful, especially the charming Deanna. Benchley, who is often a little much for me in his comedic supporting roles, is pitch-perfect as the loving father of three dramatically inclined young ladies; his performance was a very nice surprise. Tone is delightful as the good-natured bachelor who finds himself the object of the three daughters' wide-eyed admiration, and it must be admitted it's no hardship for the ladies in the audience to admire the muscular young Mr. Stack. Gwynne and Gillis are entertaining as Deanna's sisters.

The fine supporting cast includes Helen Broderick (known to Fred and Ginger fans from TOP HAT and SWING TIME) as Cora, the family housekeeper, and Walter Brennan as a whistle-blowing mailman and band conductor who has romancing Cora on his mind.

The film vaguely calls to mind other films about loving families filled with sisters, such as MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and the FOUR DAUGHTERS series. The set design and decoration is especially good, capturing a 1940s town we'd all love to live in. (What I wouldn't give for Cora's kitchen!) The specter of war hovering quietly in the background gives the depiction of a peaceful life in a pleasant little town an added poignance. Deanna's subdued rendition of "Swanee River" at an otherwise upbeat 4th of July party seems just right, with her emotion on that occasion hinting at the challenges our nation would soon face.

Ann Gillis, who plays Nancy, notably starred as Becky Thatcher in David O. Selznick's classic adaptation of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (1938). Tommy Kelly and Marcia Mae Jones, who co-starred with Gillis in that film as Tom Sawyer and Cousin Mary, have bit parts in NICE GIRL?

Gillis had an interesting career as a child actress. She played Susan Hayward as a child in BEAU GESTE (1938), appeared with Bette Davis in ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1940), and voiced the adult Faline in Disney's BAMBI (1942). She also appeared as Nan in LITTLE MEN (1940), which next airs on TCM on September 18th as part of the station's upcoming tribute to Kay Francis. Gillis is still living; her last film credit was in 1968's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, three decades after she played Becky Thatcher.

NICE GIRL? was the first of three films Durbin made with Franchot Tone, and the second film she made with Robert Stack. FIRST LOVE (1939), which was Stack's first film, was reviewed here, and you can read about HIS BUTLER'S SISTER (1943), costarring Tone, here. Durbin and Tone also costarred in BECAUSE OF HIM (1946).

NICE GIRL? was directed by William A. Seiter and produced by Joe Pasternak. It runs 96 minutes and was filmed in black and white.

NICE GIRL? is available on video. The video has an interesting extra, an alternate ending, which is included at the end of the tape. The U.S. version ends with Deanna singing "Thank You, America" at a military base, while the British release concluded with a closeup of Deanna singing "There'll Always Be an England" against a background with the U.S. flag and the Union Jack. On the video, "There'll Always Be an England," which runs a little over three minutes, is inserted into the film immediately after "Thank You, America," followed by the end title.

The video also has an appealing ad for the VHS copy of Durbin's only color musical, CAN'T HELP SINGING.

NICE GIRL? is another wonderful treat for fans of Deanna Durbin and movie musicals.

2 Comments:

Blogger Java Bean Rush said...

Hi Laura,
A bit of trivia about this film that I've recently run across in my Durbin delving.

Noel Coward took exception to teary war songs like "There'll Always Be an England," thinking they should be more uplifting.

Coward says this in one of his letters:

"I am immersed in a campaign of writing topical songs. This country has been sadly deficient in war songs and I think it is high time that people abroad should take a lighter view than Miss Durbin did when she sang 'They’ll (sic) Always Be an England' with tears rolling down her face as though she were bitterly depressed at the thought."

10:36 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

For such a wholesome-looking film, NICE GIRL? has a pretty mature stoyrline. Although the word is never mentioned, it's clear that Deanna intends to lose her virginity by throwing herself at Tone in his family's elegant New York townhouse. We also see the 19 year-old Deanna briefly sipping champagne (which she specifically requests!) in one scene.

The film moves a little more deliberately than some of Deanna's other films (William Seiter didn't seem to understand "the Durbin formula" as well as directors like Henry Koster and Norman Taurog did), but I like it just the same. As with all of Deanna's best film, the entire film is handled with taste and charm.

As David Shipman said, "It could have brought down (Deanna), Universal and Hollywood itself had it not been."

2:24 PM  

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