Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Can't Help Singing (1944)

I've loved musicals virtually my entire life, but until tonight I'd never before seen the Kern-Harburg musical CAN'T HELP SINGING, starring the one and only Deanna Durbin. As I watched it I felt the thrill of discovering something really special for the very first time.

Filmed largely on location in the great outdoors, CAN'T HELP SINGING tells the story of Caroline Frost (Durbin), a spirited senator's daughter who runs away from home to follow a calvary officer (David Bruce) west. Along the way Caroline joins forces with Johnny Lawlor (Robert Paige), a card sharp, and as they travel west in a California-bound wagon train Caroline realizes that Johnny is the man for her.

The plot isn't much, but it's pleasant, and it's a great excuse to see Deanna Durbin in the only Technicolor musical she ever made. She's absolutely beautiful, and as always she is lively and fun to watch. The fact that it was an outdoor musical, stunningly shot in Utah and California by Woody Bredell and W. Howard Greene, makes it all the better. When you add in a lilting score by Jerome Kern with some clever lyrics by E. Y. Harburg...well, this movie has really been unjustly overlooked in the annals of original film musicals.

The movie contains some moments which are pure musical magic, including Deanna singing the title song in a bubble bath, which creatively turns into a duet with leading man Robert Paige. (I was delighted to learn Paige was a singer; I wondered at first if he were dubbed.) Deanna's joyous "Any Moment Now" called to mind Jane Powell's "Wonderful, Wonderful Day" from my favorite film, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, a decade later...although lucky Deanna got to sing her song against gorgeous outdoor vistas instead of painted soundstage scenery. "More and More" is a quiet romantic song which was nominated for the Oscar, and "Californiay" is a terrific group number when the wagon train arrives at its destination. For me, these moments provided movie musical bliss.

Deanna is the best-dressed pioneer woman in history thanks to the creations of Walter Plunkett, who in 1954 would design the costumes for SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. In John Kobal's GOTTA SING, GOTTA DANCE, Plunkett shares several anecdotes about working with Deanna, including the explanation for why she wears two different dresses in the final production number; filming was running long and the studio "wanted to cut a sequence. She had two left to shoot and I had designed an elaborate ball gown for each. They didn't know which sequence to cut, and anyway, they had to have her approval. So they hit on the idea of asking her which dress she preferred, and that was going to decide the sequence they would shoot. But Deanna couldn't make up her mind; she liked them both, so for the big musical finale with chorus and all the trimmings, she wore both; first one, then for the next verse the other. Nobody noticed, I don't think, and anyway, that sort of thing is OK in a musical!"

The supporting cast includes Akim Tamiroff, Leonid Kinskey, Ray Collins, Thomas Gomez, and Clara Blandick. Many familiar faces, including Olin Howland, Roscoe Ates, Irving Bacon, Nana Bryant, Iron Eyes Cody, Ruby Dandridge, and Glenn Strange, turn up in small roles.

CAN'T HELP SINGING was directed by Frank Ryan, who wrote Durbin's 1943 films HERS TO HOLD and THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY. Sadly, Ryan died in 1947 at the age of 40.

CAN'T HELP SINGING is available on DVD in the 6-film Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack. It's also been released on video, which is the version I watched. It's a lovely print which includes the trailer on the tape as well. (Update: This film is now also available as a single-title DVD release in the Universal Vault Series.)

Previous reviews of Deanna Durbin movies: FIRST LOVE (1939), HIS BUTLER'S SISTER (1943), NICE GIRL? (1941), FOR THE LOVE OF MARY (1948), BECAUSE OF HIM (1946), MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1938), THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY (1943), THREE SMART GIRLS (1936), THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP (1939), and IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941).


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