Three Smart Girls, 1936, Universal Pictures. Starring Deanna Durbin, Ray Milland, Barbara Read, Nan Grey. Directed by Henry Koster. B&W, 84 minutes.
Sisters Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read), and Penny (Deanna Durbin) are living a privileged life in Switzerland when they learn their father is planning to remarry. This is breaking the heart of their beloved mother, Dorothy (Nella Walker), who is still in love with Judson (Charles Winninger), ten years after their divorce.
The girls are determined to help their mother and stop the nuptials, but first they must figure out how to get to New York, where their father is a Wall Street mogul. They enlist the help of one of the family’s servants, Martha (Lucile Watson), who has enough money to transport herself and all three girls to New York.
Upon arrival, they learn the specifics of the situation. Their father is engaged to a gold-digger socialite, Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes). Knowing that money is the woman’s motivation, the girls conspire with their father’s money manager, Bill Evans (John King) to introduce Donna to a Hungarian count (Mischa Auer). The Count actually has no money of his own, but Bill makes sure he has enough to pass for rich.
That plan is foiled when the girls mistake Lord Michael Stuart (Ray Milland) for the Count. Unbeknownst to them, Lord Stuart really is wealthier than their father. But that isn’t the only mix-up, and antics continue.
Three Smart Girls was Deanna Durbin’s first feature length film, and its success, along with the success of other Durbin movies, helped Universal Pictures avoid almost certain bankruptcy. Durbin had originally signed a six-month contract with MGM, and Universal, perhaps quicker to recognize her talent, signed her to a lengthier contract when that six months was up.
It was while filming Three Smart Girls that Universal fully realized what they had in Durbin, and they expanded her part accordingly. She was given plenty of opportunity to show off her incredible singing talent–sounding, when she sang, far more adult than her fourteen years–and more screen time than the original script required.
In fact, Durbin, who had earlier signed a 26-week contract with Eddie Cantor’s radio program, was hailed by Louella Parsons as the true star of Three Smart Girls. This was the start of the grindings of the star machine, making Durbin a household name–once everyone learned how to pronounce it (Diana or Dee-anna?).
Three Smart Girls received three Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Sound and Best Original Story. It won none.
This is a sweet movie, albeit predictable today even with its twists. It is most notable for showing off Durbin’s incredible talent, but it doesn’t need her three songs to be fun fare. Ray Milland is charming as the secret millionaire, and all three girls are credible in their performance. For fans of Deanna Durbin, this is a must-see film, and for classic movie fans, check it out when you get the chance.