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Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939);
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1940)

Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)
May 13, 2012 - 7:00 pm

Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)

Directed by Henry Koster

In this coming-of-age comedy set in glittering New York high society, Deanna Durbin stars as the precocious Penny, the youngest of the three Craig sisters. Soon after eldest sister Joan (Nan Grey) announces her engagement to the flawless, refined Richard Watkins (William Lundigan), Penny discovers that her other sister, Kay (Helen Parrish), secretly loves Joan’s fiancé and is heartbroken over the proposed marriage. Seeking to remedy the situation and assuage her sister’s sorrows, Penny conspires to have Kay fall in love with another young man, and her hunt for Mr. “Tall, Dark and Handsome” begins.

Penny finds the musician Harry Loren and invites him to their palatial house. Penny’s contrived efforts to draw Harry’s attention towards Kay prove to be in vain. The magnetism between the dynamic Harry and the beautiful Joan, however, is immediately apparent. A series of difficulties and misunderstandings arise as Penny, “Little Miss Fix-It,” plays the role of matchmaker. Penny looks to her father, the absentminded businessman Judson Craig, for guidance, but the Wall Street wizard is oblivious when it comes to his own family affairs. (Still, Dad ultimately learns his lesson and saves the day, reaffirming the notion that “father knows best.”) Throughout it all, the bright Craig sisters find themselves stumbling into the realm of adulthood, as they make sense of amorous feelings and undergo conflicts which test their sibling loyalty.

Family matters are at the heart of this charming, tender sequel to Three Smart Girls (1936), which made the youthful Durbin a major Universal star. In the bitter Depression years, Durbin helped the studio stay afloat, delighting audiences with her sunny disposition and pleasant, unaffected style of operatic singing. Her on-screen persona as the tenacious girl with wholesome values and beaming optimism easily made her America’s sweetheart. Director Henry Koster’s Three Smart Girls Grow Up breezes along effortlessly thanks to its smart dialogue, amiable personalities, and light musical numbers, including Durbin’s rendition of the old standard “Because.” The film unfolds seamlessly as we glide through the world of opulent soirees and upscale nightclubs, while still grounded by its central, family-friendly themes.

—Jennifer Rhee

Universal Pictures. Producer: Charles R. Rogers, Joseph Pasternak. Screenwriter: Adele Comandini. Cinematographer: Joseph Valentine. Editor: Ted Kent. Cast: Binnie Barnes, Charles Winninger, Nan Grey, Barbara Read, Deanna Durbin.

35mm, b/w, 90 min.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1940)

Directed by Edward Cline

In 1938 W.C. Fields ended his 12-year association with Paramount by signing a four-picture contract with Universal, which was trying to recover from the double whammy of the Depression and a turnover in studio management after Carl Laemmle’s departure. Fields’ first three films for Universal—You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), written by himself under the pseudonym Charles Bogle; My Little Chickadee (1940), co-starring and co-written by another Paramount veteran, Mae West; and The Bank Dick (1940), with a screenplay credited to “Mahatma Kane Jeeves” —are usually considered among Fields’ best and most characteristic films.

For all their farcical elements, these three films had fairly conventional, wellstructured storylines; his fourth and last film for the studio, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (based on a story by “Otis Criblecoblis”), was something else again. Fields plays himself, an actor-screenwriter trying to interest Esoteric Studios producer Franklin Pangborn in a ridiculous script about selling nutmegs to a colony of Russian expatriates living in Mexico. Losing patience before Fields has had a chance to finish his pitch, Pangborn kicks him out of his office. Disgusted, Fields decides to leave Hollywood in the company of his niece, Gloria Jean (Gloria Jean Schoonover, a pretty teenaged soprano Universal was grooming to replace Deanna Durbin, who had outgrown the ingénue roles that made her famous). The film ends with a furious automobile chase shot, like the Keystone shorts it closely resembles, on the actual streets of Los Angeles (in this case on sections of Hyperion Avenue, Glendale Boulevard, and Brand Boulevard in Glendale). Like many old L.A. neighborhoods, the locations look very much the same today. (Two years later Universal reused the chase in the climactic sequence of an Abbott and Costello comedy, In Society.) Unfortunately, Fields was unable to moderate his drinking, and after Sucker he completed only a few cameo and guest appearances in longer films before his death on Christmas Day, 1946.

—Charles Hopkins

Universal Pictures. Screenwriter: John T. Neville, Prescott Chaplin. Cinematographer: Charles Van Enger. Editor: Arthur Hilton. Cast: W. C. Fields, Gloria Jean, Leon Errol, Margaret Dumont, Susan Miller.

35mm, b/w, 70 min.