Synopsis: When they see their divorced mother in tears over the impending nuptials of their wealthy father (Charles Winninger), three teenaged sisters – Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read), and precocious Penny (Deanna Durbin) – make it their duty to stop the wedding from happening. But with blonde bombshell Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes) twirling dear old Dad around her little finger, and her conniving mother (Alice Brady) helping her do it, the girls worry that their father will never see the error of his ways. With handsome millionaire Lord Michael Stuart (Ray Milland) trying to woo Miss Lyons away and Dad’s accountant Bill Evans (John King) pulling the strings behind the scheme, can the girls prove to their father that Donna’s only in it for the money?
Directed by Henry Koster
for Universal in 1936, this precursor to 1961’s The Parent Trap
marks the feature film debut of songstress and sweetheart Deanna Durbin. Though billed last, she is touted in the opening credits as “Universal’s New Discovery” and gets plenty of opportunities in the movie to show off her dramatic singing voice, skilled comedic timing, and plucky personality. In fact, it is really Durbin who is the star of this picture, which is kind of sad for Nan Grey and Barbara Read. They give it their all, bless their souls, but it’s Durbin’s character Penny who gets all the best lines, to the point where the film drags a little whenever she’s off-screen. Unfortunately, much of this time is devoted to romantic subplots surrounding the two older girls, but the fact that these sections of the film are lackluster isn’t their fault. This is a star vehicle, and it’s simply the nature of the beast that the co-stars get the B-scenes.
That being said, Durbin lives up to her hype and definitely makes this a film worth watching. Penny is petulant, bossy, spirited, and altogether irresistibly charming. She is helped immensely by a snappy script penned by Adele Comandini, who either was a bratty teenage tomboy or always wanted to be one. I made sure to note down some of my absolute favorite “Pennyisms” to share with the class:
- “I’m not pig-headed, I’m strong-minded!”
- “Muffins and milk? That’s no food for fighters!”
- [when she is caught by her father making a racket upstairs] FATHER: “Do you realize that I have guests downstairs, that Miss Lyons is trying to sing? I thought the ceiling would come down!” PENNY: [innocently] “Oh! Why didn’t you stop her?”
- “If this is what love does to people, I’m glad I’m an old maid!”
Durbin was of course known for her effortless soprano singing voice, and while Three Smart Girls isn’t a musical, she does manage to sneak three songs in. Only the last of these, “Il Bacio (The Kiss),” which she performs before a police sergeant trying to convince him that she’s actually a budding French opera star on her way to perform at the Met, feels forced and out of place. As for myself, I’m really not fond of opera, so I don’t get the appeal of a cute little girl with an enormous, overpowering voice, but I’ll reserve further comment as it’s really not my area of expertise. Fact is, if you like musicals, you’re probably already familiar with Deanna Durbin’s singing talents, so you don’t need my uninformed opinion cluttering things up.
As for the rest of the film, it’s got some beautiful 1930s Art Deco sets and fashions that I simply adored. Binnie Barnes and Alice Brady as the fierce and deadly Lyons are an old trope, but they skillfully do their part to make you dislike them. Sometimes I had trouble telling the difference between Ray Milland and John King, simply because their characters were not very interesting and were just added to give an extra romantic twist for the younger set. They’re okay, if you like that sort of thing.
Kay, Penny, and Joan — Three Smartly-Dressed Girls!
The plot as a whole is fairly ridiculous in some places, but what else would you expect from a 1936 family-friendly comedy of errors about three teenage girls trying to patch up their parents’ divorce? I usually try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t help but say a bit about the film’s predictable-but-enjoyable ending. After all their schemes have failed to produce any results, Penny, in an uncharacteristic turn, actually tries being honest with her father as to why she and her sisters don’t want him to marry Donna, and this proves to be the most effective tactic yet. Unfortunately the next morning she disappears, which, whether she intends it to be or not, is a tremendously selfish and manipulative way of getting her father to do what she wants. Teenagers – what are you gonna do! In the end the girls’ parents are reunited at last, and we see them gaze into each other’s eyes with nostalgic affection; but the film ends there, leaving it ambiguous as to whether their love is rekindled or not. After all, the movie’s not so preposterous as to suggest that merely seeing each other again would cure whatever conflict caused the parents to get divorced in the first place. I imagine they saved the real “happily ever after” for the sequel, 1939’s Three Smart Girls Grow Up.
A wonderfully watchable little movie that pops both visually and textually, Three Smart Girls is a smart debut for Deanna Durbin and a contagiously cute family film. It’s a great pick-me-up movie and cuts the sweetness with just enough sass to hopefully avoid any cavities.
Three Smart Girls (1936) – 4/5 stars