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Monday, February 26, 2018

Universal Heat Seeks a Next Durbin Show


Nice Girl? (1941) Puts The Question Mark To Deanna's Screen Persona




At least from advertising standpoint, Nice Girl? seems to have been an effort to tart up Deanna Durbin, that not apparent from watching the picture today. The title's question mark was a tease, Deanna at nineteen and in receipt of a first screen kiss two years before, so where might she go where faced by moral crossroads? The answer was foregone, there being a public and Universal still vested in her virtue, plus Code authority to prevent a stray. To tweak was to vary a formula that needed freshening. "Deanna Kicks Over The Traces," plus the ? punctuation, was reason to imagine, at least for gullible patronage, that Nice Girl? might "go places and do things" the star had not dared before. Nice Girl? was tentative test as to whether Durbin's public would make the leap, exploitation ready to take a gamble even if the movie wasn't. Durbin was here in protective bosom of a screen family for the last time. Afterward would come career girls and meeting men on as equal terms as then-convention might permit. Nice Girl? was less imitative of past Durbins than brood series Warner made of Four Daughters and as many sequels and follow-ups. Dad Robert Benchley and three daughters Durbin, Anne Gwynne, and Ann Gillis repair to the parlor piano for no reason other than fulfill of audience expectation and to show WB had no lock on musical households.






Nice Girl? turned on possibility that Deanna might merge with an older man, in this case Franchot Tone, her senior by sixteen years. Callow if clueless backup Robert Stack is more her-age appropriate, goes shirtless, is handsome in up-and-coming star sense, but so sexually unaware as to raise concern that he'd ever get the hint, let alone be preferable to Tone. Here was further instance of a lead lady making what we (or at least me) feel to be a wrong partner choice. The situation, a strikingly similar one, was handled better in Hot Saturday, but that was 1932 and precode. Shackles were taut in the 40's, but Durbin could and did loosen them by going saucier than safe scripts led, she being tired by the persona and open to challenge it where she could. Suspense of a third act is whether she'll spend a night in Franchot's bachelor mansion, and wearing sexy pajamas besides. Those were basis of Nice Girl? merchandising, though I couldn't figure them for PJ's or lounge wear any girl, nice or otherwise, might relax in at home or out (and even more burning question: would she sleep in the turban?). Anyway, her outfit is referred to as bright red by small-town onlookers, basis for scandal an absurdity by modern measure. Is this part of why Deanna will not again register as anything other a period curio who sang? Nice Girl? is available from Universal Vault on DVD and TCM has played it but once, happily in HD.

2 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

I had never actually seem Durbin when Cinevent played this some years back, and had enough doubts that I took a seat on the aisle for easy getaway. But in fact I was charmed. It's just a programmer, but a well-honed star vehicle, the kind of movie that plainly had a savvy producer for its auteur, and it sold me on Durbin enough to get me to stay for It Started With Eve at a later festival-- and that one is, I'm convinced, an under appreciated classic.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Will have to revisit NICE GIRL. Love the shout out to HOT SATURDAY, a real goodie.

11:01 PM  

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