Thursday, May 2, 2013

In memoriam, Deanna Durbin: One Hundred Men and a Girl (Universal, 1937)

As a tribute to Deanna Durbin, the great Hollywood musical star of the late 1930’s and 1940’s who passed away in late April at the age of 91, this blog is offering the comments I made over the years about one of her most famous films, the 1937 Universal production One Hundred Men and a Girl.

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One Hundred Men and a Girl — despite that ridiculous title, which makes it sound like an unusually highly-budgeted porn film (Charles joked that the hundred men sounded fine, but they ruined it by dragging in the girl) — is another matter entirely, a near-masterpiece given the rather silly conventions of its genre. Made in 1937 — and only Durbin’s second feature film (her short with Judy Garland, Every Sunday, and Three Smart Girls were its predecessors) — it cast Durbin as the daughter of a widowed symphony trombone player (Adolphe Menjou) who gets backing from the rather ditzy wife (Alice Brady) of a major radio sponsor (Eugene Pallette) to organize a symphony orchestra of her father and his 99 out-of-work musician friends and get Leopold Stokowski (playing himself, and second-billed to Durbin) to conduct it. The plot (by Ernst Lubitsch’s former collaborator, Hans Kraly — a German immigrant, like producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster) is little more than a series of situations in which Durbin overcomes the impossible odds against her and puts all the elements (her father, his musician friends, the sponsors, Stokowski and herself as vocal soloist with the “Orchestra of Unemployed Musicians”) together. But Durbin plays this ridiculous role with absolute conviction, projecting an indomitable spirit and seeming at times so much like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz two years later that it’s likely Garland and Victor Fleming studied this movie and attempted to duplicate Durbin’s and Koster’s approach to this type of character. And her singing is gorgeous (better than it was later, when her voice blossomed but also became more studied), particularly in the “Alleluia” section of Mozart’s motet “Exsultate, Jubilate” (which she sings during a Stokowski rehearsal that she’s managed to crash, while he’s rehearsing the orchestral part of the score) — failing only towards the end, when she attempts the “Libiamo!” drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata (with an embarrassing gap where the chorus is supposed to come in — I joked that that would have been the sequel: she rounds up 100 out-of-work choir singers to … ), which she sings decently enough but whose meaning is simply too mature for her. The recorded sound is beautiful for the period (as it usually was in Stokowski’s projects; he insisted on recording the music in Philadelphia, and Durbin added her vocals in Hollywood in what may have been the first example of multi-track recording in a film musical) and while the pieces aren’t played note-complete, there’s enough of each one that one doesn’t have the jarring snippet-like effect one usually gets in a film of this period involving classical music. — 7/19/96


I walked over to Charles’ place and ran him the movie One Hundred Men and a Girl and the Bravo! documentary on jazz trumpeters that I put immediately afterwards on the same tape. Charles enjoyed both, noting (as I had in my journal notes right after I saw it for the first time) that A Hundred Men and a Girl is actually quite good if you can get beyond its basic silliness (and this time, in the company of someone as politically Left as Charles, I noticed an interesting strain of bitterness in its portrayal of the rich, perhaps conditioned by a certain amount of “status anxiety” within the studio that made this film, Universal, which — like Durbin’s character in the movie — led a scrappy, hand-to-mouth existence in competition with the bloated “majors” like MGM and Paramount; as in Universal’s screwball comedy of the previous year, My Man Godfrey, there’s a certain knife-edge in the class content of this movie, a real bitterness at the way the rich people play with each other and drop three- and four-figure sums at the drop of a hat, while the poor people struggle for a hand-to-mouth existence). — 9/9/96


I watched the Turner Classic Movies showing of the 1937 Universal film One Hundred Men and a Girl, Deanna Durbin’s second feature and a movie that I thought when I first saw it bore a striking resemblance to The Wizard of Oz, even though Wizard was made two years later. Though One Hundred Men and a Girl is a naturalistic movie (Durbin plays the daughter of out-of-work trombonist Adolphe Menjou; taking all too seriously the off-handed jokes of a rich couple that they’d be willing to back the project financially, she gets her father to organize an orchestra of out-of-work musicians and gets it on a nationwide radio show by persuading Leopold Stokowski — playing himself[1] — to conduct), the similarities to Wizard are obvious both plot-wise (in both films a 16-year-old actress plays a rambunctious child who seeks out an avuncular white-haired authority figure to make the dreams of herself and her friends come true, and — against all the odds — finds him and succeeds) and stylistically. Durbin’s acting is alternately energetic and tremulous, indomitable in some sequences and heartbroken at others, and she manages to create a larger-than-life character even though she’s not either childishly cute (like Shirley Temple) or adult movie-star glamorous — and Judy Garland’s performance in Wizard is so Durbinesque I’m convinced she must have screened this film and picked up on Durbin’s style, just as Wizard’s director, Victor Fleming, must have studied Henry Koster’s work on One Hundred Men and a Girl to pick up pointers on how to make a fairy tale like this believable to a movie audience. As incredibly popular as she was (at least in the early years of her career; Durbin never quite recovered from producer Joe Pasternak’s decision to leave Universal for MGM after It Started with Eve in 1941), Durbin is almost totally neglected today — the fact that she quit the movie business altogether at 27 and had a long and happy life in retirement (it still seems to me that the only child stars that went on to relatively sane adulthoods were the ones like Durbin and Temple who got out of the business altogether) and didn’t live the kind of self-destructive roller-coaster life that made Judy Garland’s career a real-life soap opera until she died tragically young at 47 in 1969 seems to have ensured that Durbin never became a legend — yet Universal deserves credit for casting her quite creatively, giving her roles in noir films like Christmas Holiday and light thrillers like Lady on a Train in the mid-1940’s while MGM was shoving Garland into one overstuffed period musical (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, Easter Parade) after another.

Despite the limitations of its genre, One Hundred Men and a Girl (when I first showed it to Charles he thought it sounded like a straight porn film!) manages to be a quite remarkable movie, engaging not only in the sheer power of Durbin’s performance (and a quite good supporting cast, headed by Menjou — who manages expertly to portray the defeated aspects of his character even though, when we actually see him supposedly playing the trombone in character, he handles it so ineptly he looks like he’s playing baseball with it — and Alice Brady as the ditzy society woman, wife of tire manufacturer Eugene Pallette; there are also nice bits by Billy Gilbert as the owner of the garage where the unemployed musicians rehearse, and Frank Jenks as a singing cabdriver) but also in a dramatic class-consciousness in the Bruce Manning-Charles Kenyon-James Mulhauser script that (like the class-consciousness of the 1934 Imitation of Life) one expects from a Warner Bros. film far more than something from Universal; much of the heartbreak of this film comes from the off-handedness of the rich people in it, whose jokes have such cruel effects on the poor people who hear their chance remarks as serious offers of help and count on them to survive. There are plenty of felicitous touches, including the feather in Durbin’s hat that becomes part and parcel of her characterization and gives her away when she’s trying to sneak around in the theatre where Stokowski is rehearsing (“played” by the set Universal used whenever they needed a big theatre — the one they built for the 1925 Phantom of the Opera that is apparently still standing on the Universal lot today, making it the oldest movie set in continuous use).

As usual in his films, Stokowski insisted on recording the music with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Philadelphia (at the Academy of Music, where most of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s RCA recordings under both Stokowski and Ormandy were made) and on using a multi-channel sound system (contemporary accounts differ on whether he used 12, 14 or 28 microphones but this was still an unusually high number in an era in which most symphonic recordings were made with two, three or at most four), so the on-screen musicians from Hollywood were merely miming to pre-recordings of a different orchestra altogether (though it’s possible that the scenes in which the Orchestra of Unemployed Musicians is playing without Stokowski conducting may have been recorded in Hollywood and conducted by Universal’s house music director, Charles Previn — André’s father). As for Durbin’s singing — which in itself probably helped to date her, since she had the bad luck to emerge precisely when the operetta style she was best at was fading in popularity and swing was replacing it — it’s quite good in operetta material, less so in all-out opera (though in One Hundred Men and a Girl her coloratura on the “Alleluia” from Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate — an oddly recherché piece of classical music to hear in a popular film in 1937 — is quite capable[2]) and O.K. but nothing special in popular song (Frank Loesser wrote “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” for her to sing in Christmas Holiday and she manages it nicely enough but Sarah Vaughan, for whom this kind of material came naturally, blows her away on the song). The British Hallmark CD The Golden Voice of Deanna Durbin (cribbed from her movie soundtracks, not her Decca studio records) contains a ghastly English-language version of “Un bel dì” using the same dreadful translation Eva Turner sang on her record (in which Butterfly imagines seeing Pinkerton “on the brow of a hillock” on his way back to her) which Durbin makes it through capably but dully, though on pieces like the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria,” “Les Filles de Cadiz” (which she sings, blessedly, in French) and “The Last Rose of Summer” the voice is quite lovely, the coloratura expert if not at the spectacular level of Sutherland or Sills, the phrasing simple and eloquent. Durbin’s films are due for a major rediscovery! — 10/31/06

[1] — While Stokowski was out in Hollywood to make this film, he and Greta Garbo had an affair.

[2] — Former Metropolitan Opera bass Andrés de Segurola, who had sung with Caruso, was Durbin’s vocal coach and was listed as such in the credits for One Hundred Men and a Girl.