As I'm sure many fans of classic movie musicals are aware, TCM is one of the best resources out there for some of the rarer gems of the musical world. Just last month, I happened upon a Deanna Durbin musical on the channel. Now, I had never seen anything related to Deanna Durbin except for the segments she shared with Judy Garland in that movie about musicals, That's Entertainment. The documentary didn't have much to say on her contribution to musicals except for the the fact that she started around the same time as Judy, and Judy was the one who made it big. So, when TCM dug up an old Deanna Durbin title called Can't Help Singing.. well, I couldn't help tuning in!
Boy, was I happy I did! Can't Help Singing is a surprisingly delightful musical from 1944 starring Deanna Durbin and Robert Paige with music by Jerome Kern. It's essentially the basic premise of It Happened One Night reimagined as a musical about pioneers heading west during the gold rush. Deanna Durbin plays the headstrong daughter of an east coast politician who is determined to marry her sweetheart, a lieutenant, of whom her father disapproves. Durbin runs away to join her fiancé out west, but, despite her attempts to get there as quickly as possible, she meets with many obstacles. Like Claudette Colbert's would-be bride in It Happened One Night, Deanna Durbin is also blessed with the twin virtues of naivete and stubbornness. She meets Robert Paige, a grifter and card shark (and, well, the Gable of this picture), in Kansas after she's swindled out of her money and her broken-down transportation. Paige takes her under his wing as they travel together out to the magical, mythical land of California, but they predictably fall in love along the way.
Durbin's father races after her, and, when he finally manages to meet up with them, he approves of the criminal card shark who has been traveling with his daughter unchaperoned. (Unlike It Happened One Night, there was no good reason for her father to dislike her first fiancé). However, after they reach California, Durbin almost loses her new beau when he learns that she had been hiding the fact that she was going out west to marry another man, but in true musical fashion, everything wraps up with a grand reprise of the title song and any hard feelings are tossed away with a wardrobe change.
Musically, this was an absolute delight! Fresh-faced Deanna Durbin had a sweet Shirley Jones appeal, and her classically trained operatic voice is one of the best kept secrets of the movie musical world. Robert Paige's character was in the same mold as the Gordon MacRaesque 'strapping young man', but while he was enjoyable, he certainly didn't live up to MacRae. This musical is sure to be a hit for anyone who loves Oklahoma! and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.
There were two major song highlights: The title song, 'Can't Help Singing,' is still in my head over a month after I watched the movie. And, let me tell you, she sure couldn't help singing! She sang the same song the entire time she traveled out west! Amazingly, no one ever told her to stop singing. No one ever asked why she couldn't help singing. No one ever asked her to sing something else. Still, the title song is a catchy tune, and with her lovely voice, I guess it's not too hard to believe that no one bothered to tell her to stop.
My favorite number, though, was 'Californ-I-Ay', an ode California that instantly reminded me of the song Oklahoma!. The song itself was great, but what you need to see are the comically GIGANTIC vegetables that accompany this song. Yup, forget the gold, there are plums the size of boulders in California, which makes corn being as high as elephants' eyes seem a little less impressive, I think.
Here's an interesting bit of trivia from the ever insightful Robert Osborne, god of TCM: the two stowaway swindlers who end up traveling with Durbin and Paige were originally sleighted to be played by Abbott and Costello. The famous comedy duo pulled out of the picture over billing or salaries, but the characters were left in despite the fact that the replacements seemed a little out of place.
And, now for the videos! The embedded video above should be a medley of three songs from the finale: Californ-I-Ay, More and More, and Can't Help Singing (reprise). However, it looks like you may be able to watch Can't Help Singing in its entirety on YouTube! Here are the links, as far as I've pieced them together: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight, part nine (?), part ten, and the finale. Videos are courtesy of ddurbinfan, and I wholeheartedly recommend their entire selection of videos.