Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack: ‘First Love’ (1939)

I’m reviewing all of the films in the Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack, a 6-movie set featuring some of Durbin’s loveliest performances!
This is the third film in the set.
Previous reviews: ‘Three Smart Girls’ | ‘Something in the Wind’

Connie Harding (Deanna Durbin) has spent the past four years of her life at Miss Wiggins’ (Kathleen Howard) School for Girls. She is graduating, and while her classmates return home to their families and old friends, Connie has very little family to return to. Her parents are both deceased.

Connie is brought to the New York home of her wealthy uncle James F. Clinton (Eugene Pallette) by one of his butlers. With nowhere else to go, she moves in, sharing the home with James, his daughter Barbara (Helen Parrish), his son Walter (Lewis Howard), and his wife Grace (Leatrice Joy).

(Image via Toronto Film Society)

Connie (right) and her cousin Barbara (Image via Toronto Film Society)

Her snobbish family members and their social circle are not impressed by Connie, but she makes fast friends with the servants of the house.

First Love is based on the Italian folk tale of Cinderella, updated to 20th-century America. Released in 1939, this film predates the more famous Disney cartoon version by a little over a decade. First Love was directed by Henry Koster.

Deanna Durbin is perfectly cast in the Cinderella-based role of Connie. She has a ton of charm and is very likable, making her character easy to identify with and sympathize with — much easier, of course, than her cousins or any of their friends. Only an actress with an air of sweetness like Durbin could have filled this role properly, fitting the “fairy tale” mood of the story.

Though Connie’s family are “villains” in the sense that they don’t accept her into the family, this is a very light telling of the Cinderella story. She isn’t forced to care for their home, and though they aren’t exactly nice to her, she still lives a privileged life. She has a nice bedroom of her own and is cared for by the Clintons’ servants.

(Image via tvclasica.com)

Connie-rella attends a fancy party. (Image via tvclasica.com)

The film does use Connie’s family to do a great job of parodying the wealthy. In one early scene, Walter states that he’ll never get around any way but with a chauffeur, because driving and walking both take much more work than he’s willing to do! He won’t even take a taxi, because taxis aren’t as comfortable as his personal chauffeured vehicle would be. So snooty! (Lewis Howard’s performance as the very lazy Walter is perfect.) And Grace, not seeming to care about the fact that her children are spoiled brats, devotes her time to the study of astrology.

Though the film is based on a fairy tale, it could never be characterized as a fantasy film. There are a few little surreal bits (Connie talking to a second version of herself through the mirror), but they’re not a major piece of the film. In general, it plays as a standard musical romance, with a slightly slow pace but a bit of humor mixed in.

First Love is certainly worth watching for fans of the Cinderella fairy tale. It provides a unique take on the story, following all of the familiar plot points but in a different setting, and in a lighter manner. It’s also worth a watch for Deanna Durbin fans, as the actress is very lovable in her leading role. The score: 3.5/5

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