Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack: ‘Can’t Help Singing’ (1944)

TMP’s reviews of the films from the Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack continue! Can’t Help Singing is the fifth of six films included in the set. Stay tuned for a review of the final film, Lady on a Train. Previous reviews: Three Smart Girls, Something in the Wind, First Love, It Started with Eve

Caroline Frost (Deanna Durbin) comes from a well-to-do family. As the talented, young songbird daughter of a senator, she could quite accurately be described as “spoiled.”

Senator Frost (Ray Collins) doesn’t approve of his daughter’s boyfriend, Leiutenant Robert Latham (David Bruce). Using his political power to rid himself of this problematic potential son-in-law, he enlists the President to ship Robert off to California. Robert will have a new job guarding gold shipments from the mines, which are at the height of their production.

(Image via Deanna Durbin Devotees)
(Image via Deanna Durbin Devotees)

Caroline, not willing to give in to her father’s scheme, decides to take a trip out West herself. She’s determined to reunite with Robert and intrigued by the adventurous nature of the region, whether her journey is by train, by boat, or by wagon. Hijinks ensue as she makes her way across the country with the help of a prince (Akim Tamiroff), the prince’s servant (Leonid Kinskey), and a gambler (Robert Paige).

Can’t Help Singing was directed by Frank Page, based on Samuel J. and Curtis B. Warshawsky’s Girl of the Overland Trail.

With each film I watch starring Deanna Durbin, I like her more. I had only seen a few of her films prior to beginning my reviews from the Sweetheart Pack, and I thought her a pleasant screen presence but not one of my favorite actresses. She’s quickly rising up the favorites list now that I’ve seen more of her work.

Her characters are always wonderful to watch, and while there’s a common thread between them, each is a little different. Caroline is much more calculated and sneaky than any of the previous characters I’ve seen Durbin play. The best way to describe her is as a ’40s female version of Ferris Bueller — rambunctious, confident, manipulative-but-likable.

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Caroline is an adventurous girl, if somewhat naive. She’s seeking adventure by heading West, and adventure is just what she finds. The film is plenty of fun to watch as a result, with quirky side-characters and plenty of amusing parody of stereotypically Western scenarios, including wagon trains, thievery, and gunfights.

The photography and scenery are also beautiful. According to TCM, this was Durbin’s only Technicolor film. Between the location shots of Utah and California landscapes and the bright color palette, the film’s a real feast for the eyes.

On a more personal note, I was delighted to see a little throwback to my recently-discovered, current-favorite Durbin film, It Started with EveIt Started with Eve includes a scene where Charles Laughton hides a cigar under his comforter, causing smoke to drift from the bed, alarming his doctor. Early in Can’t Help Singing, Caroline attempts to convince her parents that she’s sick, but she’s found out when the heating pads used to raise her temperature start smoking. I’m not sure if this parallel was intentional, but having watched the two films less than a day apart from each other, I was delighted by it.

(Image via Doctor Macro)
(Image via Doctor Macro)

In terms of story, the film leaves a little to be desired. The pace isn’t ultra-fast and the plot is very simple: girl travels West, encounters a few light mishaps, falls in love. The cast, visual appeal, and music make up for what’s lacking in the story department.

Can’t Help Singing is a sweet film, well worth a watch for fans of Western musicals or of Durbin as a singer. The score: 4/5


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