It’s A Date (1940)
Deanna Durbin (born Edna Mae Durbin) was a child star who made her first film appearance at the age of fourteen in the short film Every Sunday (1936) with Judy Garland, another child actor whom you may have heard of.
Durbin’s peppy presence and shockingly mature soprano pipes earned her a contract with Universal. (Fun fact: she auditioned for Snow White (1937), but Walt Disney thought her voice was “too old” for the role. She was fifteen!)
Starting in 1936 with Three Smart Girls, Durbin made a series of hit films which helped bring Universal out of near bankruptcy.
By the time she made It’s A Date, her seventh film, Durbin was a veteran performer and had been a movie star for nearly four years. And she was only eighteen!
Like her previous six films, this movie was produced by Joe Pasternak, who specialized in young talent and produced all of Durbin’s movies at Universal until 1941. Another familiar face on set was cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine who shot Durbin’s first eight films. But director William Seiter, most famous for directing comedies with the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, W. C. Field, and Laurel and Hardy, was new to the Durbin franchise.
This film straddles that difficult stage between teenager and adult woman for Durbin, and casts her as an almost rival to her mother, Kay Francis. As with so many child actresses, the jump from kid to adult roles can prove tricky, so the movie treads carefully and mostly keeps Durbin young. But offstage, Durbin was grown up, and she would marry her first husband in 1941. For more on a similar star who had to “grow up” onscreen, check out my reviews of Rich, Young and Pretty and Nancy Goes to Rio.
It’s A Date follows the misadventures of Durbin, an aspiring actress and daughter of a famous, well-established star. Durbin is itching to follow her mother in the theater, and she finally gets her chance when she’s offered the leading role in a new play. She hops on an ocean liner to join her mother for coaching and meets a handsome, older man onboard.
Plot-wise, Nancy Goes to Rio follows It’s A Date pretty closely. Indeed, sometimes the two films even share similar shots! This is not too surprising since Joe Pasternak produced both films. He left Universal a year after making It’s A Date and went to MGM. Then he had his new studio buy the rights to It’s A Date and re-made it starring his new young star.
I saw these films backwards: I watched Nancy Goes to Rio before I saw It’s A Date, so I kept thinking, “Wow, this movie really follows Nancy Goes to Rio closely!” when of course it is the other way around. So if I fall back into that incorrect thinking, forgive me!
Alongside Deanna Durbin and Kay Francis, It’s A Date features Walter Pidgeon in his heartthrob days before he became everyone’s father.
To the film! We begin with Pam (Deanna Durbin) and her boyfriend Freddie (Lewis Howard) watching Pam’s mother Georgia Drake (Kay Francis) perform at the closing night of her hit play. Georgia is a famous stage actress who has been working for years, and Pam has grown up around the theater. You can watch the scene here. (That’s not Francis’ real voice.)
Like her character, Kay Francis had also been working for years and enjoyed great success, though she was reaching the end of her career. She started in movies in 1929 and by 1932 she was the Queen of Warner Brothers. But a few years later, Francis fell out of favor with audiences, and in 1938 she was deemed “box office poison” in the same notorious ad that included Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn.
Francis ended her contract with Warner Bros. the next year and began freelancing. She would make twelve more movies after this one, with the last coming in 1946.
Anyway, after the play, Pam and Freddie go to Georgia’s glorious apartment for a closing night party.
Pam wants to be just like her mother, so she emulates Georgia’s grand diva style. The teen struts around and concocts grand entrances as she cozies up to producers. But Pam’s over-the-top antics and look-at-me behavior are awfully silly on a young lady without any success to justify it.
As Pam makes a fool of herself at the party, Georgia chats with a playwright named Carl Ober (S. Z. Sakall) and her longtime director Sidney Simpson (Samuel Hinds). Ober has a fantastic new play about St. Anne, and Simpson is planning to direct it with Georgia in the lead.
Georgia gushes over how much she adores Ober’s play and the part of St. Anne, and then rushes off to rejoin the party. But once she is gone, Ober expresses doubts over her casting–St. Anne is supposed to be a teenager! But Simpson assures him that Georgia can play decades younger than her real age.
Then Pam bursts into the room and begins chastising Simpson about his failure to visit her summer stock troupe as he had promised. She works herself into a grand dramatic frenzy, complete with tears and anguished gestures.
But as soon as Simpson promises to come direct a play with her troupe, she snaps out of it and ruefully yet proudly admits that she tends to get a little carried away and turn her life into a “scene.” All the world’s a stage for Pam!
Ober is quite impressed, though. Pam is clearly a good actress, and she’s much closer to the St. Anne the playwright had envisioned. He begins to ponder the situation.
After the guests depart, Pam, Georgia, and Sara (Cecilia Loftus), a sort of grandmother/confidante/assistant, relax in the huge apartment.
Fun fact: Kay Francis famously had a lisp and pronounced the letters “L” and “R” as “W.” So it seems a little cruel to choose “Sara” as her companion’s name! In fact, the dialogue is loaded with “R’s”, which makes me wonder if the screenwriter, Norman Krasna, wasn’t a fan of Francis.
Another fun fact: the Drake apartment even resembles the one in Nancy Goes to Rio with the piano and the huge window in the back. But one big change between the films is that the Sara character is replaced by a funny grandfather with Casanova tendencies played by Louis Calhern.
Anyway, soon after the party, Georgia and Sara head to Honolulu for a six-week vacation/intensive prep for Ober’s new play, and Pam goes upstate to her summer stock troupe.
We watch Pam and Freddie cuddle in the grass while they have a very dramatic conversation. We’re fairly certain they are running lines, but we don’t realize they are just one of a dozen couples rehearsing the same scene at the same time. The camera pulls back and voila! It’s clever. You can watch the scene here.
Then Simpson and Ober arrive with the grand news that the kids will be performing sections from Ober’s new play! And guess who has the lead? Apparently, Ober couldn’t stop thinking about the young Miss Drake. And he is right: Pam is fantastic as St. Anne. You can watch the scene here.
After the show, Ober and Simpson ask Pam to play the role on Broadway. She is stunned and thrilled. And she doesn’t know that they already offered the part to her mother, so she accepts immediately. One might assumes that Simpson and Ober would immediately contact Georgia, rescind her offer, and explain that they want her daughter to take it instead. But they don’t. The men stupidly go on with their lives and don’t do a thing about the Pam/Georgia conundrum. So both women think they are playing St. Anne!
Pam boards a ship to Hawaii because she needs her mother’s help to prepare for such an enormous role. She doesn’t tell her mom why she is coming, though…
Onboard the ocean liner, Pam keeps to herself and works tirelessly on her part. She attracts some attention as she sits in deck chairs and intones melodramatic lines about heartbreak, but she doesn’t care. She doesn’t even notice the handsome man with the pipe sitting next to her!
The same thing happens in Nancy Goes to Rio. But there is a key difference: in the later film, Powell rehearses a monologue about having a baby even though her heart is broken because the father has left her. She has been terribly betrayed and will never love again, but at least she’ll have the child!
The man sitting next to Powell (Barry Sullivan) doesn’t know she is running lines and assumes that she is a pregnant weirdo who talks to herself out loud. So he tells other passengers that she is “expecting,” alone, and heartbroken, and very funny situations arise from the misunderstanding.
For example, the ship’s doctor keeps trying to take Powell’s pulse, the waiters bring her cream of wheat and milk no matter what she orders for dinner, and a kind old lady gives her baby clothes as a farewell gift. Meanwhile, Powell has no idea what’s going on, but she keeps saying and doing things that support the pregnancy rumor!
This pregnancy subplot makes this bubbly Technicolor musical a lot funnier than it would be otherwise, so it’s one of my favorite elements. But It’s A Date doesn’t have it! Pam’s monologue is only concerned with heartbreak after the end of a love affair, and unfortunately doesn’t include anything about a baby. The ship section of the movie feels bland without that daring subplot.
Back to It’s A Date! The handsome gentleman, John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon) who overhears Pam rehearsing assumes she is sad about a breakup. He’s friends with the captain (Henry Stephenson), and together they hatch a plot to cheer her up.
John jumps into a lifeboat and pretends he is a stowaway who needs her help. But if he had know what a drama queen Pam is, he may not have chosen such a romantic scheme! She immediately promises to help him, and spends the next few days bringing him food and other essentials. This means that poor John has to hang out in the lifeboat instead of his comfortable suite, but the captain sets lookouts who alert John to Pam’s location so he can sneak away once in awhile.
After several uncomfortable days hiding in a lifeboat, John decides to end the charade. The captain sends sailors to “catch” the stowaway, but Pam jumps off the ship to distract them and allow John to get away!
It’s an incredibly stupid thing to do, but fortunately she doesn’t drown, and neither does John, who jumps in to save her. After their rescue, the captain accidentally exposes the whole dumb plot in front of Pam, who is terribly embarrassed and furious to learn that John is a millionaire in the pineapple business, not a stowaway.
That evening, John attempts to apologize, but Pam refuses to listen. At first. Eventually, he wins her over and they become pals. He is awfully handsome!
John still doesn’t know that Pam was rehearsing lines, so he walks with her in the moonlight and tenderly promises that she will learn to love again. He’s just trying to give a heartbroken young lady some hope, but Pam thinks he is proposing! She grandly but sweetly refuses, thanks him for the gift of his love, and sweeps offstage. John is bewildered, as are most normal people after an encounter with Pam.
The ship docks in Honolulu and Georgia arrives to welcome her daughter. As she makes her way up the gangplank, she runs smack into John. It’s quite a cliched meet cute, but maybe it wasn’t so overused in 1940.
It’s almost love at first sight for the pair, but Georgia has to hurry off to find her daughter. The two pack up Pam’s gorgeous striped trunk and suitcases while Pam gushes about her new suitor.
Georgia is surprised and a little worried, but Pam assures her that she isn’t going to marry him even though he asked (he didn’t.) But she is thrilled to have enjoyed a love affair! (She didn’t.)
Back at the palatial Hawaiian estate, Pam tells Sara about the wonderful new play and her fantastic starring role. Fun fact: this film’s working title was It Happened in Kaloha because of the Hawaiian setting. (Notice the pineapple statue on the coffee table: it reminds me of these! Everything comes back around.)
Pam’s chatter about her play doesn’t include any specifics, so when Georgia arrives and delivers the same monologue that Pam has been rehearsing, Pam is the only one who realizes that they have both been preparing to star as St. Anne. Awkward!
Up to this point, Pam has been nearly narcissistic in her self-absorption, but she suddenly becomes selfless. She decides that her mother should play St. Anne, and she determines that Georgia must never know that Simpson and Ober wanted Pam, instead.
Pam’s sacrifice requires some subterfuge. Simpson and Ober found out that Pam went to Hawaii, so they call Georgia to discuss the situation. But she foils their attempt to fire her mother by intercepting the call from the cable company announcing that the pair will call Georgia that evening.
The cable (a telegram that is sent via undersea cables) arrives at the cable office, where the telegraph operator calls Georgia (it’s really Pam) and reads it over the phone. She offers to send the actual cable over, but Pam says it’s not necessary. I’m fascinated by these little details, as you can see from my History Through Hollywood series. For example, if you’d like to know more about cables and telegrams, head over to my History Through Hollywood: 3rd Edition!
Now Pam needs to get Georgia out of the house so that she misses the call. So she arranges a dinner with John.
That evening, Pam drags a wary Georgia to dine with a very confused John. He definitely wasn’t expecting Pam’s mother to be none other than famous, beautiful Georgia Drake, his favorite actress. And Georgia wasn’t expecting her daughter’s suitor to be in his forties! Plus, she’s a little bummed that he’s the man she met on the gangplank. Extra awkward!
Pam inadvertently makes things more complicated when she rushes home to take the phone call from Simpson. Sara overhears and realizes that Pam was asked to play St. Anne, but she promises not to tell. Also, Simpson tells Pam that if she refuses to play the part, they will hire another young actress so Georgia won’t get the role, regardless! He says he and Ober are coming to Hawaii to discuss it, so Pam now has about a week to figure out what to do.
Meanwhile, John and Georgia are hitting it off which makes Pam’s “romance” with John even ickier and more inconvenient.
There is some amusing double entendre at dinner concerning John and Pam’s relationship (that he doesn’t realize exists), but it’s not nearly as funny as the pregnancy-tinged jokes in Nancy Goes to Rio.
There’s also a funny running gag concerning a fake get-out-of-dinner phone call that John arranged with a waiter (Fritz Feld) because he didn’t want to take this weird teen and her frumpy mother to dinner. But he’s delighted to spend time with Georgia, so he keeps sending the waiter away even when he announces that a friend broke his leg or John’s house is on fire! Georgia figures out what’s going on, but she’s flattered that he wants to stay.
After the phone call, Pam returns and the trio have a lovely evening. They decide to spend more time together, and they enjoy several “dates” over the next few days. Georgia tries to discern if John is really interested in her daughter, and Pam notices how well John and her mother get along. Sara watches it all with confusion. Which “Miss Drake” does this guy want?!
We know that John isn’t actually interested in Pam, but you’d think he’d be able to make his romantic interest more obvious! Pam is delusional, but John is still giving her enough attention to maintain her belief that he loves her, and to make Georgia question his intentions. It’s never good if two women think the same man wants to marry them at the same time, and it’s extra creepy when it’s a mother and daughter! Get it together, John.
Finally, John decides to propose to Georgia. He takes both ladies to a party and arranges for the governor (Eugene Pallette) to ask Pam to sing so he can have a few minutes alone with Georgia.
But his ardent gaze makes Georgia think he really does love her daughter.
Fun fact: Pam sings “Musetta’s Street Song” from Puccini’s La Bohéme (the same song that Jane Powell performed in the same scene in Nancy Goes to Rio). You can watch it here:
But eventually John snaps out of his Pam reverie and remembers his plan. He escorts Georgia outside and begins his proposal, but of course he is so vague that Georgia thinks he is asking for her permission to marry Pam! She is thrilled when he finally uses first names (come on, moron! so much confusion could have been avoided) and realizes he wants her!
Costume appreciation break. Kay Francis rocks gold lamé and turbans better than most. Ultra-glam.
The costumes were designed by Universal’s house designer Vera West, who is most famous for her work on Universal’s classic horror films, including The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Here she is with Durbin:
Back to the film! After Pam’s song, she goes to find John and basically proposes to him. At the same time, Simpson and Ober arrive and find Georgia. But before they tell her that they want Pam to play St. Anne, Georgia resigns from the play because she wants to take a break from the stage for a few years after her marriage. That worked out!
But Pam has a mini-meltdown when the governor announces Georgia and John’s engagement.
Fortunately, her over-the-top reaction convinces everyone, including her mother, how perfect she is to play St. Anne. Georgia turns to Simpson and Ober and tells them that Pam should take the role! Great idea, Georgia. Cut to Broadway!
In a lovely echo of the opening, we see Georgia and John watching Pam kill it onstage.
Pam performs “Ave Maria” in a nun’s habit. It’s gorgeous, but also a very solemn song to choose as the finale of the movie. It’s A Date is a lighthearted romp with comic misunderstandings, so to end it with such a sacred song feels tonally wrong.
Nancy Goes to Rio took a different approach and put Powell in hot pink sparkles for a jaunty dance number. Pink sequins/nun’s habit. Potato/potah-to.
So everything worked out! Pam got her big break and Georgia got her handsome millionaire hunk. Hurray!
The end credits roll and deliver this weird surprise: Sara’s last name is Frankenstein! WHAT?! And WHY?!
Universal started production of this film two days after Christmas in 1939, and it sped into theaters by March 19, 1940. It was a hit, as was typical for a Deanna Durbin movie.
The New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent commented on Durbin’s bulletproof box office power in his write-up of the film:
Miss Deanna Durbin seems to inspire everybody, including her producers. Only a guardian angel could so infallibly guarantee the success of her plots, which run the dramatic gamut all the way from Cinderella, as in “First Love,” to the one about the famous actress’s daughter who takes the lift to fame just as Mama is coming down, as in “It’s a Date”…The important features are still Deanna herself and the young-girlish magic which she is able to evoke with her pretty personality and (in the circumstances, her phenomenal vocal cords.) The combination of both apparently is proof against all the conventional cinematic pitfalls: A plot which leaks at every pore; a screen play which is extremely complicated, even for Norman Krasna; and direction which, though sporadically sparkling, begins to take on a slightly unceremonious quality…
Nugent writes that despite the film’s flaws, it’s still “a practically compulsory rendezvous.” After all, “slightness and fragility, even in a plot, become Miss Durbin no end, like the costumes designed for her by Vera West, and the music, so tastefully tailor-made by Charles Previn. It is, in the main, a charming, if highly improbable, entertainment, considerably abetted by the presence of Kay Francis, Walter Pidgeon, Samuel S. Hinds, and S. Z. Sakall…”
Film Daily‘s review was more effusive, noting that “Everything any audience could ask for is encompassed in the picture. There is bright humor, plenty of romance, delightful music, pleasing players, and enchanting backgrounds in Hawaii.”
The review was full of praise for the star, too, “Miss Durbin has come a long way from her original venture in films as a charming young girl with a delightful voice. Overnight she has become a top-flight, full-fledged star in the grown-up category, and is definitely one of the greatest box-office attractions any company can offer.”
With a record like Durbin’s, it’s no surprise that Universal kept her busy. Pasternak immediately got to work producing his eighth film with the star, Spring Parade (1940), which premiered in September. Nice Girl? (1941), also produced by Pasternak and directed by Seiter, premiered the next February, followed by It Started With Eve (1941) in September. (Seiter would direct two more Durbin pictures: I’ll Be Yours (1947), and Up in Central Park (1948)).
Once Pasternak moved to MGM in 1941, Durbin worked with other producers. She kept making movies through the 1940s and branched out to dramas and film noir. She retired from show business in 1949 at the age of 26 after making 21 feature films over twelve years. You can read about her last movie, For the Love of Mary (1948), here.