Starring Deanna Durbin, Donald O’Connor, and John Dall
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Fun musical romantic comedy elevated by Durbin’s winning personality.
Something in the Wind comes late in the career of Deanna Durbin. She would retire a year later at the age of 26. Prior to this film, she had made 18 features, all vehicles for her unique talent. With few exceptions (see Christmas Holiday) her characters were bright, unassuming, determined, wide-eyed innocents, consummate good girls. They were usually from a lower social class or otherwise powerless position, who persevere and succeed through their determination, wit, and overwhelming niceness. And their singing ability. Deanna Durbin’s voice was powerful enough to overcome any obstacle.
In the 1930s, her films rescued Universal Pictures from financial ruin the way that Shirley Temple’s saved 20th Century Fox. They provided a balm for audiences besieged by the Great Depression and World War II, reassuring them that goodness would always be rewarded. Her retirement in 1948 prevented her from having to transition into more complex adult roles.
Something in the Wind, though, was a bit of a departure for her. Like many of her 1940s films, it was a musical romantic comedy. However, her character is feistier than her usual portrayals. In the film, she plays Mary Collins, an up-and-coming disc jockey, who is mistaken by the wealthy Read family for the mistress of their recently departed patriarch. The family, led by the deceased’s grandson, Donald Read (John Dall), offers her a financial settlement in exchange for giving up future claims to the estate. Read’s high-handedness and supercilious manner infuriates her, and she refuses his offer without an explanation, allowing the problem of mistaken identity to continue.
This type of plot, based on misunderstanding, has its roots in farce, and the film presents several farcical moments, involving more misunderstandings, people eavesdropping, and the quick use of doorways. As a comedy, the film is funny enough. Durbin was no comedienne, but her understated delivery of smart comebacks provides laughs where a more deliberate style would not have.
Three of the musical performances are comical—unusual for Durbin films, which generally feature traditional or operatic songs. Two are delivered by Donald O’Connor as Read’s penniless cousin Charlie. His solo number, “I Love a Mystery,” is rightly considered a classic routine. Fans of his iconic song and dance from Singin’ in the Rain, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” will appreciate it and find in it the seeds of that later routine. He also dances the final number, pretending to be an incompetent dancer undermining the performance of a group of ballerinas. The song “Happy Go Lucky and Free” is sung by Mary. The third comic number is a saucy ditty—“You Want to Keep Your Baby Looking Nice”—that Mary sings while draping herself over Donald to cause problems between him and his prudish fiancée.
The best song in the movie is the peppy opening number, “The Turntable Song,” which would be the last hit record from any Durbin film. Two romantic ballads, the title tune and “It’s Only Love,” prove forgettable. The requisite operatic number, “Miserere” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which Durbin performs with actor and opera singer Jan Peerce, is underscored by a fun bit of comedy involving keys to a jail cell.
In the course of the film, Mary and Read fall in love. Surprisingly, there is a scene that suggests they have some “special alone time.” What goes on during that period is left to the viewers’ imaginations, naturally, given the era of the film.
Mary and Read’s romance, however, is thwarted by his grandmother’s belief that he should not marry someone out of his class. At this point, the plot becomes trite. But the film remains interesting because of Durbin’s winning performance.
Dall’s film persona always suggested that he was a little twisted (or, perhaps, the impression results from his most famous movies being Rope and Gun Crazy, where he played characters more than a little twisted). As a result, he seems miscast as a romantic comedy leading man. He doesn’t have the light touch and the charm needed for this type of movie. Despite the miscasting, though, he turns in a fine performance, bringing depth to a slight role.
O’Connor is, as expected, a standout as Dall’s sidekick, stealing most of the scenes that he’s in. The film also features strong supporting performances from classic character actors Charles Winninger and Margaret Wycherly, as Dall’s uncle and grandmother.
The director, Irvin Pichel, was a journeyman who directed a few very good films but no great ones. His most interesting film, They Won’t Believe Me, also dates from 1947. The quality of his films had been increasing over the 1940s, but the early 1950s saw him blacklisted. He died shortly thereafter.
Something in the Wind is a solid romantic comedy. But it is Durbin’s appealing personality that elevates it above being just merely good. As the film is a vehicle for Durbin, the viewers’ enjoyment will depend largely on how they respond to her. Durbin fans may find this snappier, sassier character jarring, but, for me, it’s a welcome change, showing her developing breadth as a performer.