Starring Deanna Durbin, Herbert Marshall, Gail Patrick, and Arthur Treacher
My rating: ★★ stars
Wholesome, overly sweet Durbin vehicle lacks appeal for modern viewers.
Mad About Music would be inscrutable for modern audiences. Like most Deanna Durbin vehicles, it’s a confection of a movie with a slight plot and sweet, well-intentioned characters, except for a bad egg or two to cause conflict. Even the bad ‘uns in Deanna Durbin movies are not truly bad—they’re usually just spiteful or self-centered.
Since the 1950s, we viewers have become accustomed to movies about teenagers being directed toward a teenage audience. The adolescents in these films are presented as with-it and mature, with the capabilities of adults. Mad About Music, however, is made for a family audience with a large percentage of adults. The film presents adolescents as children, with the needs and emotional lives of children.
Gloria Harkinson (Deanna Durbin) is the neglected daughter of movie star Gwen Taylor (Gail Patrick). Gwen’s manager (William Frawley, of I Love Lucy fame) has convinced Gwen to send Gloria to boarding school in Switzerland and to keep her existence a secret, believing that Gwen’s career would be compromised if audiences knew she was old enough to have a 14-year-old daughter. (In reality, Patrick was only ten years older than Durbin.)
Gloria longs for parental attention, so she invents an explorer father who sends her letters and exotic gifts (provided by her oblivious mother who wonders why her daughter asks for such things as elephant tusks). When mean girl Felice (Helen Parrish) begins to suspect that Gloria’s story about her father might not be on the level, Gloria must find a way to save face and keep up her charade.
Enter Richard Todd (Herbert Marshall), a bachelor composer whom Gloria picks up at the train station and convinces to play her father for the day. Mad About Music exists in a world where it’s perfectly safe for a 14-year-old girl to pick up a strange man at a train station and ask him to be her daddy and it’s not at all creepy for him to agree.
The innocence of Mad About Music is typical for the early Durbin films. Some of them come off as charming throwbacks; others seem hopelessly treacly. Unfortunately, Mad About Music falls into the latter category. As plucky and engaging as Durbin is, this film simply is too much of an antique. The complete lack of sophistication makes it hard going for modern adult viewers. It’s hard to imagine, but the film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Writing, Original Story. The other nominations were for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Music, Scoring. However, 1938 was one of those years when each studio submitted a film for nomination in the lesser categories, and Mad about Music was Universal’s choice to be nominated. However, Best Writing, Original Story was a category where the nominees were chosen by members of the Writers Guild on a competitive basis without regard to studio.
The overall filmmaking is competent. Nothing is lacking in the direction from Oscar-winner Norman Taurog (Skippy), who would be nominated for directing Boys’ Town for 1938. The performances by Durbin, Patrick, Marshall, and Arthur Treacher as Marshall’s secretary are all fine. The performances by youthful actors Parrish, Marcia Mae Jones, and Jackie Moran are above average for the time. Durbin is her winning self. Yet, there’s nothing to excite the viewers, to draw our attention.
Lesser Durbin vehicles can often be redeemed by the musical numbers, but the ones in this film aren’t very good. Two of the original songs, “Chapel Bells” and “A Serenade to the Stars,” aren’t memorable at all. The other original song, “I Love to Whistle,” is memorable in the worst way. It’s repeated enough in the movie that viewers may end up with the world’s most irritating earworm when it’s over. The fourth number is a somnolent version of “Ave Maria.”
I like Deanna Durbin movies. I often find their innocence appealing. But Mad About Music, a hit in its time (the 13th highest grossing movie of 1938), ages poorly. It’s too unsophisticated, too sweet. It lacks the spark that, in other Durbin films, makes these qualities charming.