August 2, 2016
“Film for film, William A. Seiter may have given more pleasure to more people than any other director of the classical Hollywood era.” – Dave Kehr, Film Comment
William A. Seiter made companionable films, ones populated with sly comic actors given room to work. He started directing silent short comedies in 1915 and ended working on the television sitcom The Gale Storm Show in 1960. In between he was a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. Less known today are the four 1940s musical comedies he made with star Deanna “Winnipeg’s Sweetheart” Durbin, a cute Canadian teen with a legit soprano singing voice who became a sensation, and was the highest paid actress in Hollywood by 1947 (she retired the following year at age 26). Warner Archive released the first of these, It’s A Date (1940), on DVD last month, and it’s a divertingly funny love triangle, pitting mother (Kay Francis) and daughter (Durbin) against each other for a plum acting role as well as the love of Walter Pidgeon. The set-up is a frame for Seiter and cast to hang gags on, and the deep bench of character players includes Eugene Pallette, Samuel S. Hinds, and S.Z. Sakall.
By the time Seiter joined the Deanna Durbin team, Universal had already hit upon a successful formula. Producer Joe Pasternak would select tales of problem-solving pluck that would provide excuses for Durbin to sing operatic solos. It’s a Date is no different, though it makes some concessions to her advancing age (she started in features at 14, and was now 19), by introducing the possibility of love and marriage in the person of the much older Walter Pidgeon, though he eventually falls for Kay Francis to keep Durbin’s squeaky clean image intact.
The screenplay, by Norman Krasna, has a tidy structure in which famed stage diva Georgia Drake (Francis) slowly cedes center stage to her irrepressible daughter Pamela. The fulcrum point is the casting of the new play by Carl Ober (S.Z. Sakall) to be directed by Sidney Simpson (Samuel S. Hinds). The theatrical duo initially offers the role to Georgia, but do an about face after seeing Pamela perform the lead part in a dress rehearsal. Pamela, without knowing her mother has already accepted the part, readily agrees to take it on as her first big break. She sails to see Georgia in Honolulu, and meets the prankster John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon) on board. Seeing her rehearse her lines of the romantic tragedy, he believes she is depressed, and tries to pull her out of it with some ingenious flirtation.
Once Pamela learns that she is replacing her mother in the play, she vows to quit the part without Georgia finding out. She is so disillusioned by the whole business she plans on marrying John and ditching stage life forever. But of course things don’t work out that way. John falls for Georgia, Georgia is intrigued but would rather not steal her daughter’s boyfriend, and Pamela goes to elaborate lengths to hide the secret about the role she is desperately trying to quit. It makes for effective farce, and the whole cast is game to keep the machinery moving. Seiter uses rhyming shots to keep the comparison between mother and daughter going. At an opening night party Pamela decides to make a grand entrance by waltzing in and laughing heartily, unbeknownst to her, Georgia is making a similar entrance across the room, and in a couture gown to boot (Francis is impeccably dressed throughout). Pamela is always getting upstaged, that is until Carl Ober sees her manic energy on display and decides she is perfect for his play. And Durbin is an effective motormouth, chewing off pages of dialogue with bright-eyed energy. I could do without her soprano solos, which are sung in extreme close-ups which grind the story to a halt, but it is one of those boxes a Durbin film had to tick.
Hinds and Sakall act less like theatrical impresarios than indulgent uncles buying their precocious niece the prettiest toy in the store. Sakall is bubbly, Hinds is cool, but both coo at Durbin with undisguised adoration. The other man she entrances is John Arlen, a traveling playboy who falls for her idiosyncratic charms. He first sees her through a porthole, rehearsing her lines out the to balcony in the ocean. But he thinks the sad lines she is stating are real, so concocts a scheme to cheer her up. He pretends to be a stowaway, which immediately fires up Pamela’s imagination, and soon she is bribing the staff to bring him food and engineering plans to sneak him offshore (he’ll wear her clothes). This whole ship sequence is a series of gags with little impact on the plot, but it gives Seiter, Durbin and Pidgeon a lot to play with. Each character has an imbalance of information that makes them seem the fool. On the ship it’s Arlen, but once off of it Pamela goes in the dark, as the adult flirtation between him and Georgia flies above her head.
All the clanking machinery comes together at a Governor’s Ball in Honolulu (the honking Eugene Pallette is the good-natured governor), in which Hinds and Sakall tumble in to break the casting news to Georgia, while John is going to propose to her. Pamela, meanwhile, is convinced John is going to propose to her. The stentorian Pidgeon is convincing as a ladies man flustered for the first time. He sweats through his proposal with suavity while Durbin belts out “Musetta’s Street Song” from La Boheme. It’s well-orchestrated chaos overseen by Seiter and the Durbin star machine. Like most Seiter productions, it’s a warm, winning diversion in which the cast is having a ball and invites you in on the joke.