Watching 1939: First Love (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
First Love (1939)

Release date: 
Nov. 8, 1939

Deanna Durbin, Robert Stack, Helen Parrish, Eugene Pallette, Leatrice Joy, Lewis Howard, Mary Treen, Frank Jenks, June Storey, Kathleen Howard, Charles Coleman, Thurston Hall, Marcie Mae Jones

Universal Studios

Henry Koster

Connie Harding (Durbin) was orphaned when her parents died, and her Cncle James Clinton (Pallette) has been paying for her go to boarding school. When she graduates, Connie goes to New York to live with her uncle and his family – her flighty Aunt Grace (Joy), glamour girl brat cousin Barbara (Parrish) and lazy cousin Walter (Howard). No one seems interested in Connie, who becomes lonely but befriends the household staff (Treen, Howard, Coleman). Connie happens to meet Ted Drake (Stack), while she is doing a favor for Barbara (who bosses her around). Connie develops a crush on Ted and is excited when she is going to attend a ball with her family that the Drakes are throwing. Barbara, who also likes Ted, tries to prevent Connie from going to the ball. But with the help of the servants, Connie is able to attend.

1939 Notes:
• First film of Robert Stack
• Actress Leatrice Joy’s first movie since 1930.
• First film of Lewis Howard.
By the numbers:
– Deanna Durbin was in two films released in 1939.
– Helen Parrish was in three films released in 1939.
– Leatrice Joy’s only film of 1939.
– Eugene Pallette was in three films released in 1939.
– Mary Treen was in five feature-length films released in 1939.
– Thurston Hall was in 16 films released in 1939.
– Marcia Mae Jones was in four films released in 1939.
– Charles Coleman was in 11 films released in 1939.

Deanna Durbin and Robert Stack in “First Love”

Other trivia: 
• Deanna Durbin receives her first on-screen kiss in “First Love” (1939). The kiss made newspaper front pages, according to a 1987 interview with Robert Stack.
• Director, producer Henry Koster said he met his wife on the set of this film, Peggy Moran. Moran played a small role as one of the students at Durbin’s school, according to the 1987 book “Henry Koster” by Irene Kahn Atkins.

Notable Songs:
• “Amapola” performed by Deanna Durbin
• “Spring in My Heart” performed by Deanna Durbin
• “One Fine Day” performed by Deanna Durbin

Helen Parrish and Deanna Durbin

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
I have to burst into this review saying how much I love “First Love” (1939).

From the first few moments of the film, I was entranced by the story and Deanna Durbin, and teary by the sweet tenderness of the characters and story.

But aside from loving this film, it is also an important one.

In “First Love,” Deanna Durbin plays Connie, an orphan who just graduated from boarding school. She has to leave her friends and the school – which she now considers home – to live with her aunt, uncle and cousins in New York City. Her uncle has been funding her schooling and singing lessons since her parents died. Upon arriving, she’s lonely and no one seems interested in her. Her cousins are bratty and selfish, her aunt is flighty, and her uncle is too buried in his work, constantly wanting silence.

The household staff befriends Connie, and Connie meets handsome society teen Ted Drake, played by Robert Stack in his first film role. Unfortunately, Connie’s bratty cousin Barbara, played by Helen Parrish, also likes Ted, and sabotages Connie from going to a dress ball held at his family’s home. The joke’s on Barbara though, because the servants help Connie get to the ball – but let her know she has to leave by 12 a.m.

Since she was 14 years old, Deanna Durbin had been appearing in films. While she was a young teen, many of her roles were of the younger nature.

But by 1939, the 18-year-old opera singing actress was allowed to grow up and have a romantic leading man AND receive her first on-screen kiss.

“The kiss was a big event at the time. It made newspaper front pages,” Robert Stack said in a 1987 interview with James Bawden.

This film is also notable because it’s Robert Stack’s first film. At age 19, Stack is adorably handsome. He doesn’t have much to do but he’s an appealing leading teen.

As always, Durbin is vibrant, sweet and wonderful. At the very start of the film, she tugs at your heart strings as she eagerly looks for her aunt and uncle to see if they came to her graduation. Or when she sings “There’s No Place Like Home” to her classmates and breaks down when she thinks of the family she really doesn’t have.

But I don’t want you to think this film is a downer. There are several humorous scenes, particularly when the household staff helps Durbin.

“First Love” is an adaptation of “Cinderella,” but director Henry Koster worried some parts were too subtle. For example, rather than mean stepsisters, Connie Cinderella has mean cousins – a male and female. Or when Connie is being taken to the ball, she’s escourted by six white motorcycles, like six white mice in the story, according to an interview in Irene Kahn Atkins book on Koster.

However, as a viewer today, I think it’s obvious that it’s a “Cinderella” story, particularly with situations at the ball and having to leave at midnight.

Outside of being a delightful story, we also get to hear Deanna Durbin sing which is always a delight. Known for her opera singing, Durbin performs two of my favorites in this film: “Amapola” and “Spring in My Heart.”

Durbin was already a major star at Universal, but 1939 was important for her career because “First Love” allowed her to grow up into a young lady. – as audiences had been watching her grow up on screen since 1936.

And in addition to this importance, “First Love” is just a plain wonderful movie. You’ll laugh and maybe cry a little, but it’s so lovely, you will be enchanted like I was.

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