Can’t Help Singing: A Western Musical!
Last December I ended the year here writing on a dark topic, “Noir-Tinged Westerns,” so I thought this December I’d write about something completely different, a color Western musical!
That musical is Can’t Help Singing, a 1944 Universal Pictures film starring Deanna Durbin.
Can’t Help Singing was directed by Frank Ryan from a screenplay by Lewis R. Foster and Frank Ryan, based on the novel Girl of the Overland Trail by Samuel J. and Curtis B. Warshawsky.
Deanna plays Caroline Frost, who lives in Washington, D.C., with her father, Senator Frost (Ray Collins).
Senator Frost is anxious to break up Caroline’s romance with Lt. Robert Latham (David Bruce), a Cavalry officer the senator (with good reason) doesn’t find trustworthy or admirable. The senator has Lt. Latham abruptly sent to California, so Caroline decides to run away from home, heading west to find and marry her lieutenant.
Caroline buys a broken-down wagon and convinces gambler Johnny Lawlor (Robert Paige) to escort her West. She’s also shadowed by a pair of Russian emigres, Gregory and Koppa (Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey), who want to steal her trunk but end up being harmless comic relief, especially when Caroline briefly pretends to be married to Gregory.
Caroline just misses finding Lt. Latham on multiple occasions, but she’s not particularly disappointed, as during the wagon train journey she finds she’s come to love Johnny instead.
Can’t Help Singing may not be Durbin’s best film, particularly as the latter half of the film is a bit choppy; this may be partially due to the studio having to cut down the film schedule due to shooting delays on the movie’s Utah locations. (More on the consequences of the abbreviated shooting schedule below.) I also would have preferred less of Tamiroff and Kinskey, and more of Durbin and Paige’s romance. But honestly, these are minor quibbles in a film which gives the viewer so much joy.
Deanna and the film’s Utah locations look absolutely stunning in Technicolor; she’s truly “pretty as a picture” as spunky, determined Caroline. It’s remarkable to note this was Durbin’s only Technicolor movie in a highly successful film career which spanned a dozen years. And what a delight that the covered wagon storyline got her out of the studio and into the Utah sunshine!
The lilting title song, sung on multiple occasions in the film, always brings a smile to my face, particularly when Durbin duets it with Paige in a frontier town’s public bathhouse. It’s a rare treat that Deanna shared the screen with a leading man with an excellent singing voice. Paige isn’t well-remembered today, but he does a fine job in the film playing a likeable scoundrel who’s the right match for headstrong Caroline.
There have also been few Durbin numbers as thrilling as “Any Moment Now,” performed at the Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah. Much of the film features beautiful location filming by Woody Bredell and W. Howard Greene, which also took place around Kanab, Utah and in California’s San Bernardino Mountains. The movie’s Utah locations included a fort originally built for the 20th Century-Fox film Buffalo Bill (1944), which starred Joel McCrea.
Historian James V. D’Arc, in his 2010 book When Hollywood Came to Utah, noted that Variety’s review at the time of the film’s release commented “Exterior locations in Utah are tops for scenic values, with the color photography accentuating the overall eye appeal.” That opinion still holds today, over 75 years later.
I would love more film fans to get to know the work of Deanna Durbin, whose movies have brought me great happiness. Jeanine Basinger aptly wrote in The Movie Musical! (2019) that “The genius of the Durbin career was that the movies she was in were designed to let her sing for joy, a joy that came across to the audience.” My spirits are always lifted watching a Durbin musical.
Durbin was one of the screen’s most unique performers, possessed not only of a fine singing voice but a confident and serene yet playful persona which rendered her instantly likeable to movie audiences, even when her character was a bit of a pill, as is the case here. We forgive her lying and silly choices because, well…she’s Deanna Durbin!
The actress apparently sometimes had a whimsical personality offscreen as well. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that during the final “Californ-i-ay” musical sequence, there’s a dissolve to a water fountain midway through the number, after which Deanna is wearing a completely different gown!
Costume designer Walter Plunkett explained in John Kobal’s 1971 book Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals that filming had been delayed due to bad weather and the studio needed to rein in the budget: “When we got to the end…they wanted to cut a sequence. She had two left to shoot and I had designed an elaborate ball gown for each. They didn’t know which sequence to cut… So they hit on the idea of asking her which dress she preferred, and that was going to decide the sequence they would shoot. But Deanna couldn’t make up her mind; she liked them both, so for the big musical finale with chorus and all the trimmings, she wore both, first one, then for the next verse the other. Nobody noticed, I don’t think, and anyway, that sort of thing is OK in a musical!”
Speaking of music, it should be noted that Kern received Oscar nominations for this film for both Best Scoring and, with lyricist Harburg, Best Song, “More and More.”
There are a handful of additional musicals about life on the Western frontier, including The Harvey Girls (1946), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Oklahoma! (1955), and Paint Your Wagon (1969), but movie musicals with that theme aren’t great in number, making this film even more of a delight for those who love both the Western and musical genres. And for Western fans who may be dubious about musicals, why not give this one a try? It’s brought me considerable pleasure on multiple viewings.
Best wishes to all my readers for a happy, healthy New Year!
— Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.