Western RoundUp: Can’t Help Singing

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.

Cant Help Singing Lobby Card 1

The movie boasts a score by the great Jerome Kern (Show Boat), with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg (The Wizard of Oz).  It was one of the Kern’s final scores before he passed away in November 1945.

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).

Cant Help Singing Deanna Durbin portrait with hat 3
Deanna Durbin

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.

Deanna Durbin Robert Paige Can't Help Singing
Deanna Durbin and Robert Paige

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.

Cant Help Singing Poster 2
In beautiful Technicolor

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!  

Cant Help Singing Deanna Durbin gown in forest 6

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.

Cant Help Singing Poster 3

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!

Cant Help Singing Finale Deanna Durbin Portrait

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

You can read all of Laura’s Western RoundUp columns here.

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.

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5 Responses to Western RoundUp: Can’t Help Singing

  1. Paul Malamphy says:

    A very enjoyable article. I too found this film very entertaining. Of course Kern wrote an earlier great outdoors musical called “High, Wide and Handsome” 1937 with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein ll and starring another soprano, Irene Dunne who introduces the song “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”. The western musicals were full of sopranos all the way back to “Rio Rita” 1929 with Bebe Daniels, “The Rose of the Rancho” 1935 with Gladys Swarthout and Jeanette MacDonald in “The Girl of the Golden West” 1938 opposite baritone Nelson Eddy who would also go on to make musical westerns “Let Freedom Ring” 1938 and “Northwest Outpost” 1947.

    • Kenneth Henderson says:

      Jeanette also did The Firefly(1937) with Allan Jones.

      Can’t Help Singing(1944) was scheduled with two other films for Vol 2 of the Deanna Durbin Collection from Kino Lorber on Blu Ray but the release was cancelled because the first volume did not sell well enough to go further. Luckily, I have the DVD and love the film but I was looking forward to the Blu Ray. Universal made few color films in the 2nd WW period and this was one beauty and the other was the color remake of The Phantom of the Opera(1943).

  2. Laura Grieve says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks so much for your comments. That’s a great catch to mention Kern’s HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME. One of my favorite early movie-going memories was seeing that film at a revival theater in Los Angeles. “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” has always stayed with me, a very special song and scene.

    You make a good point mentioning the Western musicals released prior to the ’40s. I was especially pleasantly surprised by LET FREEDOM RING with Nelson Eddy.

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

    Best wishes,

  3. Jerry Entract says:

    Hi Laura
    Bending the original subject slightly – I have a very special feeling for Peggy Lee’s beautiful Capitol recording of “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” on which she is accompanied by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra (his arrangement too) conducted by Frank Sinatra.
    Happy New Year (we hope!)

  4. berigan2electricboogaloo says:

    very nice review! I need to revisit this film again, it’s been a long time. I sadly bought into the lie that her later films(not that this film is THAT late) were lower budgeted affairs, with weak plots. Nothing could be further from the truth! Shame so few classic film fans have seen her work…

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