In a fit of perversity I reached for my old, unwatched VHS tape of HIS BUTLER’S SISTER, which is ironically one of the very few Frank Borzage films you can buy in the U.K. on DVD (blame the Deanna Durbin Box Set for this one’s availability). I thought I might like to try a very minor F.B. film since I was in danger of overdosing on masterpieces. LIVING ON VELVET and THE MORTAL STORM and MAN’S CASTLE and A FAREWELL TO ARMS are quite rich, quite emotional, and to some extent aim for the same kinds of sublimity and ecstasy, and the last thing I wanted was to burn out. This one seemed like a total change of pace.
I also wanted to see something from the years before MOONRISE but after Borzage’s peak period (usually given as late ’20s to very early ’40s), when he was also supposed to be combatting a drinking problem, and when he seems to have been assigned a few atypical projects that may not have been perfectly suited to his talents. This light musical comedy might be one of them.
It also has a weirdly duff title, a phrase that makes my head throb dully as I scan it for any implied drama or humour or promise of entertainment. Why would you call a film HIS BUTLER’S SISTER? If you would, then why not follow it with HER PODIATRIST’S COUSIN or THEIR MILKMAN’S FATHER-IN-LAW? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like taking something that isn’t interesting, and then placing it at two removes so you can’t quite get it in focus. I mean, Deanna Durbin actually plays a singer: that’s quite interesting, or at least lots of people in the ’40s thought it was. But we pass over that in this wretched title, focussing instead on her status as a sibling. OK, so she has a brother. And he’s a butler, you say? Well, I don’t see what business that is of mine, but I’m willing to accept your word for it. And then the addition of HIS, adding to the whole rigmarole a third character about whom we are to know nothing except that he has a butler who has a sister. WHY???
The only way I can think of to further disimprove this title would be either to add a third layer of character filtration, as in HIS BUTLER’S SISTER’S SCHNAUSER, or to just give up and call it HIS BUTLER’S QUANTUM OF SOLACE.
But, as the credits role, hope springs! Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein (Google his credits and goggle in awe) and Elizabeth Reinhardt (far fewer amazing titles, but she collaborated with the Hoff on CLUNY BROWN, a favourite here at the Shadowplayhouse). Then we get an amusing novelty number, sung and danced at Franchot Tone in a train corridor. Franchot is a songwriter who’s sick of amateurs pitching their numbers at him. He’s also a broadway producer or something, on his way to Cleveland (?), and Deanna Durbin is a young hopeful bound for New York and HERE SHE COMES —
Borzage follows her back through two entire carriages, preparatory to the big reveal of her face, and WOW she’s at her absolute peak of beauty. I’m not, despite my celebration of CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, a special Durbinite (my maternal grandmother loved her films though), finding her usual stuff a bit maybe saccharine, but she has enormous charm and this movie seems to be the one that captures her beauty just as she had left childhood behind. Oh boy, now I’m going to Google her and learn she was 14 and I’ll look like a pervert. No, we’re OK, she’s 22.
Anyway the film is light and nice, although the writers perhaps need the Lubitsch touch to hit the heights, and the plot depends heavily on coincidence. Then there’s the menfolk. Pat O’Brien? Why not just fill a burlap sack with gravel and point a camera at that? And Franchot Tone? I have a sort of affection for him based on his playing a daffy psycho in PHANTOM LADY, which is a gloriously comic-book noir that captures some of the unreality of Cornell Wollrich’s novel. But Tone is a strange choice to pair with Durbin: don’t we want somebody a little more innocuous? Still, it’s a relief he makes it through the movie without having his head kicked in (this was always happening to Tone in real life: one episode of The Twilight Zone that he stars in shows him perpetually in profile, like Dick Tracy, because the more distant side of his face looked like the Somme).
But Deanna’s introductory shot, which smacks of THE NARROW MARGIN only nine years earlier, is enough to convince me that Borzage’s rumoured drinking problem didn’t stop him coming up with bold and beautiful visual stratagems. I’m now inclined to believe that absolutely everything he’s made deserves full investigation. STAGE DOOR CANTEEN beckons…