First Love

Review by
Robert W. Franson
& Jennifer M. Franson

Director: Henry Koster
Writers: Bruce Manning, Lionel Hauser;
  Stephen Morehouse Avery;
  Henry Myers, Gertrude Purcell


  • Deanna Durbin — Constance Harding
  • Kathleen Howard — Miss Wiggins, headmistress
  • Eugene Pallette — James Clinton
  • Leatrice Joy — Grace Shute Clinton
  • Helen Parrish — Barbara Clinton
  • Lewis Howard — Walter Clinton
  • Charles Coleman — George, the Clintons' butler
  • Mary Treen — Agnes, Barbara's maid
  • Dorothy Vaughan — Ollie, Mrs. Clinton's maid
  • Lucille Ward — the Clintons' cook
  • Jack Mulhall — Terry, chauffeur
  • Frank Jenks — Mike, policeman
  • Thurston Hall — Anthony Drake
  • Robert Stack — Ted Drake
  • June Storey — Wilma van Everett
  • Rex Evans — Gerald Bevans, ball announcer

Universal: 1939
black & white; 84 minutes

October 2011

Songs & waltzes, romance & society

The title First Love is unfortunately condescending to the film's heroine and her emotions: like "puppy love", it signifies young and transient feelings, with more mature love to follow someday. That's not fair to the heroine, Constance Harding, but it precisely fits Universal Pictures' plans for their young star Deanna Durbin, that audiences might anticipate further movies with her grown-up loves. Title aside, it's a fine romantic comedy.

First Love opens as the orphaned Connie graduates from a girls' academy and leaves to make her home with her uncle's family in New York City. Unfortunately, the family is far from ideal; Uncle Jim Clinton (played by Eugene Palettte) is distant and disengaged, and her cousins Barbara (Helen Parrish) and Walter (Lewis Howard) are both thoroughly nasty pieces of work. The beautiful but vicious Barbara takes a more active role in making Connie's life difficult; Walter causes fewer problems not because he is less malicious, but only because he is too lazy to work at tormenting his cousin. Connie's hare-brained Aunt Grace (Leatrice Joy), while not ill-disposed toward her, is too completely absorbed in drawing up astrological charts and humoring her unpleasant offspring to provide Connie any useful help or comfort.

Connie, however, quickly finds sympathy and then allies in the Clinton family servants and the servants' friends. Of these, the butler (played by Charles Coleman) is the most important. The chauffeur (Jack Mulhall), and a policeman (Frank Jenks), do good turns, as do the others. Constance's widening circle of friends who respond to her personality is a major charm of the movie. Socially, they stand for warmth and character in contrast to the Clinton circle's shallowness and snobbery.

There are plenty of amusing touches in First Love. One comes when Barbara's maid (Mary Treen) pushes back a wall-sized rolling door, revealing a jam-packed closet that runs the full length of the young socialite's room. The supporting cast does a fine job — Leatrice Joy is particularly funny; as is Kathleen Howard as Miss Wiggins, the consciously brusque headmistress of the girls' academy, whose blunt straight talk can't conceal the real affection she feels for her students. Uncle Jim is deceptively low-key for most of the film, but eventually Eugene Palette gets to open up, and the fur begins to fly.

Deanna Durbin's opera-quality voice is gorgeous. She sings a number of songs, more or less fitted into the plot: "Home, Sweet Home", "Amapola", and the aria "Un bel di" ("One beautiful day") from Madame Butterfly. The centerpiece of the film both romantically and musically is a society ball where she re-encounters the handsome Ted Drake (played by Robert Stack). Viennese Waltz turns on its classically romantic magic for the couple, with some imaginative camera work here for Constance and Ted's dancing. Accidentally introduced by Rex Evans at the ball, the singing hit of the evening is Durbin's rendition of "Spring in My Heart", a song created for the film from Strauss waltz themes, with English lyrics.

A couple of potentially jarring plot notes occur when Connie, hearing someone else described, assumes that she is the one being discussed; in one instance, this results in her taking the stage at the ball in place of the invited performer. Since the screenwriters have made a point of establishing Connie's good nature, we are presumably expected to view these as examples of youthful naivety rather than of self-centeredness.

At one point, Miss Wiggins delivers to Connie a grimly realistic view of career and life prospects of any girl who has decided to become a teacher rather than marrying:

"First, you'll be a junior instructor. You'll get paid for that half as much as you need to live on, if you call it living. You'll wear last year's hats, and two year old dresses and patched up shoes. But it won't make much difference how you look 'cause there won't be anybody looking at you, except a lot of so-called students." ...

"Later on by scrimping you'll have money to travel on — third-class, and alone, or with another teacher."

Certainly no ringing endorsement of a professional life for women, but the movie was made in 1939, after all. So when we notice touches of the Cinderella theme (particularly as told in Disney's 1950 classic animated version of the tale), we may feel more indulgent of its headlong romanticism. The Cinderella elements are deftly done, and if you don't notice the references, it's no harm to the smooth and often surprising flow of the plot.

First Love is a quite enjoyable movie all around.


© 2011 Robert W. Franson
& Jennifer M. Franson

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