Producer Joe Pasternak dusted off his own 1937 Deanna Durbin musical – Three Smart Girls – for Three Daring Daughters (1948); a lavishly produced Technicolor extravaganza in which the focus of the film was not so much the children, played sympathetically herein by Ann Todd, Mary Eleanor Donahue and winsome Jane Powell, but Jeanette MacDonald in her penultimate movie for MGM. On this outing the iron butterfly – as MacDonald had been known for her caustic temperament back in the day on her amiable pairings with tenor Nelson Eddy – plays Louis Rayton Morgan; a retired opera star turned book editor and divorcee who has begun to show signs of mental and physical exhaustion.
Nearly missing her eldest daughter, Tess’s (Jane Powell) graduation after fainting dead away in her boss, Howie Howard’s (Thurston Hall) office, Louise is instructed by kindly Dr. Cannon (Harry Davenport) to take a cruise away from family and work responsibilities. Knowing well enough that Louise had intended to take her daughters, Tess, Ilka (Ann Todd) and Alix (Mary Eleanor Donahue) with her on vacation Dr. Cannon has a fatherly talk with the children who immediately see the medicinal value in having their mother go off without them. On the day of the launch, Dr. Cannon meets Louise on board and tells her that she has done a very fine job raising the girls, but that if the opportunity presents itself for a shipboard romance she ought not feel guilty about it. Having sacrificed as a single mother she is entitled to a little bit of recreation on her own time.
The prospect of love does not present itself – at least, not on the first day out at sea. But things begin to look up for Louise after she is seated at the same table as dithering socialite, Mrs. Smith (Moyna Macgill); a meddlesome gargoyle who recognizes famed pianist and conductor José Iturbi (playing himself) from across a crowded dining room. Having attended one of Iturbi’s concerts in New Port, and foolishly believing that out of the literally thousands of attendees he will have remembered her, Mrs. Smith scribbles down a request on a piece of paper and asks the waiter to deliver it to Iturbi’s table. José is traveling with his manager, Michael Pemberton (Tom Helmore) who encourages him to throw away the shameless invitation. But Iturbi, mistakenly assuming that Louise is Mrs. Smith, instead decides to play for her, wowing the audience and enthralling the real Mrs. Smith, who thereafter makes a play for him.
Meanwhile, back home Tess, Ilka and Alix have come to a fateful decision regarding their mother’s wellbeing. Assuming that she is obviously pining for their father, Charlie, a despicable reprobate who left Louise high and dry many years ago, but whom Louise has long since deified for the sake of the children – who do not remember him – the girls decide to contact Charlie’s employer, Robert Nelson (Edward Arnold); a millionaire, to bring Charlie back from his foreign correspondence work in China. Having charmed Nelson’s private secretary, Mr. Hollow (Dick Simmons), Tess, Ilka and Alix also ingratiate themselves to Mr. Nelson who promises to do what he can to find and bring their father home as a surprise for Louise.
Back on the ship the casual acquaintance between Louise and Iturbi gradually warms into a friendship, and finally a very awkward romance. José tells Louise that he is in love, but she staves off her own feelings toward him, fearing first that he will not want to be with a woman who has children, then later, because she worries what her daughters will think of their mother falling in love with another man. Their affections having sincerely blossomed into an understanding, Louise decides to throw caution to the wind and marry Iturbi – determined that the girls will come around. Regrettably, Tess and Ilka are hardly receptive to the idea. In fact, they’re initial reaction is one of downright resentment and anger. They do everything they can to wound their mother’s romance and alienate José, who frankly, has the patience of Job when dealing with the girls belligerences.
At first pretending to have been asked by Louise to hear Tess sing – presumably for an audition – then attempting to ingratiate with presents and kindness, Iturbi eventually comes to a decision; that the girls will never accept him as their new father. Only Alix is swayed toward sympathy for José, especially after he quietly tells Louise that he believes they have made a mistake in their marriage and must part. José goes to Nelson who tells him he should not be so hasty in throwing away such a fine woman and the opportunity to be happy. Later, Nelson takes it upon himself to admonish Tess and Ilka for their selfishness. He points out that in denying Iturbi access to their family they have also betrayed their mother’s happiness that she has so readily lavished on all of their lives for so many years at the expense of her own. Tess, Ilka and Alix attempt to woo Iturbi back to the family fold, but only after some consternation do they succeed in being reunited – in Nelson’s living room, no less – as a family.
Three Daring Daughters is a sweetheart of a movie, the kind of grandly implausible family entertainment that was MGM’s bread and butter throughout the 1940s. The Albert Mannheimer, Frederick Kohner, Sonya Levien and John Meehan screenplay is a tad creaky at times, but Pasternak and director Fred M. Wilcox have padded out the saccharine with a deft mixture of light pop tunes and weighty classical music to move the story along. Given Jane Powell’s breakout stardom in Holiday in Mexico (1946) it’s rather disconcerting that she isn’t given all that much to do in Three Daring Daughters. Powell gets a solo, Fleurette, and contributes to Alma Mater, Route 66, The Dickey Bird Song – the one original song written for the movie – and Springtide, this latter offering a sentimental tearjerker accompanied by MacDonald. Otherwise, Powell is generally relegated into the backdrop of the movie, especially once the singing stops.
José Itrubi is given the plum musical program; piano solos on Delibes’ Passespied, El Amor Brujo’s Ritual Fire Dance, Listz’s Hungarian Fantasy, and his Liebestraum, Saint-Saens’ Allegro Appassionato Opus 10 and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, Piano Sonata No 11, infrequently accompanied by his sister, Amparo. With the MGM orchestra and an explosive harmonica solo by Larry Adler, Iturbi also dazzles us with Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsody in A. Opus 11. Jeanette MacDonald rounds out the musical program warbling a few bars of You Made Me Love You, but sings more spectacularly while pretending to be Iturbi’s new soloist, Where There’s Love – a revisionist pop song recreated from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.
Three Daring Daughters won’t win any awards for high art, but it is warm-hearted and at times a very flashy Technicolor entertainment. There is a lot to admire and enjoy throughout this decidedly minor offering from MGM – utilizing all of their Latin American sets created for Holiday in Mexico, ever so slightly redressed and sumptuously lit to evoke a fiery elegance as photographed by cinematographer Ray June. The entire cast gives it their all. Iturbi, usually given short shrift in MGM musicals as a novelty act, herein proves he can hold his own in the acting department too – at least in this musical dram-ady. One can believe Todd, Donahue and Powell as sisters, despite their having virtually no physical resemblance to one another. Donahue is particularly memorable in a sequence where, having been sent by Tess and Ilka to spy on Iturbi she instead is found out when the gaudy red plumage on her cap protrudes from the cement column she is hiding behind. The last act in Jeanette MacDonald’s career was hardly memorable, but at least in Three Daring Daughters she manages to bid a fond farewell to the movies while illustrating for longtime fans that time has been relatively powerless to deprive her of that gift for song.
I’m feeling very much deprived by this Warner Archive release; unceremoniously slapped to disc in a fairly deplorable state. The Technicolor has faded – badly. Worse, age related and mold damage is everywhere and, at times, quite distracting. Contrast is very weak. The image is also plagued by color bleeding and, in the last third, by a horrendous mis-registration of the blue record, resulting in severe green halos that completely wreck one’s ability to enjoy the film. Badly done! The audio is strident and thin, at times hanging on by a thread as it crackles and pops with an obvious amount of background hiss. I’ve gone on record before, and will do it herein again, to say that there really is NO point in releasing movies to disc, even in the less than perfect burn-on-demand DVD-R format, if what’s going to be offered to the public is little more than badly worn ‘public domain’ styled transfers that aren’t even a shade up from VHS quality. This disc is such an incompetent effort I really don’t know how a big outfit like Warner Brothers has the guts to stand behind it – especially at an average retail price of $19.99! Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)