When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Reconsidering HIS BUTLER’S SISTER (1943)

I once went on record as saying that Frank Borzage’s Deanna Durbin vehicle HIS BUTLER’S SISTER can give you a headache. 

During this Borzage-rich year (the release of the Borzage/Murnau boxed DVD set, good Borzage programming on TCM, and even finding a legitimate copy of I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU on VHS), I’ve decided to re-evaluate that comment.

For this film, Borzage was no longer working at Warners nor at Metro.  He was at Universal, a second-tier studio (to be sure, the best of the also-rans).  The movie was a vehicle for Universal’s top star (and at the time highest-paid woman in the USA), Deanna Durbin, whose runaway popularity in the late 1930s saved the studio from bankruptcy. 

Now, I’ve had total respect for Borzage; and I eventually learned to be a Deanna Durbin fan.  The script was written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, who collaborated on one of my favorite Lubitsch movies, CLUNY BROWN.  So the first time I viewed HIS BUTLER’S SISTER, expectations were high — but rapidly hit rock bottom.  This time I set the bar lower and ….

Well, let me put it this way:   a older friend of mine once said, The definition of ‘Mixed Emotions’ is seeing your mother-in-law driving over a cliff in your new car.

I have mixed emotions about this film.

Some have commented that the leading man, Franchot Tone, and his butler, Pat O’Brien, lack charisma in the movie;  some explain away the film by referring to Borzage’s drinking problems during this period.  But for me it’s the script:  an unwieldy mess.  As Durbin was the key money-maker for the studio, did all the honchos have their hand in a rewrite in order to protect their prime asset?  Producer Felix Jackson was still more than a year away from becoming Durbin’s second husband (her first marriage was on its way to the divorce court when this was made), so the script wasn’t mangled due to domestic meddling; but somebody sure screwed up.

Characters and narrative, after a solid setup in a certain direction, make a one-eighty and leave you wondering WTF is going on.  For the first hour Durbin is aggressively determined to have a singing career and hopes to get her first break by auditioning for a famous composer.  Her brother happens to be the composer’s personal butler, so she gets hired as his maid, scheming to create a situation where she can warble for the tunesmith. 

Instead of auditioning, she falls in love with the composer but then gets burned by him.  (OK, so she has all the time & opportunity to fall head-over-heels for the guy but never gets the chance to open her mouth to sing for him??)  After an hour’s screentime of Durbin being hyper-careerist, she suddenly decides to move back home without even giving herself a shot at real employment. 

Deanna’s brother (O’Brien), the butler, has been foiling her attempts to sing for Tone throughout the movie — but after O’Brien hears her sing at a birthday party, he decides to be Durbin’s agent, and then purposefully gets both of them fired from working as domestics for the composer, the one guy who could easily make her a star.  Then she decides it’s a bad idea to have her brother as her agent, so Bro’ starts laying a wicked guilt-trip on her. 

[Around this time, I’d been jerked around so much they can all take a leap from the composer’s penthouse roof.]

Then at the last minute, she gets her guy after singing a Puccini aria at a function where the composer accidentally hears her sing.  Since the guy she gets (Tone) is the one she fell in love with and the one she originally wanted to audition for, are we supposed to be happy that she got an audition or are we supposed to be happy that she got her guy?  The audience has been set up — and therefore been rooting for her — to have the chance to sing for him through two-thirds of the running-time, so the romantic clinch at the end (even though it’s gorgeously shot) seems hollow. 

In fairness, the career plot doesn’t work but the romance sure does.  (Nobody can record the actions and feelings of falling in love like Borzage.)  Too bad it’s the briefest part of the movie:   a dance in a nightclub, a slow walk home, a goodnight kiss.  And Borzage’s opening and closing shots of Durbin are masterful:   she’s introduced by a camera following her from behind as she moves through a train.  The film’s closing is one of the best final shots in any movie anywhere:   a tracking shot of Deanna moving forward through a crowd towards Franchot Tone (we only see the back of his head, so it’s probably his stand-in) as the soundtrack swells with the last bars of Puccini’s Nessun dorma.

Borzage used lots of fun business and overlapping dialog in the film.  The funny parts were aided by two of classic Hollywood’s best comedy actors:  Iris Adrian and Walter Catlett.

This time, watching HIS BUTLER’S SISTER didn’t make my head hurt.   But I’d hate to be stranded on a desert island with only this movie to watch.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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