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Frank Ryan’s HERS TO HOLD

“Who was Frank Ryan??”

I’ve been asking that question for a decade and haven’t come up with an acceptable answer.

Ryan co-directed a comedy at RKO, then helmed four features at Universal.  One of the few verified facts I’ve found on him only increases the Ryan Enigma:  he died a few weeks after his 40th birthday.

I’ve seen two of his movies:  the back-to-back Deanna Durbin vehicles that were Numbers 2 and 3 of his quintet of films:  HERS TO HOLD and CAN’T HELP SINGING.  But with those two samplings of his talent I can declare that Frank Ryan, whoever he was, had a double dose of filmmaking talent.  Films are usually either designed or staged by directors:  Ryan succeeded at both.  He could create witty stage business with props that enriched scenes where actors were delivering dialog, yet he also had the visual wit of a silent slapstick comedian.

In the days before film schools, Industry Professionals usually segued to the movies from other tangential careers (e.g., Sam Fuller came from print journalism).  Ryan, like Fellini and Frank Tashlin, had been a cartoonist.  Because of this, the scenes in HERS TO HOLD are thought out visually, with an articulate language of motion and proportion.

Director Frank Ryan (right) cracks up star Deanna Durbin between shots in their second collaboration, CAN'T HELP SINGING

The movie exists purely as a star vehicle for Deanna Durbin, yet Ryan toys with the audience before she is finally revealed on film.  This WW2 morale-boosting tale begins at a blood drive, where the leading man (Joseph Cotten) and his sidekick (Gus Schilling) are donating.  Durbin also arrives to donate blood, but the director only lets us see her legs for the first five minutes.  She enters behind a folding hospital screen and lies down on a cot, while doctors and nurses come and go behind the privacy screens.  The strategy is simple yet effective; anticipation builds for the payoff of seeing Durbin’s face.  (Actually, for this viewer the payoff wasn’t as good as the wait:  her makeup job was kind of schitzo, with 1930s sylph-like plucked eyebrows counterpointed with a heavy dose of 1950s va-va-voom lipstick.)

Despite the dubious glamor job on Durbin, HERS TO HOLD has an unbroken thread of great visuals, due to the craft of Director Ryan and cinematographer Elwood Bredell (TANGIER).  Charles Winninger (Durbin’s cinema dad) and Ludwig Stössel (the family butler) have understated, witty physical comedy exchanges in scenes of tying the master’s bow tie and taking his hat and coat when he comes home.  In the scene where Deanna performs the Oscar-nominated song Say a Pray’r for the Boys Over There the camera dollys in a masterly continuous shot, tracking past face after face in her audience as they hold back tears.  There’s also a beautifully lit love scene on a beach, and a striking pushout of the camera from one wing of the house to Durbin’s bedroom as she begins The Kashmiri Song.  At Deanna’s exclusive party, which Joseph Cotten crashes by posing as a doctor, an aggressively hypochondriacal dowager pursues Cotten in some shots of sublime visual comedy.

Durbin even does slapstick for director Ryan.

Of all the Durbin films, this is the one where she registers the most chemistry with her leading man.  Actually, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper accused Deanna and co-star Joseph Cotten of having an affair during this film.  (Durbin was on her way to the divorce court during the filming of HERS TO HOLD.  Her next husband would be this film’s producer.)  To get back at Hopper for the sex scandal smear, Joseph Cotten allegedly pulled the chair out from her at a party as she was sitting down, causing her to fall flat on her butt.

The camera captured a palpable chemistry between Deanna Durbin and leading man Joseph Cotten.

The movie was cast with great supporting players:  plump and blonde Jody Gilbert (occasional movie nemesis of W. C. Fields), the always brassy Iris Adrian, stalwart Fay Helm (the first victim of the Wolf Man in cinema history), and as Joseph Cotten’s sidekick, burlesque comedian and five-time Orson Welles player Gus Schilling.  Schilling’s career went out with a bang, his last performance (as a construction flagman at a blasting site in the delirium-fever masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL) was released posthumously.

Durbin's boyfriend tried to pass her a note by putting it in a finger sandwich at a party, but which sandwich??  Even if you didn't know the setup, it's still an hilarious screen shot.

Yet despite all these other strong talents in the film, to me it’s a revelation of Frank Ryan’s gifts.  In his follow-up movie with Durbin, CAN’T HELP SINGING, his talents were even stronger, creating a world of movement and pacing usually reserved for ballet or the circus.  Yet as his first solo job directing a movie, Frank Ryan’s HERS TO HOLD testifies that he was a natural-born filmmaker.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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11 Comments to “Frank Ryan’s HERS TO HOLD”

  1. Jacki Summers says:

    Do you happen to know if Deanna Durbin was the star in a movie about a woman pianist who is presented as a child prodigy (pigtails and short fluffy dress) to impress the public?

  2. kkheiman@hotmail.com says:

    Frank Ryan was my grandfather’s brother. Frank and his family were killed in a train crash. Original screen writings ect are still with the family

    • Doug says:

      Sorry to hear that. From what I’ve seen, Mr. Ryan was one of the most talented guys ever to work in Hollywood. Thanks for dropping by the site!

  3. […] Cotten had had even a brief affair during the filming. Here, for example, is a recent quote from Doug Bonner, a filmmaker and Emmy-winning sound designer. “The camera captured a palpable chemistry […]

  4. Andrea says:

    It was June Allyson in the child’s dress playing the piano. She was in a contest just for children.

  5. Dina Mattas says:

    Hi Doug, I’m not sure if you’re still interested but the movie was Too Young to Kiss (1951) with Van Johnson.

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