“It Started with Eve” (1941) is the last of six films that had the dynamic creative collaboration of director Henry Koster, producer Joe Pasternak, and acting/singing sensation Deanna Durbin. It also (quite possibly) is their funniest. Of course instead of giving them all the credit, I must point out that what makes this film wonderful has more to do with a delightfully witty screenplay written by Norman Krasna and Leo Townsend, and a commanding and hilarious performance from the somewhat surprisingly comical Charles Laughton.
You see, Jonathan Reynolds (Laughton), the towering, powerful man, who grabs headlines every time he leaves his home, is in fact, dying. His loving son, Johnny (Robert Cummings), rushes to his father’s enormous mansion and kneels next to the bed in time to hear the dying man’s request to set his eyes on his only child’s fiance before death comes. Johnny, being an obliging son, frantically drives across town to the hotel where his fiance, Gloria (Margaret Tallichet), is staying with her mother (Catherine Doucet). Unfortunately, they aren’t in, and Johnny feels that all is lost.
But wait! Johnny’s luck is about to change as a hat check girl, Anne (Deanna Durbin), agrees to pose as Johnny’s fiance, just to help out. (Isn’t that sweet of her?) Anne meets Mr. Reynolds, who is impressed with her girl-next-door appearance and down-to-earth mentality. So much so in fact, that he makes a remarkable recovery and is back on his feet in no time. Good news for him- bad news for Johnny and Anne as they have to figure out some way to break the news of their lie to the old man, without him relapsing.
Although “It Started with Eve” is a highly predictable story, the entire production still benefits from a great script and a cast who clearly know how to get the job done. Robert Cummings spends the majority of the film running in circles with an I’m so confused and overwhelmed look on his face, but he steps things up when the scene needs him too. Deanna Durbin does what Deanna Durbin always does best- she looks cute and likeable, and she sings. She also gets to mix things up with both Cummings and Charles Laughton, which gives her a chance to do some more physical comedy with Cummings and a more dialogue driven humor with Laughton.
It is the great Charles Laughton who deserves the most praise, in a role that is a far cry from his successful performances from the 1930’s. Don’t get me wrong, he can always be funny in a smaller, quieter way, as is evident in a film like “The Private Lives of Henry VIII” (1933). In “It Started with Eve,” however, his humor and comedic style is much more evident and substantially more appreciated. He also has the advantage of playing a character that is supposed to be substantially older than he was. In fact, Laughton was only 42 years old at the time of this film’s release, making Robert Cummings (playing his son) only 11 years his junior. Laughton sulks around many of his early scenes, reminding the audience of his deteriorating body and fragile bones, but it’s all just a set-up to show how youthful he now feels by having Anne in his and his son’s life. Truthfully speaking, I wish Laughton had made more films such as this one, as he has a refreshing and highly enjoyable style that truly does leave the audience wanting more.