Three Smart Girls (1936): Henry Koster’s Oscar-Nominated Film, Launching Deanna Durbin to Stardom

In the 1930s, each of the major studios had a reliable child star that was exploited in film after film. Fox had the cute and bossy Shirley Temple, MGM had Margaret O’Brien, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Universal had Deana Durbin.

They were often credited with carrying the major burden, making three or four pictures a year, and saving their respected studios from financial bankruptcy during the Depression.

In Three Smart Girls, Henry Koster’s light musical comedy, the Craig sisters, played by Barbara Read, Nan Grey and Deanna Durbin in her first screen role, travel to New York City to prevent their father from remarrying.

When three sisters living in Switzerland hear that their father is going to marry a younger woman in New York, they travel there to stop it. Their plan involves getting a man to seduce her father’s fiancee. They plot to bring their divorced parents (Charles Winninger and Nella Walker) back together again. They accidentally hire a genuinely rich man who falls for one of the sisters.

This is the movie that made Durbin, who always played resourceful and precocious girls, a major star, launching a successful career that lasted for about a decade.

The film was based on an original story, purchased for Universal by Adele Comandini, who co-wrote the scenario with Austin Parker. 

Made on a modest budget of just over $300,000, the picture earned $1.6 million at the box office.


“Three Smart Girls” was so popular at the box-office that it spawned two sequels, “Three Smart Girls Grow Up” and “Hers to Hold,” both inferior to the first one.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Joseph Pasternak and Charles Rogers

Original Story: Adele Comandini

Sound Recording: Homer G. Tasker

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Three Smart Girls competed for the Best Picture Oscar with the musical bio The Great Ziegfeld, which won, and eight other films, Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, and A Tale of Two Cities.

The other most nominated film were William Wyler’s Dodsworth, with seven citations, winning one, for Richard Day’s Interior Decoration, and Anthony Adverse, which won the largest number of awards (four) of it seven nods. Of all studios, MGM dominated the Oscar race, with five (half) of the Oscar-nominated films.


If you want to know more about the history and politics of the Oscars, please read my book:


Binnie Barnes as Donna Lyons
Charles Winninger as Judson Craig
Alice Brady as Mrs. Lyons
Ray Milland as Lord Michael Stuart
Mischa Auer as Count Arisztid
Ernest Cossart as Binns
Lucile Watson as Martha
John ‘Dusty’ King as Bill Evans (as John King)
Nella Walker as Dorothy Craig
Hobart Cavanaugh as Wilbur Lamb
Nan Grey as Joan
Barbara Read Kay
Deanna Durbin as ‘Penny’


Directed by Henry Koster
Produced by Joe Pasternak
Screenplay by Adele Comandini and Austin Parker
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Edited by Ted J. Kent
Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date: December 20, 1936
Running time: 84 minutes


I am grateful to TCM for showing the movie on February 16, 2020.