Film & TV

‘Spring Parade’ from 1940: Springtime in Europe

BY Tiffany Brannan TIMEMarch 31, 2023 PRINT

Spring is the most romantic season of the year, so it inspires poems, songs, paintings, and even movies. One springtime movie is “Spring Parade” from 1940, a Joe Pasternak musical starring Deanna Durbin. Set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1890s, it’s full of music, laughter, romance, and Old-World charm.

A Hungarian Girl

Ilonka Tolnay (Durbin) is a simple peasant girl from a Hungarian village. One spring day, she goes to the fair to sell her goat. While there, a fortune teller tells Ilonka that her future lies in Vienna, where she will marry an artist and a powerful man will help her. She scoffs at the predictions but ends up falling asleep on a hay stack on a cart. When she wakes up, she realizes she has traveled far from home and the cart is owned by a baker, Latislav Teschek (S.Z. Sakall), who lives in Vienna.

Spring Parade
Deanna Durbin plays a Hungarian peasant girl who can really sing in “Spring Parade.” (Universal Pictures)

The kind baker lets Ilonka stay at his shop until he can bring her back to her hometown. She goes to work alongside flirty salesgirl Jenny (Anne Gwynne) and Teschek’s mischievous little nephews (Billy Lenhart and Kenneth Brown, billed as Butch and Buddy). Her first morning there, she notices the drummer in the military parade, Cpl. Harry Marten (Robert Cummings), who receives a long-awaited smile from Jenny.

Later that day, Harry comes to the bakery to ask Jenny out, but the presence of her sweetheart, Count Zorndorf (Allyn Joslyn), makes him pretend that he’s calling on Ilonka instead. In the mix-up, Ilonka thinks Harry has invited her to a beer garden that evening. She thinks that his being a soldier, not an artist, means they can just be friends, but all that changes when she realizes he is a gifted composer who is forbidden from using his musical talent in the army.

A European Background

Canadian-born soprano Durbin rose to fame at Universal Pictures in movies produced by Joe Pasternak, a Hungarian-born musical producer. Together, Pasternak and Durbin saved Universal from bankruptcy in the mid-1930s with their lighthearted musicals, starting with “Three Smart Girls” in 1936. This was 14-year-old Durbin’s first feature film, as well as Joe Pasternak’s first American directorial project. He worked for the German and Hungarian divisions of Universal Pictures before being transferred to the Hollywood studio after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

“Spring Parade” was Durbin’s eighth feature film. Every film she had made so far was a Pasternak production. Like four of her previous films, including “Three Smart Girls,” this film was directed by Henry Koster. Koster traveled to the United States with Pasternak in 1936, having worked with him in Europe. The two men vowed to bring the lighthearted operetta-style films they had made in Europe to America. Durbin’s musical talents fit their vision perfectly, and she quickly became a huge star, earning a Juvenile Academy Award in 1938.

Spring Parade
Jenny (Anne Gwynne, L) and Ilonka Tolnay (Deanna Durbin) are friends in “Spring Parade.” (Universal Pictures)

In “Spring Parade,” Ilonka Tolnay comes from the town of Szilagysomlyo, a village in Austria-Hungary which is now called Șimleu Silvaniei and located in Romania. Ilonka says the name of the town frequently throughout the movie, which is perhaps because it was also producer Joe Pasternak’s hometown. “Spring Parade” was actually a remake of an earlier Joe Pasternak production, “Frühjahrsparade,” a 1934 German film with roughly the same title and a similar plot.

Simple But Sweet

The story of “Spring Parade” is straightforward and simplistic, but its execution is delightful. This film is overflowing with European charm, evoking the beauty of the Old World before the two world wars. The costumes are beautiful and look like they’re straight out of an operetta. Especially cute is Ilonka’s peasant outfit, complete with braided hair and about 50 petticoats!

Spring Parade
Cpl. Harry Marten (Robert Cummings) and Ilonka Tolnay (Deanna Durbin) in “Spring Parade.” (MovieStillsDB)

The cast really brings this story to life. Durbin is very sweet but also refreshingly matter of fact as Ilonka. Some of her best scenes are when she’s bartering, whether for a good price for her goat or a fair value for asparagus in a restaurant. Robert Cummings is hilariously befuddled yet charming as her leading man. One of the best characters is the lovable baker, played by Hungarian actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, who made his American film debut in another Durbin movie earlier that year.

The score includes three songs written by Robert Stolz for the original German film, which had new English words by Gus Kahn. “When April Sings” is a lovely ballad for Durbin. “It’s Foolish but It’s Fun” is a cute little ditty first sung by Ilonka and then adorably reprised by Butch and Buddy. “Waltzing in the Clouds” is the infectious waltz which Harry is supposed to compose, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. This movie will bring the laughter and music of spring to your heart!

Tiffany Brannan is a 21-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, interviewer, copywriter, fashion historian, travel writer, and vintage lifestyle enthusiast. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.
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