The three Craig sisters, Penny (Deanna Durbin), Kay (Barbara Read) and Joan (Nan Grey) live in Switzerland with their divorced mother (Nella Walker), and today they are out sailing on the lake by their home. They are called in for lunch and race back, but when Penny throws a ball to prevent her sisters from getting ahead, it hits a painting of their absent father, Judson (Charles Winninger). The girls think that their mother will be upset, and she is, but not because of the damage: she's just heard that Judson is remarrying...
The film that made Deanna Durbin a superstar until she got sick of the whole movie business about ten years later, Three Smart Girls is an example of the kind of family comedy that Hollywood churned out in the thirties which with the Depression on proved just the tonic with its tales of well to do people getting into comic misunderstandings. Durbin sings too, which means the first five minutes of this film look slightly and unintentionally hilarious as she trills out a number to her sisters while they serenely listen.
And then they're called in for lunch by their maid blowing a horn! How times change. But this saw Durbin's screen personality almost fully formed in her first feature length appearance, the well meaning busybody who brings everyone together by the finale. Of course, here the teenage actress seems incredibly precocious and pushy as she perusades her sisters - and that maid - to travel with her to New York to visit father and make him see the error of his ways.
Yes, it's simply outrageous that a divorced father should want to find happiness with another woman, isn't it? The other woman, Donna (Binnie Barnes) who is nicknamed "Precious" by the meddling trio, isn't even presented as a gold digger or even slightly underhand until the Australian Lord Michael Stuart (Ray Milland) catches her eye thanks to the girls setting him up as a rival for her affections - he was meant to be tipsy Hungarian Count Mischa Auer but there was a mix-up.
Suffice to say, Kay falls for Lord Stuart without knowing he actually is as rich as he pretends to be, and Penny manages to get the wedding called off by running away and worrying everyone sick. She also bursts into piercing song about three times - here's a musical that needs some dancing. Vivacious is the word for Durbin and she certainly had star quality, but I don't know if modern audiences would forgive Penny's selfish impulses so easily: she may be acting in the best interests of her tearful mother, but she comes across as a control freak more than a matchmaker. Still, there are a good few funny lines and situations and watch out for Franklin Pangborn (always good advice in these old comedies).