Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
THREE GIRLS ABOUT TOWN. Columbia Pictures, 1941. Joan Blondell, Binnie Barnes, Janet Blair, John Howard, Eric Blore, Una O’Connor, Hugh O’Connell. Bruce Bennett, Lloyd Bridges. Guest Star: Robert Benchley. Screenplay by Richard Carroll. Directed by Leigh Jason.
Joan Blondell and Binnie Barnes are sisters who work as Convention Hostesses at the Merchants Hotel where Binnie has a thing for chief clerk, the much harassed Robert Benchley. It’s the busy season and things are more hectic than normal because a convention of magicians is being followed by a staid convention of morticians and because Joan’s boyfriend, reporter John Howard, wrote an article implying the ladies are more than just helpful to convention attendees. This has caught the attention of the head of the undertakers convention and a ladies group who meets weekly at the hotel.
Add to all that a major union and the bosses are having nationally important talks at the hotel in hopes of avoiding a strike that could leave the country vulnerable, and as yet the mediator from Washington has yet to show.
Howard just wants Blondell to quit so they can marry, but she and Binnie can’t think of themselves because younger sister Janet Blair is away at an expensive finishing school they are paying for. Which is why Blondell decks Howard for the first of several swings in this lightweight but fast and smartly written screwball comedy well played all around.
Of course Blondell could do comedy blindfolded and still hit her marks, as could Barnes and of course Benchley and Blore, but Howard does surprisingly well as the fast-talking, fast-thinking reporter whose life is about to get complicated.
Then there is a very drunk Eric Blore pestering everyone by asking where Charlie is.
It’s at this point that maid Una O’Connor and her helpers find a body in the bedroom next to the girls’ room.
Don’t get ahead of me. You are expected to get the connection.
Joan and Binnie quickly convince Benchley, Binnie’s boyfriend, that the hotel can’t afford a body to be found like that, especially with those staid undertakers and pressure from the Ladies Club who have read Howard’s article and want answers, so they decide to move the body. Which is all well and good until Howard discovers the corpse and recognizes it is the mediator everyone is looking for. It’s the scoop of a lifetime for him and a certain raise at the paper if he can be the one to turn in the story. But Blondell is determined the body won’t be found in the hotel.
Now, to make things decidedly worse, little sister Janet Blair shows up, and finishing school has about finished her. She sets her sights on sister Joan’s boyfriend John Howard from the get go, showing all about what she learned of the fine art of lip oscillation at that exclusive school for hormonal young women.
There is also a cop, Hugh O’Connell, whose wife is having a baby that is taking its time getting here, the only thing he can think about until he discovers Howard is hiding a body.
There is nothing startling or new here. If you have seen a screwball comedy you will recognize the form from the first scene, but here it works with almost perfect timing, an attractive cast of mostly B or minor A stars and supporting actors and some clever bits including Howard caught in a poker game where the corpse can’t lose a hand no matter how hard Howard tries — he throws away three aces and draws three queens to match the one he has — and a bit straight from The 39 Steps where he poses as the mediator and fast talks the settlement of the strike while the police look on.
Meanwhile Eric Blore still can’t find Charlie.
Not much more I can say, save that this is not a comedy mystery, though it plays much like one for most of its run. No spoilers to explain why it isn’t, save that the why would have you throwing things at the screen in frustration if you saw it in an actual mystery. Here it just seems to fit the whole screwball format of the film.
Blondell looks as good as you ever saw her in a film, and Blair makes a satisfactory tempest of a sexpot little sister. Binnie Barnes couldn’t help but be good in this kind of film, and Eric Blore and Robert Benchley … well, do I really have to say it?
It’s John Howard, who usually played rather stalwart unimaginative leads or decidedly stiff second or third leads (Lost Horizon, The Philadelphia Story), who is a surprise here, though if you watched him in the Bulldog Drummond films or The Invisible Woman, you might not be quite as surprised.
He shows considerable charm and comic timing in this one, and the ending when he referees while Janet Blair receives a much deserved public spanking from sisters Joan and Binnie, and soon to be brother-in-law Robert Benchley actually rises to that kind of giddy high usually only achieved in major screwball comedies with people like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby or James Stewart and Claudette Colbert in It’s a Wonderful World.
I’m not comparing this to those classics, only pointing out it achieves one genuine lighter than air moment of sheer exuberance mindful of those found in those films. That’s quite an accomplishment for a film with these credentials.