In the first of these movies Janet Gaynor plays the role she was so good at, the simple, sweet, slightly naive, but very adorable small town girl (she even starred in a movie called Small Town Girl). She’s Nancy, from a small town down south, who’s engaged to marry her longtime love George, who’s supposed to be arriving by train. When he fails to show up for the wedding, Nancy heads to New York to find him and takes up with author Mal Niles (Robert Montgomery), who finds her small town sweetness and wisdom to be irritating, but can’t bring himself to throw her out on the street because he’s the only person she knows, so he decides to use her as the inspiration for a new character.
Nancy also meets Mal’s publisher, Bob Hanson (Franchot Tone), a troubled drunk who takes to Nancy immediately, hires her as his cook without really asking her, and falls in love with her. Nancy, while trying to find George, finds herself falling in love with Mal, while Mal is basically a big child who is completely unable to express or even understand his feelings.
I really love Three Loves Has Nancy, but I love it more for its leading men than for its leading lady. Gaynor is a wonderful actress, and is so charismatic and likable. But Nancy sometimes comes off as a bit irritating, and you can see where Mal is coming from earlier in the film. Most of the time she’s great, but there are moments, like where she’s freaking out on the train because she thinks someone has stolen her bag, that you get irritated at the country bumpkin-ness of it. She adds a rural charm to the urban world the men live in, but while she helps change this world, or at least the men in it, the world doesn’t really change her. Really, Nancy as a character doesn’t do much growing. She mostly acts as a catalyst for the growth of Mal and Bob, who turn out to be rather fascinating characters.
Bob is a lonely man who really just needs someone to care about him. So when Nancy comes along, despite the fact that she isn’t in love with him, she does care enough about him to give him the confidence boost he needs. At the same time, however, we see that he still needs to grow because he does view Nancy as more of an object than as a human. He moves her things into his apartment and hires her as his cook without asking, when he decides to marry her, he calls both his family and hers to announce it without even telling her. Perhaps he needs Nancy more than Mal does, but while he does show character growth, he still doesn’t deserve her in the end.
Mal, as the lead character, is much more complicated, and even entertaining. We see early on how he mostly views life as nothing but a silly story from the way he turns everything into a story narration in his head. He both minimizes the importance of certain things in his life while at the same time. He treats everything, from his girlfriend (played by Claire Dodd) to his career as nothing more than silly diversions. When he starts to feel smothered by his girlfriend’s marriage talk, he takes off on a book signing tour to get away from her, and then ditches the tour as soon as he discovers that she’s gone on the road with her theater company. He’s initially extremely annoyed with Nancy, and were he not to base a character on her, he probably would go on continuing to be. It’s because he’s made this decision to make her into a character that forces him to really look at her and understand her. And even then it’s not until he discovers Bob’s intentions, and he’s faced with losing her, that he finally grows up, and the narration in his head tells him to get things together.
George is the third love, and is actually of very little consequence. While Nancy serves as a catalyst for the men to grow up, George is little more than the catalyst for getting Nancy out of the small town and into the big city. You almost forget George even exists until he shows up at the end, pretty much just to show the difference between the romantic ideals Nancy once had and the ones she has now.
And the best part about the movie is that it’s never quite clear who Nancy might end up with until the end. It just a question of who’s going to grow up enough to deserve her.