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Deanna Durbin: Highest Paid Actress in the World

Deanna Durbin adultDeanna Durbin: Highest-paid actress in the world

[See previous post: "Deanna Durbin in the '40s: From Wholesome Musicals to Film Noir Sex Worker."] Despite several missteps in the handling of her career, David Shipman states that Deanna Durbin was Hollywood's (and the world's) highest-paid actress in both 1945 and 1947. In 1946, Durbin's earnings of $323,477 trailed only Bette Davis' $328,000 at Warner Bros. Those are impressive rankings (and wages), but ironically Durbin's high earnings ultimately harmed her career.

By the mid-'40s, her domestic box office allure was beginning to fade, a situation surely worsened by World War II closing off most of Hollywood's top international markets. As a result, Universal, since 1947 a new entity known as Universal-International, was unwilling to spend extra money in their star's already costly vehicles. That's a similar predicament to the one faced by silent era superstar John Gilbert at MGM in the early '30s: the studio had to pay Gilbert an exorbitant salary that made his movies much too costly to justify getting him expensive leading ladies and/or directors and/or high production values to counterbalance dwindling box office receipts.

While at MGM Judy Garland sang and danced in colorful musical extravaganzas co-starring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and under the guidance of Vincente Minnelli and Charles Walters, at Universal Deanna Durbin was stuck with second-rank leading men and directors in what amounted to B-movie fare — and, adding insult to injury, in black and white: William A. Seiter's I'll Be Yours (1947), with Tom Drake; Irving Pichel's Something in the Wind (1947), with John Dall and then-B-movie Universal contract player Donald O'Connor (who would later say Durbin was a "professional" but, at the time, "in a funk"); Seiter's period musical Up in Central Park (1948), with Dick Haymes and Vincent Price; and Frederick De Cordova's For the Love of Mary (1948), with Edmond O'Brien, Don Taylor, and Jeffrey Lynn — a production in which the studio had so little faith it had been shelved for a year.

Deanna Durbin and Universal part ways

After 21 features over the course of 12 years — every single one of them at Universal — Deanna Durbin's Hollywood career came to an abrupt end in 1948. Curiously, fellow '30s child star Shirley Temple quit films the following year, while Judy Garland's final MGM movie, Summer Stock, was released in 1950. In the next two decades, Garland would be featured in only four more films.

"I can't run around being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song," Durbin reportedly told Joe Pasternak after the release of For the Love of Mary.

Years later, she told David Shipman, "Why did I give up my career? For one thing, just take a look at my last four films and you'll appreciate that the stories I had to defend were mediocre, near impossible. … I was the highest paid star with the poorest material — today I consider my salary as damages for having to cope with such complete lack of quality."

According to online sources quoting a couple of New York Times reports, also in the late '40s a convoluted salary dispute erupted between Durbin and Universal. At first, the studio threatened to sue Durbin to get back $87,000 it had advanced the actress. Instead of handing back the money, Durbin consented to star in three extra movies for the studio. Ironically, Universal, due to "increasing public apathy," allowed her contract to expire; thus, the studio was ultimately forced to disburse $200,000 in severance pay.

At least when it came to Deanna Durbin's career, Universal executives, regardless of the regime in power, must have been either very narrow-minded or very petty. A loan-out to studios that specialized in big, colorful musicals, e.g., MGM or 20th Century Fox, would have done wonders for Durbin's popularity — and, in turn, for her Universal star vehicles. Perhaps the Universal suits wanted to punish their "difficult" contract player; perhaps they wanted to make sure that while under contract, she would never work for Joe Pasternak again. Either way, Universal's mishandling of Durbin's career was not only her loss, but the studio's as well.

Deanna Durbin's roles that never happened: From Bing Crosby's leading lady to My Fair Lady

Unconfirmed sources claim that as her association with Universal came to a halt, Durbin turned down a couple of leads opposite Bing Crosby at Paramount. If so, in her stead, Rhonda Fleming was cast in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, while fellow soprano-voiced Universal player Ann Blyth stepped in in Top o' the Morning.

Among other roles purportedly destined for Deanna Durbin but eventually played by others were the female leads in George Sidney's Kiss Me Kate (which went to former Joe Pasternak protégée Kathryn Grayson) and in Richard Thorpe's The Student Prince (Ann Blyth again). Durbin was also offered the lead in the West End staging of Kiss Me Kate, and, most importantly, the part of Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. "I was seriously tempted," Durbin would later say about that possibility, when My Fair Lady was still "in an embryonic state" in the late '40s.

In his autobiography, Stanley Holloway, who played Eliza's father, wrote that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe initially wanted Mary Martin for Eliza. When they couldn't get her, they thought of Durbin, and then Dolores Gray, until finally settling on Julie Andrews. (Audrey Hepburn played Eliza in Warner Bros.' Academy Award-winning 1964 movie version.)

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Deanna Durbin publicity photo: Universal Pictures.

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1 Comment to Deanna Durbin: Highest Paid Actress in the World

  1. bob logie

    There are no adjectives available to honestly describe this lady, Edna Mae Durbin!

    She is without doubt one in a million!

    She has beauty, talent and a God given voice that will live forever!!

    NOTE: TCM, please play more of her movies so that those folks who weren't born in the thirties or forties may appreciate and love real talent!!




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