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Adrift at Universal Without Joe Pasternak: Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin It Started with Eve Charles Laughton Robert Cummings’The Deanna Durbin Unit’: Adrift at Universal without Joe Pasternak (photo: Robert Cummings, Deanna Durbin, and Charles Laughton in ’It Started with Eve’)

[See previous post: "Deanna Durbin Movies Save Universal."] Deanna Durbin and Henry Koster, who has been credited with helping to mold Durbin’s screen persona, collaborated on five movies. Besides Three Smart Girls, there was the inevitable sequel, Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), in addition to One Hundred Men and a Girl, after which Durbin’s salary was reportedly doubled to $3,000 per week, plus a $10,000 bonus per film; the Cinderella-like First Love (1939), in which, following worldwide publicity, Durbin gets kissed on screen for the first time (Robert Stack was the kisser); Spring Parade (1940), with a Viennese setting and Robert Cummings as her leading man; and It Started with Eve (1941), a light, well-received romantic comedy co-starring Cummings and Charles Laughton. (Universal would also release the 1964 remake, I’d Rather Be Rich, starring Sandra Dee in the Robert Cummings role, Robert Goulet in the Deanna Durbin part, and Maurice Chevalier as the bed-ridden grandfather.)

All of those Deanna Durbin star vehicles were Joe Pasternak productions, and so were four other Durbin movies from that period: That Certain Age (1938), in which she falls in love with older man Melvyn Douglas, then in his late ’30s, much to the dismay of prospective boyfriend Jackie Cooper; the aforementioned musical comedy Mad About Music; It’s a Date (1940), with Durbin trying to hook up her actress-mother Kay Francis with Walter Pidgeon; and Nice Girl? (1941), in which nice girl (?) Durbin, safely no longer a minor, falls for another older man, Franchot Tone, then in his mid-’30s — though she ultimately settles for the more "age appropriate" Robert Stack. (In the 1932 original, the pre-Coder Hot Saturday, Nancy Carroll is the nice girl [?] torn between Cary Grant and Randolph Scott.)

According to an article published ca. 1940, Durbin was earning approximately $5,000 per week at that time, including royalties from various recordings and merchandise — Deanna Durbin dolls, clothing articles, fictional stories, etc. — in addition to a $100,000 bonus “at the end of each season, upon the completion of her two obligatory films.”

Joe Pasternak, Henry Koster leave Universal

Following a rift with his bosses, in 1941 Joe Pasternak left Universal for MGM, where he immediately began grooming another soprano, Kathryn Grayson. That was good news for Grayson, who would become a popular MGM singing star — even if never nearly as big as Deanna Durbin — in Pasternak’s ’40s productions such as Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Two Sisters from Boston (1946). On the other hand, that was bad news for Durbin, who, at the perilous age of 19, stayed behind at Universal to fulfill her contractual obligations.

Compounding matters, Henry Koster left Universal in 1942. He made three movies at Joe Pasternak’s MGM unit in the mid-’40s (Music for Millions, Two Sisters from Boston, The Unfinished Dance); earned an Oscar nomination for the prestigious RKO-released fantasy The Bishop’s Wife (1947), starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven; and eventually settled at 20th Century Fox, where he would handle star vehicles for the likes of Betty Grable, Clifton Webb, Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Jennifer Jones, and Olivia de Havilland. (In 1950, two years after Deanna Durbin’s departure from the studio, Koster returned to Universal to direct the James Stewart comedy hit Harvey.)

You can’t hide Deanna Durbin’s light under a bushel

"No one makes a star, of course, not the producer, not the director, not the writer," Joe Pasternak would write in his 1956 autobiography, Easy the Hard Way. "It is a matter of chemistry between the public and the player, and the player must come to the public, just as the public must come to the player to make her a star. Deanna’s genius had to be unfolded but it was hers alone, always was, and no one ’discovered’ her or can take credit for her. You can’t hide that kind of light under a bushel. You just can’t, even if you try."

Pasternak should know. Throughout his career, the producer did his utmost not to leave any lights hidden under any bushels. Besides launching another teen soprano at Universal, Gloria Jean, while at MGM he not only groomed Kathryn Grayson, but also June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, and Esther Williams. Not leaving any star-making stone unturned, Pasternak duly remade Three Smart Girls as Three Daring Daughters (1948) and It’s a Date as Nancy Goes to Rio (1950), both as star vehicles for the Deanna Durbin-ish Jane Powell. The “original” Durbin, however, would remain his biggest accomplishment.

Deanna Durbin: Adrift at Universal

Once Joe Pasternak was gone, Universal didn’t quite know what to do with Deanna Durbin’s "genius" and "light." Tired of playing the same character disguised under different names and different movie titles, Durbin was eager for a change of pace. "I wanted to look glamorous. I couldn’t wait to wear low-cut dresses and look sultry," she would later recall. Nevertheless, the studio wanted to stick to their tried-and-true Deanna Durbin Formula.

Not surprisingly, conflicts between star and studio ensued. Just as Pasternak was leaving for MGM and around the time of her marriage to former Universal assistant director Vaughn Paul (Three Smart Girls, Mad About Music), Durbin went on suspension for refusing to star in two movies to be directed by Lewis A. Seiter. Seiter was by then a Hollywood veteran known mostly for routine fare, in addition to a few career highlights such as Durbin’s own It’s a Date.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Deanna Durbin’s turning down both They Lived Alone and Marriage of Inconvenience — while demanding that she be granted the right to appear in movies at MGM and elsewhere — cost Universal $200,000, as the studio had been forced to cancel both projects after being unable to find a replacement for the actress-singer.

["Deanna Durbin Without Joe Pasternak: Adrift at Universal" continues on the next page. See link below.]

Robert Cummings, Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton It Started with Eve photo: Universal Pictures.

Continue Reading: Deanna Durbin in the ’40s: From Wholesome Musicals to Film Noir Sex Worker

Previous Post: Deanna Durbin ‘Miracle Movies’ Save Universal


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