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Deanna Durbin in the '40s: From Wholesome Musicals to Film Noir Sex Worker

Deanna Durbin Gene Kelly Christmas HolidayDeanna Durbin in the 1940s: From wholesome musicals to film noir sex worker (image: Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin cast against type in the un-Christmas-y 'Christmas Holiday')

(See previous post: “Deanna Durbin Without Joe Pasternak: Adrift at Universal.”) The Deanna Durbin vs. Universal dispute was settled in early 1942, when the actress was supposedly granted director and story approval. But things didn't go all that smoothly from then on. There would be no loan-outs to the more opulent MGM, and Durbin would later complain that Universal refused to abide by her requests.

Also, for the first time since her career skyrocketed in 1936, Durbin was absent from the screen for a whole year. The key reason there were no 1942 Deanna Durbin movies was the troubled production of her next star vehicle, The Amazing Mrs. Holliday, in which Durbin tries to smuggle Chinese orphans into the U.S., and which underwent not only various title changes, but also various directors and various script revisions according to notes found in the AFI catalog.

Jean Renoir was one of the uncredited directors who worked on The Amazing Mrs. Holliday, which, according to David Shipman, was to have had a screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Assisted by F. Hugh Herbert, the duo, on loan-out from Paramount, had already penned the original screenplay for That Certain Age, which was later worked on by frequent Deanna Durbin-Joe Pasternak collaborator Bruce Manning. (After Universal brought in Manning for rewrites, Brackett and Wilder demanded that their names be removed from the credits of The Certain Age; Brackett would later regret his decision. See film historian Anthony Slide's comment below.) Manning also happened to be the producer and the official director of The Amazing Mrs. Holliday.

There have been different accounts as to why Renoir quit the production. He was fired because he was too slow or, as per Renoir biographer Célia Bertin, he had to withdraw due to ill health or, as per Shipman, he quit because Durbin “was unable to escape from the style that made her famous.” Yet, Anthony Slide, who was friends with Jean Renoir, wrote me, “Certainly, he spoke well of [Durbin] in old age.” (As an aside, in 1941 another French exile, René Clair, had a screenplay ready for Deanna Durbin, but Joe Pasternak – unfortunately – assigned him instead to direct Marlene Dietrich in The Flame of New Orleans.)

After The Amazing Mrs. Holliday, referred to by the New York Times as “slapdash contrived and crude,” Deanna Durbin's star vehicles, none of which matched the prestige of her Joe Pasternak movies of the '30s and early '40s, would be a mixed bag in terms of popular and critical appeal.

Wholesome Deanna Durbin

Two-time Academy Award winner Frank Borzage (7th Heaven, Bad Girl) handled the romantic comedy His Butler's Sister (1943), about an aspiring singer (Durbin) visiting her half-brother (former Warner Bros. player Pat O'Brien) in New York and once again falling in love with Franchot Tone. Along similar lines – though eliciting tears instead of laughter – in Frank Ryan's sort-of Three Smart Girls sequel, the World War II romantic melodrama Hers to Hold (1943), the older man in question is pilot Joseph Cotten. As proof that Durbin, all of 21, was no longer a child, in both films her feelings for Tone and Cotten, then in their mid-to-late 30s, were reciprocated.

Around the time Hers to Hold was in production, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper came up with the story that Cotten and Durbin were an item. The problem: Cotten had been married for more than a decade, while Durbin, after two years of marriage, was about to get a divorce from Vaughn Paul.

In his autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, Cotten remembers telling Hopper, “If you mention my name in your column personally again, I'll kick you in the ass.” His name was mentioned (presumably in connection with Durbin's) – and Hopper got her ass kicked one evening while sitting in a cane-bottomed chair.

For her part, Deanna Durbin probably felt like doing some ass-kicking herself after Universal refused to allow her to star in the Broadway production of Oklahoma!. (Joan Roberts landed the role on Broadway; Shirley Jones was cast in Fred Zinnemann's 1955 movie version.)

Wholesome Deanna Durbin makes unwholesome detour

Unrelated to any sort of off-screen, Hedda Hopper-concocted scandal – though possibly as an appeasing gesture to mollify its increasingly recalcitrant star – Universal had Robert Siodmak direct Deanna Durbin in the ironically titled Christmas Holliday (1944), based on W. Somerset Maugham's dark psychological novel and adapted to the screen by Citizen Kane's Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Despite being a bowdlerized version of Maugham's original tale, Christmas Holliday was undeniably located at the other end of the spectrum from the likes of His Butler's Sister and Hers to Hold – or any other previous Deanna Durbin movie. In the film, Durbin portrays a New Orleans nightclub-cum-brothel performer, possibly a sex worker as well; on loan from MGM in exchange for Turhan Bey, an offbeat-cast Gene Kelly plays her husband – surely a killer, possibly a gay one, and with an incestuously-inclined mother (Gale Sondergaard) to boot.

According to several sources, Christmas Holliday was a box office misfire, though David Shipman claims the movie was actually a hit. The issue, according to Shipman, was that Deanna Durbin's fans – perhaps expecting a snow-covered Yuletide musical? – were outraged at seeing their wholesome idol featured in such an unsavory cinematic environment.

Renowned British film critic C.A. Lejeune was apparently one of those disgruntled Deanna Durbin admirers, complaining:

Christmas Holiday is a jolly title for a Deanna Durbin film, but it's the only jolly thing about it. Miss Durbin is an accomplished singer; so they cut her songs down to two and make them blues numbers. She has a naturally modest and ingenuous manner; so they cast her as a hostess in a seedy night club. She is at her best in simple comedies; so they give her a heavy drama … She has a limited range as an actress; so they ask her to express … anguish, rapture, fear, world-weariness, and spiritual catharsis, apart from one or two other emotions you may find it difficult to identify. Does this seem to you the best way of making a Deanna Durbin picture? No? No.

Lighter material was provided in Can't Help Singing (1944), with Deanna Durbin in color for the first (and only) time, singing songs by Jerome Kern while romancing Universal B-movie leading man Robert Paige.

Another Deanna Durbin star vehicle in a lighter vein was the popular crime comedy thriller Lady on a Train (1945). Directed by relative Hollywood newcomer Charles David, a former production manager in France for the likes of Jean Renoir (La Chienne) and Marcel Carné (Drole de drame), Lady on a Train stars Durbin as a witness to a murder that no one believes has been committed – the same premise found in Agatha Christie's 1957 novel 4:50 from Paddington (which became the 1962 Margaret Rutherford movie Murder, She Said).

[“From Wholesome Musicals to Film Noir Sex Worker: '40s Deanna Durbin” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin Christmas Holiday photo: Universal Pictures.

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2 Comments to Deanna Durbin in the '40s: From Wholesome Musicals to Film Noir Sex Worker

  1. Andre

    Thanks, Tony.

    The text has been amended to reflect your comments re: the Deanna Durbin movie “That Certain Age.”

  2. Anthony Slide

    I have edited the diaries of Charles Brackett, which will be published in October by Columbia University Press. Brackett makes no reference to him and Billy Wilder working on The Amazing Mrs. Holliday. The pair did, however, more than just “assist” on writing That Certain Age. In April 1938, they came to Universal, on loan-out from Paramount, to write the new Deanna Durbin film. They had a lot of problems in coming up with a storyline and received major help from F. Hugh Herbert. After they had completed the script, Bruce Manning was brought in, against the wishes of Brackett, Wilder and Herbert. He probably did not contribute very much to the project, but his presence was enough for Brackett and Wilder to ask that their names be removed from the credits. Brackett does record that after seeing the film he did regret the decision to remove his name, as it was not as bad as he thought it might be.
    Apologies for taking so long to read the excellent Deanna Durbin tribute here. Life can get very hectic!