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Deanna Durbin 'Miracle Movies' Save Universal

Deanna Durbin Three Smart GirlsDeanna Durbin 'saves' Universal (image: Deanna Durbin in Three Smart Girls)

[See previous post: “Deanna Durbin: Remembering One of Hollywood's Top Stars.”] During the Great Depression most Hollywood studios were in dire financial straits, until, as the story goes, one (or more) lucky star(s) made them once again solvent. Mae West is credited for “saving” Paramount; Shirley Temple “saved” Fox; the Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler, and Dick Powell combo “saved” Warner Bros.; and the curious mix of King Kong, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers “saved” RKO.

So, did Deanna Durbin truly save Universal from bankruptcy? Well, Charles Rogers' investment company came to the financial rescue of Universal in 1936, but the success of Durbin's movies surely helped the new management get the studio back on its feet. For instance, according to author David Shipman, Three Smart Girls cost $300,000 – its budget doubled after studio bosses realized they had a hit in their hands – and earned Universal a hefty $2 million. (An unspecified source from the period claims the film's budget was $400,000, up from the originally planned $100,000, and its earnings a still remarkable $1.6m.)

In all fairness, however, credit for “saving” Universal must go not only to Durbin, but to the Deanna Durbin-Joe Pasternak combo. Pasternak, in fact, could do no wrong at Universal; later in the '30s, he also launched the career of another teen soprano, Gloria Jean (The Under-Pup), and gave Marlene Dietrich a complete makeover in the box office hit Destry Rides Again (1939).

And if Deanna Durbin saved Universal, she and her family were “saved” by the studio as well. Her ailing father had been unable to work when Durbin, just like one of her early movie characters, came to the rescue of the troubled adult. In this instance, with her weekly paycheck. (Note: Durbin discusses her father's ill health in her 1983 interview with David Shipman; the name of the studio that gave her a contract right in the nick of time goes unmentioned – it might have been MGM. But really, her family's finances were truly “saved” only after she became a long-term Universal contract player.)

Deanna Durbin movies: 'The miracle films of today'

The Deanna Durbin of the movies was known as “Little Miss Fix-It.” Adults, acting childishly, would become entangled in assorted personal and professional difficulties; but as long as little Deanna Durbin was around, belting out a handful of pop tunes and/or arias when time and plot allowed, everything would turn out well at the end.

When not helping out adults, Durbin's characters kept busy trying to help themselves. In Mad About Music (1938), for instance, creative storyteller Gloria Harkinson (Durbin), the daughter of a self-centered Hollywood star (Gail Patrick), must come up with a father quick so as to prove to her school friends that her stories about her Dashing Daddy are all true. Lucky for her, Herbert Marshall just happens to be available.

Needless to say, the plots of Durbin's star vehicles were pure formula, basically giving her a chance to look pretty and sing beautifully. That, however, didn't prevent her movies from becoming huge worldwide hits.

In The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, David Shipman asserts that Deanna Durbin was “easily” the UK's top female box office draw from 1939-1942. Her fans ranged from small-town-America moms to Dutch diarist Anne Frank, British statesman Winston Churchill, Russian composer Mstislav Rostropovich, British author Graham Greene (who remarked on Durbin's “immense talents as an actress”), and Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (who, while accepting his Honorary Oscar, recalled sending her a fan letter).

Film critics were not immune to Durbin's charms, either. While discussing the highly sentimental One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), the movie that introduced Durbin to Mozart, and in which she pesters conductor Leopold Stokowski to come to the rescue of her down-in-the-dumps musician father (Adolphe Menjou) and his orchestra, The New Statesman's P. Galway wrote:

“Useless to pretend that I'm tough enough to resist the blandishments of Miss Deanna Durbin. The candid eyes, the parted lips, the electric energy, the astonishing voice; if they bowl over 50 million or so, surely a critic may be pardoned for wobbling a little on his professional cynical base. For this is pure fairy tale; but it comes off.”

Also in the UK, The Sunday Express marveled, “These Deanna Durbin pictures … are the miracle films of today.”

Deanna Durbin and the Academy Awards

Besides moms, statesmen, diarists, movie critics, future composers and filmmakers, and buyers of Deanna Durbin dolls, dresses, records, and all sorts of merchandising, Durbin had ardent fans at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well. At the 1939 Oscar ceremony, she and fellow teen star Mickey Rooney were given Academy Juvenile Awards “for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.”

Durbin would never be nominated for an Academy Award, but the fluffy Three Smart Girls and One Hundred Men and a Girl were shortlisted for the Best Picture Oscar and in other categories. Mad About Music, for its part, was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Original Story (Marcella Burke and Frederick Kohner). A number of other Durbin movies would also be shortlisted over the years, usually in the Music and “technical” categories.

[“Universal Saved by 'Miracle Films' Starring Deanna Durbin” continues on the next page. See link below the (silent) video featuring Durbin leaving her hand and footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.]

Deanna Durbin Three Smart Girls publicity image: Universal Pictures.

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Continue Reading: Deanna Durbin Without Joe Pasternak: Adrift at Universal

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1 Comment to Deanna Durbin 'Miracle Movies' Save Universal

  1. john and linda helton

    we loved her movies even today. we are sad to hear of her passing.