Deanna Durbin: Remembering One of Hollywood's Top Stars Ever

Deanna Durbin singingDeanna Durbin dies at 91: One of the top stars of Hollywood's studio era (image: Deanna Durbin in 'I'll Be Yours')

According to Hollywood lore, teen star Deanna Durbin saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy in the mid-'30s, when her movies earned the Great Depression-hit studio some much-needed millions. The story may seem like an exaggeration, but in fact future Universal players such as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Maria Montez, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and even Jaws' Bruce the Shark and the assorted dinosaurs found in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park partly owe their film careers to the pretty, bubbly, full-faced, soprano-voiced Deanna Durbin, the star of immensely successful Universal releases such as Three Smart Girls, One Hundred Men and a Girl, and That Certain Age.

Universal should be in mourning this week. Late this past Tuesday, April 30, it was announced that Deanna Durbin had died a “few days” earlier at age 91. The source was a newsletter from the British-based Deanna Durbin Society, quoting Durbin's son, Peter H. David. The exact date and cause of death were unspecified, though the son of former Universal director Henry Koster, who guided Durbin in some of her biggest hits, said she died around April 20.

Deanna Durbin or Judy Garland: 'Drop the Fat One'

Deanna Durbin was born Edna Mae Durbin to British parents on December 4, 1921, in Winnipeg, in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Edna Mae's time in Canada, however, was brief. She actually grew up in the Los Angeles area, where her father, formerly a Canadian Pacific railway blacksmith, set up shop shortly after her birth.

After years of voice training, minor but persistent agent Jack Sherrill got the 14-year-old Edna Mae to test for the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney's animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But Disney turned her down because she sounded too mature.

Shortly afterwards, she was cast (as “Edna”) in the 1936 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer one-reeler Every Sunday, in which she got to sing with fellow 14-year-old MGM hopeful Judy Garland (as “Judy”). The extended screen test was supposed to showcase the quite different vocal talents of Durbin and Garland – the former a lyric soprano; the latter a vibrant contralto. At the time, Durbin signed a short-term contract for a reported $150 a week to play the young Ernestine Schumann-Heink in a projected biopic of the opera singer.

But would MGM have use for two teen female singers, however different their styles? According to Hollywood legend, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer told his acolytes, “Drop the fat one,” meaning Judy Garland. Due to a misunderstanding, Deanna Durbin was let go. Another version of the story has Mayer wanting to keep them both, but by the time his decision was made Durbin's contract had expired.

Either way, it was a traumatic experience for the teenager. “I was crying bitterly and decided that I'd kill myself,” she would later recall. “I couldn't go back to school a failure.”

Universal in the doldrums

MGM's loss would turn out to be a miraculous windfall for Universal, back in the '30s just a notch above a B studio and facing serious financial problems. Unable to get Judy Garland for a role in Universal's low-budget musical comedy Three Smart Girls (MGM had loaned Garland to 20th Century Fox for Pigskin Parade), émigré producer Joe Pasternak (born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his place of birth now part of Romania) set his sights on the equally youthful and musically inclined Durbin.

New Universal boss Charles Rogers, whose investment partnership took charge of the studio after ousting deeply indebted Universal founder Carl Laemmle and his son, immediately signed on the rechristened Deanna Durbin.

Luckily for both Durbin and the studio, the young singer had become a national celebrity after performing on Eddie Cantor's Radio Hour and, also opposite Cantor, in vaudeville houses throughout the U.S. As a result, when Three Smart Girls opened, Durbin, whose role was enlarged during filming, was already a “name” and a potential box office draw.

In the movie, three sisters – Deanna Durbin, Nan Grey, and Barbara Read (the latter two would never achieve stardom) – join forces to reunite their estranged parents. The plot, pure escapist fare made to order while the United States and the world were still reeling from the Great Depression, was reminiscent of Malcolm St. Clair's 1925 fluffy comedy Are Parents People?, starring Betty Bronson as a youth attempting to reunite parents Florence Vidor and Adolphe Menjou.

Minus the tap dancing and the long curls, but with the addition of a heavenly voice, Deanna Durbin, like Shirley Temple before her, was a big-screen emissary out to lift the spirits of Depression Era audiences. Under the tutelage of producer Pasternak and German-born director Henry Koster, both of whom brought to Hollywood after Universal shut down its German-based operations, Durbin became an overnight sensation and Universal's biggest asset.

[“Dead at 91: Top Universal Star Deanna Durbin” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Deanna Durbin I'll Be Yours publicity still: Universal Pictures.

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