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

  1. Nina Gale

    Loved her movies. Universal needs to release them all on DVD now. The tapes are getting old and may not last much longer. My favorite actress and singer ever. Will miss her.

  2. Larry Smith

    Deanna Durbin has died.

    Yes it is sad that she is gone, but thank goodness her films survive, for now.

    In fact it is because of inspiring feel good movies like Durbin's and director Frank Capra's that I got seriously involved with motion picture preservation.

    I first discovered the blue eyed, brown haired Canadian warbler back in the 1980s when AMC used to show American Movie Classics from the Universal Studios library without commercial interruption. I used to scourer the TV guide for old classic films rated 3 stars or better by Leonard Maltin. I discovered lots of gems and one those was Durbin's One Hundred Men And A Girl.

    I at first found Deanna's talents utterly charming, she was captivating to watch – a natural actress – and when she would break into song it was if the world had stop turning and now revolved around her. She became the center of the universe, for just that scene.

    Needless to say over the years I have tracked down all 21 of her films, the best in my opinion being: It Started With Eve, Spring Parade, Lady On A Train, His Butler's Sister, Every Sunday, Mad About Music, That Certain Age, Three Smart Girls, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, Something In The Wind and First Love. Which means, to me most of her films are great!

    If you've never seen one of Deanna's romantic comedies with music, I recommend you naturally start with It Started With Eve and if that does not hook you — you are a cynic and in need of a sense of humor and some humanity.

    Deanna, as it says in many of the obits now circulating the Google driven globe was both highly paid and by today's generation mostly forgotten… but I want to ask those who are simply impressed with how much she was paid – ask yourself why was she the top money maker of 1947?

    Answer: It's because she had talent and the public LOVED HER! It's true she was discovered side-by-side with Judy Garland and was as popular as her for runner Shirley Temple (still alive and now 85). Deanna first film, Three Smart Girls (1936) was a huge hit and was nominated for Best Picture Of The Year! Now I love Judy Garland a lot too, but in 1936 her only film was Pigskin Parade where Judy was listed 9th in the credits long before The Wizard Of Oz and teaming with Mickey Rooney made her a star to compete with Durbin.

    Here's in interesting observation, as Durbin skyrocketed to fame and saved Universal Studios with a handful of mega hits, one after the other Garland learned her craft and by the mid 1940's it was Garland who was on top at MGM and Durbin was struggling to find good material and then decided to retire at the ripe old age of 28!

    I could go on, but instead I recommend you celebrate one the best of classic film who has just passed and try to see all 21 of her films before they too are lost.

    P.S. And send a fan letter to other living and forgotten stars Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Doris Day, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney!