Deanna Durbin dies at 91: One of the top stars of Hollywood’s studio era
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, ’13, 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 Dec. 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.
Singing teen ‘saves’ Universal
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.)
‘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.
Deanna Durbin leaves her hand and footprints at the Chinese Theatre.
Adrift at 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.
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 in the 1940s
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).
Highest-paid actress in the world
Despite several missteps in the handling of her career, David Shipman states that Deanna Durbin was Hollywood’s (and the world’s) highest-paid actress in both 1945 and 1947. In 1946, Durbin’s earnings of $323,477 trailed only Bette Davis’ $328,000 at Warner Bros. Those are impressive rankings (and wages), but ironically Durbin’s high earnings ultimately harmed her career.
By the mid-’40s, her domestic box office allure was beginning to fade, a situation surely worsened by World War II closing off most of Hollywood’s top international markets. As a result, Universal, since 1947 a new entity known as Universal-International, was unwilling to spend extra money in their star’s already costly vehicles. That’s a similar predicament to the one faced by silent era superstar John Gilbert at MGM in the early ’30s: the studio had to pay Gilbert an exorbitant salary that made his movies much too costly to justify getting him expensive leading ladies and/or directors and/or high production values to counterbalance dwindling box office receipts.
While at MGM Judy Garland sang and danced in colorful musical extravaganzas co-starring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and under the guidance of Vincente Minnelli and Charles Walters, at Universal Deanna Durbin was stuck with second-rank leading men and directors in what amounted to B-movie fare – and, adding insult to injury, in black and white: William A. Seiter’s I’ll Be Yours (1947), with Tom Drake; Irving Pichel’s Something in the Wind (1947), with John Dall and then-B-movie Universal contract player Donald O’Connor (who would later say Durbin was a “professional” but, at the time, “in a funk”); Seiter’s period musical Up in Central Park (1948), with Dick Haymes and Vincent Price; and Frederick De Cordova’s For the Love of Mary (1948), with Edmond O’Brien, Don Taylor, and Jeffrey Lynn – a production in which the studio had so little faith it had been shelved for a year.
Deanna Durbin and Universal part ways
After 21 features over the course of 12 years – every single one of them at Universal – Deanna Durbin’s Hollywood career came to an abrupt end in 1948. Curiously, fellow ’30s child star Shirley Temple quit films the following year, while Judy Garland’s final MGM movie, Summer Stock, was released in 1950. In the next two decades, Garland would be featured in only four more films.
“I can’t run around being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song,” Durbin reportedly told Joe Pasternak after the release of For the Love of Mary.
Years later, she told David Shipman, “Why did I give up my career? For one thing, just take a look at my last four films and you’ll appreciate that the stories I had to defend were mediocre, near impossible. … I was the highest paid star with the poorest material – today I consider my salary as damages for having to cope with such complete lack of quality.”
According to online sources quoting a couple of New York Times reports, also in the late ’40s a convoluted salary dispute erupted between Durbin and Universal. At first, the studio threatened to sue Durbin to get back $87,000 it had advanced the actress. Instead of handing back the money, Durbin consented to star in three extra movies for the studio. Ironically, Universal, due to “increasing public apathy,” allowed her contract to expire; thus, the studio was ultimately forced to disburse $200,000 in severance pay.
At least when it came to Deanna Durbin’s career, Universal executives, regardless of the regime in power, must have been either very narrow-minded or very petty. A loan-out to studios that specialized in big, colorful musicals, e.g., MGM or 20th Century Fox, would have done wonders for Durbin’s popularity – and, in turn, for her Universal star vehicles. Perhaps the Universal suits wanted to punish their “difficult” contract player; perhaps they wanted to make sure that while under contract, she would never work for Joe Pasternak again. Either way, Universal’s mishandling of Durbin’s career was not only her loss, but the studio’s as well.
Deanna Durbin’s roles that never happened: From Bing Crosby’s leading lady to ‘My Fair Lady’
Unconfirmed sources claim that as her association with Universal came to a halt, Durbin turned down a couple of leads opposite Bing Crosby at Paramount. If so, in her stead, Rhonda Fleming was cast in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, while fellow soprano-voiced Universal player Ann Blyth stepped in in Top o’ the Morning.
Among other roles purportedly destined for Deanna Durbin but eventually played by others were the female leads in George Sidney’s Kiss Me Kate (which went to former Joe Pasternak protégée Kathryn Grayson) and in Richard Thorpe’s The Student Prince (Ann Blyth again). Durbin was also offered the lead in the West End staging of Kiss Me Kate, and, most importantly, the part of Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. “I was seriously tempted,” Durbin would later say about that possibility, when My Fair Lady was still “in an embryonic state” in the late ’40s.
In his autobiography, Stanley Holloway, who played Eliza’s father, wrote that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe initially wanted Mary Martin for Eliza. When they couldn’t get her, they thought of Durbin, and then Dolores Gray, until finally settling on Julie Andrews. (Audrey Hepburn played Eliza in Warner Bros.’ Academy Award-winning 1964 movie version.)
Three Husbands with Universal Pictures background
By the time the 26-year-old Deanna Durbin’s film career was over, the movies’ personification of girl next door wholesomeness had been married twice: Durbin’s union with Universal Pictures assistant director Vaughn Paul ended in 1943. Two years later, she married another Universal employee, 43-year-old German-born writer-producer Felix Jackson, among whose screenwriting and/or producing credits were the James Stewart / Marlene Dietrich Western hit Destry Rides Again (1939), the well-regarded Ginger Rogers / David Niven comedy Bachelor Mother (1939), and several Deanna Durbin star vehicles, including Mad About Music, Hers to Hold, and Lady on a Train. Jackson, in fact, produced nearly all of her post-Joe Pasternak films of the mid-’40s, the one exception being The Amazing Mrs. Holliday. The last Jackson-Durbin collaboration was the 1947 critical and box office misfire I’ll Be Yours, which came out as their marriage was crumbling.
Deanna Durbin would become a two-time divorcee in 1949, the year after she quit films.
“When my first marriage failed, everyone said that I could never divorce. It would ruin the ‘image,’” she would recall during her interview with David Shipman. “How could anybody really think that I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I found I didn’t love, just for the sake of an ‘image’?”
Not caring about her public image, Durbin married for the third (and, as it turned out, last) time in 1950. Her husband was the German-born, French-raised (his place of birth is now French territory) 46-year-old Charles David (a.k.a. Charles-Henri David), her Lady on a Train director and a fellow music enthusiast.
According to the IMDb, David’s only other directing credit was another 1945 Universal release, River Gang, starring Gloria Jean – groomed as a younger Deanna Durbin clone, though, much like Universal’s Susanna Foster and Peggy Ryan, ultimately without ever getting near Durbin’s popularity.
Deanna Durbin and Charles David: Protection from mosquitoes & spiders + dinosaurs & reporters
Following her marriage to Charles David, Deanna Durbin left her Pacific Palisades estate and retired with her husband to a farmhouse in the village of Neauphle-le-Château, outside Paris. Durbin, whose money had reportedly been invested wisely, would live there for the next six decades, generally refusing to grant interviews or discuss her years in Hollywood.
“When we married, we made a deal,” Durbin told author David Ragan in 1976. “My husband would protect me from spiders, mosquitoes and reporters. My job is to protect him from lions, tigers and dinosaurs. It has worked. I have not had to give an interview or pose for pictures for years and my husband can’t remember last when a dinosaur breathed down his neck.”
The old studio system ‘firmly rigged against the individual in favor of the machine’
Deanna Durbin’s feelings about her Hollywood days weren’t exactly positive. At about the time she quit films, Durbin told Eddie Cantor, “I don’t want to have anything to do with show business ever.” And in a letter sent to the press in the late ’50s, she stated, “I was never happy making pictures. I’ve gained weight. I do my own shopping, bring up my two children and sing an hour every day.”
Unlike most of her contemporaries, who usually chose to reminisce about the past through rose-colored glasses, Durbin agreed with David Shipman that Old Hollywood’s studio “system was firmly rigged against the individual in favor of the machine.”
That statement may sound like bitterness on Durbin’s part, but the facts bear her out. During the studio era, from the 1920s to the 1950s, Durbin’s brief 12-year stardom was the rule, not the exception, no matter how talented or determined the individual. Once a star became identified with a big-screen persona, it was nearly impossible to transcend it. For the most part, studio bosses couldn’t care less; if the public got tired of the same old star vehicles featuring Kay Francis or Greer Garson, there would always be a Bette Davis or a Deborah Kerr waiting in the wings.
Life in a goldfish bowl
As for those who believe that rabid fan worship is a new phenomenon reserved for the likes of Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez, Deanna Durbin’s experiences indicate otherwise.
“I hated being in a goldfish bowl,” she told Shipman. “If I went to New York, I had to stay in my hotel room or go everywhere under guard, whisked away in a big black limousine, terrified that the fans running alongside would get hurt in the traffic.” At a train station in Texas, the police lost control of a crowd of fans trying to reach Durbin, which resulted in her mother suffering two broken ribs. “I have never been so frightened. They put me in the town jail for safety and to avoid the mob still waiting at the station.”
Yet, Durbin would also admit that the actual film work had been a positive experience:
“I did not hate show business. I loved to sing. I was happy on the set. I liked the people with whom I worked and after the nervousness of the first day, I felt completely at ease in front of the camera. I also enjoyed the company of my fellow actors [the usual “older men” Franchot Tone, Robert Cummings, Walter Pidgeon, etc.] … I did two films with my special friend, Charles Laughton. Working with these talented men helped me so very much and I grew up much faster than the average teenager. What I did find difficult was that this acquired maturity had to be hidden under the childlike personality my films and publicity projected on me.”
Deanna Durbin: Private individual vs. public persona
While researching Deanna Durbin for this article, what impressed me the most – besides her beatific singing voice – was her clear-headed appraisal of her own popularity, and by extension, of fame in general. Much to her credit, she apparently never believed her own publicity. In fact, Durbin’s is probably the most incisive, bluntly honest assessment of the appeal of any celebrity who, like her, at an early age became associated with a public persona – from Betty Bronson and Jackie Coogan in the ’20s, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney in the ’30s, Margaret O’Brien and Jane Powell in the ’40s, and Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee in the ’50s to Macauley Culkin, Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron, Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Lautner in the last two decades.
As illustrations of the sort of publicity enveloping Deanna Durbin in her heyday, here are a couple of brief excerpts from Durbin profiles – which, apart from tabloid “reports,” really aren’t that different from the p.r. inanities disseminated today under the guise of “entertainment news”:
Excerpt One: “When she first rises in the morning she takes a shower bath. The shower must be warm to begin with, although she finishes off with cool water. She admits a fondness for ping-pong and plays it frequently. She has a set at her own home.
“Deanna is indeed a remarkable girl, and yet she is not much different from many of the average wholesome American girls of her age.”
Excerpt Two: “And she is not without faults that are quite usual in a girl her age. She had the habit of biting her nails and after much effort on the part of her mother she was finally able to cure this unpleasant habit by frequent manicures.”
Private vs. public image: Also applicable to adult actors
Deanna Durbin’s appraisal of the constraints of fame would apply to adult stars as well; those who have been pigeonholed into specific public roles, whether as “tough guys” or “funny guys” or “grand dames” or “sweethearts” – from the likes of Bob Hope, Doris Day, Lucille Ball, and Julie Andrews to Clint Eastwood, Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler, and Meryl Streep.
After all, despite decades of celebrity p.r. bullshit, multitudes of fans the world over still refuse to see the – often gargantuan – chasm separating their favorite celebrities’ media-engendered public personas from the flesh-and-blood individuals behind them. They’d rather believe that in private their idols – be they movie stars or religious leaders, rappers or politicians – are just like their movie, stage, concert, television, and/or red-carpet, podium, or talk-show characterizations.
In the realm of movie stardom, what Deanna Durbin says below could just as easily have been voiced by Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in regard to Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, or Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in regard to Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. Or Helen Mirren, who really isn’t – or behaves like – the Queen of England (the queen never looked like this), much like Jennifer Aniston is not the character she played in Friends, and Tom Cruise is not nor has ever been Jerry Maguire, Top Gun‘s Maverick, or Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt. John Wayne only fought wars on movie sets; he was no fearless cowboy, either; he was an actor obeying the commands of his director.
Also, bear in mind while reading the paragraphs below that unlike youthful 21st-century performers such as Daniel Radcliffe, Kristen Stewart, and Robert Pattinson, who had the opportunity to make their own (daring) professional choices in between Harry Potter and Twilight assignments – e.g., Radcliffe in Equus on Broadway, Stewart in On the Road, Pattinson in Bel Ami – Deanna Durbin and most others like her during Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age” were tied down to long-term contracts that prevented them from taking other jobs without their studios’ consent.
“I was a typical 13-year-old American girl,” Deanna Durbin recalled to David Shipman in 1983. “The character I was forced into had little or nothing in common with myself – or with other youth of my generation, for that matter. I could never believe that my contemporaries were my fans. They may have been impressed with my ‘success,’ but my fans were the parents, many of whom could not cope with their own youngsters. They sort of adopted me as their ‘perfect’ daughter.”
Durbin also made sure everyone knew she had no affinity for the “concocted Durbin personality [which …] never had any similarity to me, not even coincidentally.”
There’s more. In 1967, film historian Anthony Slide wrote an article about Deanna Durbin’s career for Films in Review, which he later sent her. After a while, he received a reply from Durbin, in which she wrote, in part, the following:
“I never had any feeling of identity with the ‘Deanna Durbin’ born from my early pictures and from a mixture of press agents, publicity and fan worship, so you realize that I find it impossible and useless to go into an examination of ‘historical’ data about her. …
“As I often wonder … I cannot see why, after so many years, it still matters to write about Durbin. I know that years ago my life was everybody’s business and that the concoction of screen image and publicity created a sweet monster, which the real person I was had a lot of trouble to fight and to overcome eventually. The fact that even today with the world’s terrifying problems people are still interested in synthetic old Durbin of the thirties only shows what escape from reality I must have meant.
“I may still have some good physical resemblance with the ‘Deanna Durbin’ your article is about, but this living self has no authority to comment on the biographical data of a past that never was my own.”
Deanna Durbin: Ephemeral fame
Unlike Greta Garbo, whose mystique remained basically intact following her retirement in 1941, Deanna Durbin’s popularity faded away much like that of the vast majority of celebrities who were removed – or who chose to remove themselves – from public view. Despite the advent of home video and classic-movie cable channels, Durbin remains virtually unknown to the vast majority of those who weren’t around in her heyday in the ’30s and ’40s.
Yet, although relatively few in number, she continues to have her ardent fans. There are a handful of websites devoted to Deanna Durbin and her film and recording careers, chiefly among them the appropriately titled “Deanna Durbin Devotees.”
Charles David, Deanna Durbin’s husband of 48 years, died in March 1999, at the age of 92; Institut Pasteur medical researcher Peter H. David is their only son. Durbin also had a daughter, Jessica, from her marriage with Felix Jackson. Concern for her daughter’s emotional welfare, in fact, was one of the reasons Durbin opted to leave Hollywood for good.
Felix Jackson died age 90 in December 1992. Durbin’s first husband, Vaughn Paul, died in June 1999, at age 83.
Joe Pasternak would call Durbin whenever he was in Paris: “Are you still happy?” “Yes.” “Damn. Well, I’ll try again next time.” Pasternak, who continued producing movies until 1968, died in 1991, six days before his 90th birthday. Henry Koster, whose last directorial credit was The Singing Nun (1966), a Debbie Reynolds star vehicle that could easily have gone to Deanna Durbin a couple of decades earlier, died at age 83 in 1988.
Slim, ‘always smiling’
In an October 1979 column, The Glasgow Herald‘s Gordon Irving wrote that Deanna Durbin lived “modestly in her small estate where the flowers come alive in the summer,” was a Barbra Streisand fan who at times sang Streisand and Beatles songs, and remained “beautiful (if now somewhat plumpish).” Durbin’s weight gain seems to have been the general (mis)perception at the time.
In the picture above, Durbin proves herself to be anything but “plump.” Charles David took the picture in 1981 and sent it to film archivist William K. Everson. According to several online reports, around that time another Durbin photo was published in Life magazine – only poor reproductions are available online – showing the world that the former Universal star, who continued to do quite a bit of exercise (see quote below), had not turned fat. To the best of my knowledge, these two are the most recent Deanna Durbin photographs made public.
Also in his column, Gordon Irving quoted a Neauphle-le-Château resident who explained:
“To us she’s not Miss Durbin but Madame David. She walks the quarter mile to the shops in the village.
“She’s still beautiful, blue-eyed, always smiling.”
Deanna Durbin: ‘The Last Rose of Summer’
Wrapping this up, below is Deanna Durbin singing Thomas Moore and John Stevenson’s “The Last Rose of Summer” to Charles Winninger in Three Smart Girls Grow Up. (The song was also used in Michael Moore’s 2009 documentary Capitalism: A Love Story.) And below that, is Turner Classic Movies’ moving, classy “TCM Remembers” segment in honor of Deanna Durbin’s passing.
“Escape from reality” or no, “synthetic” Universal Pictures concoction or no, watching – and especially listening to – Deanna Durbin in the clip below, it becomes crystal clear why those familiar with her work have remained devoted admirers throughout the decades.
Deanna Durbin movies
Every Sunday (1936 short), with Judy Garland; Three Smart Girls (1936), with Binnie Barnes, Charles Winninger, Alice Brady, and Ray Milland; One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), with Leopold Stokowski and Adolphe Menjou; Mad About Music (1938), with Herbert Marshall and Gail Patrick; That Certain Age (1938), with Melvyn Douglas, Jackie Cooper, and Nancy Carroll; First Love (1939), with Robert Stack; Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), with Charles Winninger, Robert Cummings, and William Lundigan.
Also: Spring Parade (1940), with Robert Cummings; It’s a Date (1940), with Kay Francis and Walter Pidgeon; Nice Girl? (1941), with Franchot Tone and Robert Stack; It Started with Eve (1941), with Charles Laughton and Robert Cummings; The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), with Edmond O’Brien and Barry Fitzgerald; His Butler’s Sister (1943), with Franchot Tone and Pat O’Brien; Hers to Hold (1943), with Joseph Cotten.
And: Christmas Holiday (1944), with Gene Kelly; Can’t Help Singing (1944), with Robert Paige; Lady on a Train (1945), with Ralph Bellamy; Because of Him (1946), with Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone; I’ll Be Yours (1947), with Tom Drake and William Bendix; Something in the Wind (1947), with Donald O’Connor and John Dall; Up in Central Park (1948), with Dick Haymes and Vincent Price; For the Love of Mary (1948), with Edmond O’Brien, Don Taylor, and Jeffrey Lynn.
Deanna Durbin article sources
Besides the sources previously mentioned in this Deanna Durbin article, the following were also helpful: Clive Hirschhorn’s The Universal Story, Colin Larkin’s The Virgin Encyclopedia of Stage and Film Musicals, Ed Gould’s Entertaining Canadians: Canada’s International Stars, 1900-1988, and various undated / untitled articles found at Deanna Durbin Devotees.
And last but certainly not least, a big Thank You to Anthony Slide for the Deanna Durbin quotes found in her letter in reference to his Films in Review article.
Deanna Durbin I’ll Be Yours publicity still: Universal Pictures.
Deanna Durbin Three Smart Girls publicity image: Universal Pictures.
Robert Cummings, Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton It Started with Eve photo: Universal Pictures.
Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin Christmas Holiday photo: Universal Pictures.
Deanna Durbin publicity photo: Universal Pictures.
Deanna Durbin publicity shot: Universal Pictures.
Slim Deanna Durbin ‘today’ photo via NYU’s William K. Everson Collection.