Deanna Durbin

The only people who don’t like Deanna Durbin, it seems to me, are people who’ve never seen her movies. Possessed of a glorious, bell-like soprano voice, she was presented to moviegoers of the 1930s in a series of irresistible comedies that showcased a fresh, sunny screen personality. Delightful films like Three Smart Girls, One Hundred Men and a Girl, and Mad About Music were said to have saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy; I don’t know if that’s actually true, but they were enormously successful, and her fans have remained devoted to her for decades.

In 1946 she was the second-highest paid woman in America, but a few years later she walked away from the spotlight, moved to France, and refused most requests for interviews for the rest of her life. She did respond to some fan letters, however, and one notable admirer, film historian William K. Everson, touched a responsive chord when he asked her about working with director Jean Renoir on The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943). He later published an article in Films in Review magazine based on her fond recollections of the master filmmaker, whom she considered a great artist, and her regret that he and Universal didn’t see eye-to-eye about the picture. Producer Bruce Manning stepped in, and received sole credit for the finished film.

Durbin’s few public statements in later years revealed a bitterness about her youthful film career, and a disbelief that anyone her age could have related to the unfailingly cheerful persona that producer Joe Pasternak, director Henry Koster, and a team of writers (including one of her future husbands, Felix Jackson) devised for her.

What a shame that she never appreciated how much happiness she provided to moviegoers of all ages.

As to who might have related to the optimistic character she played so often, my friend Eric Schwartz (a prominent entertainment lawyer) recalls, as a teenager, asking his parents, “Who is that girl in the pictures on the wall in Anne’s room?” while on a tour of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. It was, of course, Deanna Durbin.