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Remembering Deanna Durbin

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by Leonard Maltin
May 2, 2013 2:03 AM
13 Comments
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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.

          

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13 Comments

  • efmolnar | May 28, 2013 9:56 AMReply

    durbin was great just as good as garland without the high drama ect. also good actress and a looker as well, I guess just a matter of taste between the the two.

  • joel | May 3, 2013 9:02 AMReply

    A lovely actress with a beautiful voice so wonderful in It Started with Eve, Christmas Holiday and Lady on a Train. She walked away when she'd had enough and longed for as she put it "the life of a nobody". It's a shame her glorious voice has been stilled but a long and happy life lived on her own terms is nothing to be sad about.

  • Mark | May 2, 2013 9:03 PMReply

    As a lifelong film buff, Deanna Durbin's career has always fascinated me. It seems, in many ways, to have been almost unique. Although she never appeared opposite a co-star of comparable box office weight to help her carry her films to success, she became an instant superstar with the release of her first film and went on to become one of the most beloved and admired (and highest paid!) stars of her time.

    She was one of the greatest "musical" stars of the Studio Era, yet few of her 21 feature films could be considered true "musicals" in the style of those produced by other studios.

    She was almost always the only singer in her films, and often the only musical presence, period. Was there another movie vocalist from the Studio Era who had to rely so consistently exclusively on his/her singing/acting talent and charm to put over his/her musical numbers? Offhand, I can't think of one. As Jeanine Basinger said in her commentary on Durbin: "Her musical numbers were usually quite simple: She mounted a stage and sang." No flashy production numbers, no comparably talented co-stars to duet with her, no chorus of gifted dancers gyrating behind her. Just this extraordinarily gifted and lovely girl with the remarkable voice.

    And how successful was she at it? A few highlights worth mentioning:

    Her first 2 films received Oscar nominations for Best Picture.
    She was such an immediate sensation that at the premiere of her second film, 1937's 100 MEN AND A GIRL, she was invited to plant her hand and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, an event which took place at the premiere of her third film, 1938's MAD ABOUT MUSIC. It must be one of the quickest invitations extended to any of the movie stars immortalized in that venue.

    As America's first "Teen Idol" she became a true worldwide phenomenon. She was the most popular female star at the British Box Office for four years in a row, 1939-1942, and so beloved by British fans that they held a special week long "Deanna Durbin Film Festival" in 1942 on the Odeon Theatre circuit, during which her films played exclusively to packed houses. It's a tribute that has never been given to any other star.

    She created such a sensation in Japan in the years before the War that a member of the Japanese Diet took to the floor of that political forum to denounce the Japanese people for supporting her so avidly, reminding them that every ticket purchased for a Durbin film was money in the pockets of the American government. Following the War, Durbin's 1943 film, HIS BUTLER'S SISTER was specifically chosen by American Occupational Forces as the first American film to be shown after the Japanese surrender. Retitled, PRELUDE TO SPRING, it played to packed houses, despite ticket prices that were reportedly three times higher than those of other contemporary Japanese films.

    Erroneous reports that Deanna had died a horrible death, were among the most prominent pieces of propoganda circulated by Axis powers as a means of demoralizing Allied troops and prisoners of War. According to contemporary accounts, questions of Deanna's health status were among the first asked by liberated prisoners of war as they reached safety.

    A 1941 article in VARIETY noted that Deanna was not only the second most popular star at the British Box Office, but that she was "Number 3" in the World Box Office poll.

    The same year, Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini wrote an open letter to Deanna in his personal newspaper, IL POPOLO, in essence urging her to serve as an example to American Youth in rejecting President Roosevelt's efforts to bring America into World War II.

    Depending upon which accounting method was cited, she was reported to be the highest paid woman in the United States in 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1947.

    Mme David would have had quite a tale to tell if she'd chosen to do so, but what a wonderful legacy of talent and entertainment she left for generations to enjoy.

  • Schalti | May 2, 2013 6:10 PMReply

    More of a question than a comment... in the short film Every Sunday with DD and Judy Garland, 48 seconds into the film, we see a man stretched out on a bench... this chap looks very much like W.C. Fields... Could this be so? Fields was at the MGM lot in 1935 working on David Copperfield. Have film historians explored this possibility? Schalti in Berlin

  • mike fontanelli | May 2, 2013 7:32 PM

    @ Schalti in Berlin: Possible but unlikely. Fields is a cult figure. There've been almost 2 dozen books published about him. His screen appearances have been well documented by now, by fans and film historians alike -- including Leonard Maltin, among many others.

  • Norm | May 2, 2013 4:06 PMReply

    WOW, is That an eye opener...Durbin considered her roles unrealistic and contrived...I thought that is what Hollywood or filmmaking is all about.. Didn't she notice the Depression ?
    Funny, Annette Funicello embraced her career and life choices, and didn't run away to France...As far as Anne Frank, it was unrealistic to lead a lifestyle where your life depends on seclusion, but not by choice...I think Deanna needed a reality check. A good swift kick, or maybe helping the sick or homeless to ease her self-imposed burdens...Give me a break.

  • mike schlesinger | May 2, 2013 3:55 PMReply

    I tend to prefer her young-adult pictures like HER BUTLER'S SISTER and IT STARTED WITH EVE, but they're all lovely.

    Meanwhile, there's a story--which I believe is true--that Judy Garland visited her in the mid-60s and was complaining about how exhausted she was. Deanna looked at her and said, "My dear, why don't you just retire?" Garland supposedly looked at her as if she were crazy. She simply couldn't fathom not working. The fact that Judy died at 47 while Deanna lived to 91 speaks volumes about how one person's work ethic isn't always right for someone else.

  • Karen Snow | May 2, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    Very nice tribute Leonard. Like others here, I have a real fondness for "It Started With Eve" which not only showed her comedic gifts but gave her the chance for some touching dramatic moments with Laughton, one of her favorites. "Lady On A Train" is another winner, but all of her films are so enjoyable. I especially liked your final comment by way of Eric Schwartz, on how Anne Frank was a fan. Who wouldn't be proud of that ?

  • mike fontanelli | May 2, 2013 2:07 PMReply

    She was once a neighbor of fellow Universal star W. C. Fields, the famous comedian/curmudgeon. Fields rented a house on DeMille Drive, next-door to Durbin. He supposedly joked about hitting a golf ball that would lodge down her throat if he ever heard her singing! The story is possibly apocryphal, but (according to the LA Times) it's been perpetuated by real estate agents and Laughlin Park homeowners to this day. Just goes to prove you can't please everyone!

  • Larry Smith | May 2, 2013 11:19 AMReply

    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!

  • Richard Simonton | May 2, 2013 10:42 AMReply

    Hi Leonard. You mentioned Deanna's bitterness about her film career. Maybe so, but she wrote this to me in 1994: "I am proud of my work and want to assure you that I loved my career. It was far from easy to give it up." I asked her about my favorite film, Spring Parade. "Spring Parade is a mystery and one which they are, apparently, incapable to explain." Keeping my fingers crossed that one day it will receive the restoration and release it deserves. Richard.

  • Maureen Shier | May 2, 2013 10:02 AMReply

    Hi; Just one first thought. A most wonderful Danny Boy rendition, available of course on the web, is by Deanna Durbin and features Charles Laughton. Such classics....

  • David McCool | May 2, 2013 3:07 AMReply

    I enjoyed your comments on Deanna Durbin. I can't say too much about her personally but I did like her films. A film I really enjoyed and it's not one of her best known films was 'It started with Eve'. She had very good screen chemistry with Robert Cummings and Charles Laughton especially. He was a real scene stealer but Deanna held her own in this charming little movie with just the right amount of drama and comedy. Of course Deanna sang a few times. I highly recommend this film if you want to see her at her best. It is sad that she has now passed away but we can still enjoy her gift to us even though it was made so long ago.

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