Remembering The Remarkable Deanna Durbin
If you are under 50, chances are you have never heard of her. But Winston Churchill was her biggest fan. Anne Frank hung pictures of her in the room where she hid from the Nazis during World War II. World-renowned symphony orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski agreed to star in a movie with her after hearing her sing. In the 1930s and 40s, she was one of the best-known and highest paid stars in Hollywood. She was Deanna Durbin. She died on April 20, in a French village outside Paris where she had lived for more than fifty years. She was ninety-one years old.
Another part of our past has moved out during the night.
A Cinderella Story
The story of Deanna Durbin is a Cinderella fairy tale. She was born Edna Mae Durbin in Winnipeg, Canada in 1921. A few years later, the family moved to Los Angeles. She started singing as a little girl and got her big break when she was twelve. She was performing at a recital and, of course, there was a talent scout in the audience, and of course MGM was making a movie about a great opera singer and needed someone to play the singer as a young girl. The talent scout, Jack Sherrill, called Deanna the day after the recital and took her to audition for the part. The studio liked what they heard and gave her an optional contract, meaning it could be renewed or dropped every three months.
The opera singer died before the film went into production, and Deanna’s career stalled before it began. Sherrill was optimistic, however. “We’ll put your name in lights yet,” he promised the young singer. He took her to Andres de Segurola, a Hollywood voice teacher who had sung with the Metropolitan opera. Segurola agreed to coach her. She was so good the Metropolitan Opera offered to give her an audition, but she thought she needed more coaching. Nonetheless, they told Segurola to keep an eye on her and to let them know when he thought she was ready.
Months later, another movie opportunity presented itself. Universal Studios was making a film called “Three Smart Girls,” about three sisters trying to save their father from marrying a gold digger. The studio was having financial problems and really needed “Three Smart Girls” to be a hit. Sherrill took Deanna to test for a part. Reluctantly, Charles Rogers, the chief studio executive, agreed to listen to the “girl in the cheap cotton dress”. He liked her singing, but he was not impressed with her acting—and the part called for more acting than singing. The film's director saw something in Durbin he liked. He persuaded Rogers to put her under contract, promising that he would teach her to act. He did more than that—he turned the film into a musical and gave Deanna the lead.
“Three Smart Girls” had a budget of $100,000 (this was 1936), but ended up costing $400,000—which might have been disastrous, but the film was a hit, thanks to Deanna. It earned $1,600,000. Deanna Durbin had saved the studio from bankruptcy. She was a star. Sherrill kept his promise. Deanna Durbin’s name went up in lights on theater marquees all over the country. She became a Hollywood phenomenon, earning $5,000 a week —a huge salary in those days.
An interesting rivalry developed between Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland, with whom she had made her first film appearance in 1935 in a one-reeler called Every Sunday. When producer Joe Pasternak saw the film, he tried to hire Garland for Three Smart Girls. She wasn’t available, so he hired Durbin instead, which rankled Garland. Durbin’s career eclipsed Garland's until 1939, when Judy starred in The Wizard of Oz. After that, she too was box office gold. She continued to call Deanna a "rank amateur", despite her singing talent and did cruel imitations of her at parties and later, on television talk shows.
The Miracle of Deanna Durbin
One hit followed another for Deanna. Her pictures were light comedies with happily ever-after endings that appealed to a Depression-era public. Teenaged Deanna would appear on the screen wearing a demure dress, say a few lines, sing some songs, and fix whatever problems the grown-ups were having. Fans filled theater to watch her and to hear her sing old favorites: “It’s Raining Sunbeams”, “Home, Sweet Home”, “Waltzing in the Clouds”, and even operatic arias. Her voice had a bell-like purity that enchanted audiences, as well as the studio executives. The only person who didn’t like her singing was curmudgeonly W. C. Fields, her neighbor in Hollywood. He went into a rage when he heard her practicing. Fields notwithstanding, sales of her records soared.
Deanna Durbin was everyone’s idea of the perfect girl next door. Like most girls her age, she idolized Clark Gable (though she preferred Mickey Mouse). She gorged on hamburgers and spaghetti. She bit her nails when she was nervous. She loved shoes. She had chubby cheeks, and her skin was so smooth artists had trouble getting screen make-up to stay on. She was the daughter every father wanted and the kind of star teachers offered as a role model to their students.
In 1939, at age 17, she got her first movie kiss from Robert Stack in a film called First Love. It generated more publicity than the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The scene was filmed on a closed set—no reporters or non-crew members allowed (although a few managed to sneak in). The story was a Cinderella take-off: orphan girl living with mean, rich, society cousins gets to go to a ball in a beautiful evening gown bought for her by the servants and in a rented limousine that had to be returned by midnight. She enters the ballroom, sings a song, attracts a handsome young millionaire, is kissed by him during a romantic balcony scene with a wind machine sending an evening breeze through her hair, and rushes away at midnight losing a slipper in the escape. Young millionaire finds her, marries her, and they live happily ever after. After the kiss, reporters left the set feeling they had been eyewitnesses to history.
The public got their first view of the kiss on the day before Thanksgiving in 1939. When the opening credits came on, the audience applauded. The applause grew louder when Deanna appeared on the screen. Scene followed scene. When Deanna sang "Home Sweet Home", the audience broke into tears because her character was an orphan with no home of her own. Then it came--the kiss. It lasted two seconds. Children clapped. Young couples held hands. Husbands gave their wives a peck on the cheek. Older women sighed. THEY LOVED IT! The next day, it made headlines.
Too Hot Not to Cool Down
Inevitably, Deanna Durbin's career cooled down. While the first kiss was history-making, even Hollywood couldn't repeat history. Deanna had reached an age when she could no longer play juvenile parts. She could not find adult roles that suited and and that her public would accept. After a few unsuccessful attempts, she quite show business. "I couldn't go on forever being little Miss Fixit always bursting into song." Unlike many Hollywood stars, she had managed her money wisely, and she was a rich woman. She married French film director Charles David and moved to an old farmhouse outside Paris where David promised to protect her from spiders, mosquitoes, and reporters. As far as we know, he did just that.
Through the years, she had many offers to make a comeback. Bing Crosby tried to get her to appear in one of his movies—she said no. MGM asked her to star in Kiss Me Kate. Again, the answer was no. She was Alan Jay Lerner’s first choice to portray Eliza Doolittle in the 1956 Broadway cast of My Fair Lady. He went to France and played the songs for her. The music was so beautiful she was tempted. But, she passed. She also refused to appear in Vegas Casinos. She simply wanted no part of show business. She gave only one interview in the decades after her retirement.
Deanna and Me (grammar error intended)
Everything I have written about Deanna Durbin is “stuff” I learned about her in the days after her death—stuff that I didn’t know. But here is what I did know. As a little girl, I went to her movies, and I was transfixed (although I wouldn’t have known that word at the time). I wanted to look like Deanna Durbin. I wanted to sing like Deanna Durbin. I wanted to be kissed by Robert Stack when I grew up. I wanted to be Deanna Durbin.
That was a long time ago. I did not grow up to look or sing like Deanna Durbin. And Robert Stack never kissed me. But I never outgrew my fascination with her. I am sad that she is gone.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times