Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Late Great Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin, the film star who came to fame as a teenager in musicals in the Thirties, died yesterday, 30 April 2013, at the age of 91.  Deanna Durbin was one of the biggest stars of the Thirties and Forties.  By the time she was 21 she was not only the highest paid woman in the United States, but the highest paid film actress in the world. A truly international star, she was the number one female film star at the box office in the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1942. In her prime Deanna Durbin was such a huge star that she was credited with single handedly saving Universal Pictures from bankruptcy.

Deanna Durbin was born Edna Mae Durbin in Winnipeg, Manitoba on 4 December 1921. She was only one year old when her family moved to Los Angeles, California. She began singing while very young, and she began seriously studying singing by the time she was ten years old. She was discovered by a casting director at MGM who was looking for someone to play opera contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink as a child in a film biography of the Miss Schumann-Heink. MGM gave her what was essentially an extended screen test by casting her in the short "Every Sunday." She was paired with another recently signed teenage star, Judy Garland. Miss Durbin sang the aria Il Bacio in the short, while Miss Garland sang the original, jazz composition "The Americana."

Unfortunately, Miss Durbin would not get the chance to play a young Ernestine Schumann-Heink. The legendary opera star fell ill and then died at age 75, at which point MGM abandoned the biopic about her life. In the meantime Deanna Durbin's contract with MGM expired in May 1936. It was not long afterwards that Miss Durbin signed with Universal. It was at Universal that she received the name by which she would become famous--previously billed as "Edna Mae Durbin," she was given the stage name "Deanna Durbin." Universal assigned her to Joe Pasternak, who produced ten of her films.

 It was during the production of Deanna Durbin's first film at Universal, Three Smart Girls, that she began singing on The Eddie Cantor Show on radio. She would continue to appear on The Eddie Cantor Show until 1938, when her commitments to Universal began taking up most of her time. Miss Durbin made her feature film debut,  in Three Smart Girls in 1936. The film proved to be a hit and she would be the lead  in her next film, One Hundred Men and a Girl. Over the next several years she starred in the films Mad About Music (1938), That Certain Age (1938), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), First Love (1939), It's a Date (1940), and Spring Parade (1940).  Concurrent with her film career, Deanna Durbin also recorded songs for Decca Records. In all she recorded around 50 songs for the label.

Deanna Durbin began to transition from teen roles to more adult roles starting with 1939's First Love. It was the film in which she received her first screen kiss (Robert Stack was the lucky young actor who got to give kiss her). Miss Durbin also began to assert her power as star. After Joe Pasternak left for MGM in 1941, she refused to appear in the proposed film They Lived Alone. As a result Universal suspended Deanna Durbin, although they eventually came to an agreement with her that she had approval over both the scripts and the directors on her films. As to They Lived Alone, the film was cancelled. Miss Durbin also attempted to expand beyond the light musicals in which she had appeared throughout her career. She appeared in roles very different from those she usually played in both the comedy drama The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), the holiday themed film noir Christmas Holiday (1944), and the comedy-mystery Lady on a Train (1945). Unfortunately these films were not particularly well received by the film going public. Miss Durbin did continue to make musicals, including her only Technicolor film, Can't Help Singing (1944). In 1943 she was offered the lead in Roger and Hammerstein's original Broadway production of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, Universal refused to loan her out for the project.

While Deanna Durbin remained a top box office star for much of the Forties, her last two films (Up in Central Park and For the Love of Mary, both in 1948) both did poorly at the box office. Miss Durbin then retired from the film industry. She moved to France in 1949 where she lived a private life and raised her family. In the Forties she had appeared in some of Universal's most successful films, including Nice Girl? (1941), It Started With Eve (1941), Hers to Hold (1943), His Butler's Sister (1943), Because of Him (1946), I'll Be Yours (1947). and Something in the Wind (1947).

At the height of her career Deanna Durbin was a phenomenally successful star, so much so that a good deal of merchandising was associated with her. In the Thirties and Forties there were Deanna Durbin dolls, dresses, and many other goods. In 1941 Whitman Publishing Company published two young adult novels by Kathryn Heisenfelt in which Miss Durbin solved mysteries like Nancy Drew: Deanna Durbin and the Adventure of Blue Valley and Deanna Durbin and the Feather of Flame. In 1939 alone Miss Durbin made $2 million from merchandising and endorsements.

Although now many in the general public may not recognise her name, Deanna Durbin could rightly be described as a phenomenon for much of her career. During the late Thirties and the entirety of the Forties she was a household name. Not only did everyone recognise who she was, but she was for a time the highest paid female star in the entire world. In the history of film only a few stars ever enjoyed the sort of success and celebrity that Deanna Durbin did. Indeed, she still has a fan club to this day.

Of course, there were several reasons for Deanna Durbin's incredible success, not the least of which was her voice. Even as a teenager she had a surprisingly mature, sweet soprano. Her voice was arguably one of the best in film history. In addition to her voice, there can be no doubt that much of her success was due to her on screen persona. Deanna Durbin always played the girl with a "can do" attitude, who not only solves her own problems, but those of everyone around her as well. It was an image that was seemingly built for the Depression, a time when people were sorely in need of optimism, that of a girl with moxie who seemingly could not be stopped. And while Miss Durbin did not see quite much success in her career as an adult (at least later on), it can be argued that her appeal only increased as she came of age. Miss Durbin grew into a very beautiful, young woman, which no doubt earned her a whole legion of male fans (I rather suspect my crush on Miss Durbin as a lad was pre-dated by many young men in the Forties). Deanna Durbin's combination of talent, charm, and looks would be one that was nearly impossible to beat in any era. It is little wonder she became one of the biggest stars of all time.

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