Deanna Durbin: Universal’s Singing Sweetheart

Deanna Durbin RememberedA poised and effervescent presence coupled with a vocal prowess beyond her years made Deanna Durbin one of the Roosevelt era’s highest-grossing and highest-paid movie stars, and helped the sunny teenager generate a fan following that has remained devoted even through three generations of a self-imposed and stringently adhered-to show business exile. Born in Winnipeg, Canada in 1921 to British émigré parents, Edna Mae Durbin’s family settled in southern California when she was two. It didn’t take long for her preternatural singing ability to dawn on the Durbins, as her older sister Edith arranged lessons at the Ralph Thomas Academy.

Already envisioning an operatic career, her skills were attracting Hollywood scouts. She was invited to try out for the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney’s  first animated feature, but it was decided that she sounded too old for the part…even though she was only 14 at the time (the part eventually went to 21-year-old Adriana Caselotti).  It was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that would eventually sign her to a deal, and her trial appearance came in a 1936 musical short,  Every Sunday, where Durbin was spotlighted alongside another recently-signed precocious singing talent named Judy Garland.

Edna Mae was understandably upset when MGM declined to pick up her option, but it was MGM who lost out to the ultimate great good fortune of Universal, who immediately put her under contract and rechristened her Deanna. The near-bankrupt studio had been banking on a modestly-budgeted 1936 musical entitled Three Smart Girls, leaving producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Kostner to take special pains in prepping their young find. Their efforts paid off, as the returns on Three Smart Girls and her follow-up assignment, One Hundred Men and a Girl, single-handedly pushed Universal into the black. Enjoying their success, the studio gave its beloved singing sensation the full star treatment, and for the duration of the ’30s the on-screen formula was returned to with continued success…such as when teenager Deanna is smitten with journalist Melvyn Douglas and ignores former beau Jackie Cooper, until Douglas sets things right, in the romance That Certain Age (1938).

Mad about Music, in which vain movie star Gail Patrick decides she wants to forget about daughter Deanna, and sends her to a Swiss boarding school, was another hit in ’38. The next year’s First Love cast Durbin as an orphan adopted by a wealthy but nasty family, while the sequel Three Smart Girls Grow Up offered her as a young woman getting tangled up in her sisters’ love affairs… and singing her classic “Because” along the way. Concurrently, she fostered a recording career, primarily of her screen standards, with Decca. Although she was the talk of the nation, delighting radio audiences as a regular on Eddie Cantor’s show, she was forced to stop appearing in 1938 when Universal’s heavy workload made it impossible for her to continue. In 1939, Deanna more than made up for not singing on Cantor’s show when she and Mickey Rooney were honored with special Juvenile Academy Award Oscars.

With the coming of the ’40s, Deanna was the highest-paid female star in the world, the returns on her films continued to be strong, and she was maturing into a beautiful young woman. As she grew up, though, Universal’s hand on her material became less sure, and the results became more hit-or-miss, as in such familiarly light fare like 1940’s It’s a Date and Spring Parade. More successful was the following year’s Nice Girl?, which found her playing the daughter of nutrition scientist Robert Benchley and fighting to defend her reputation after she makes a play for older man Franchot Tone, her father’s potential business partner. 1941 also saw the end of Durbin’s run with Pasternak and Koster when Pasternak bolted to MGM. In her final film with them, It Started with Eve, she was a spunky (of course!) hat-check girl who poses as Robert Cummings’ fiancée in order to fool his dying father, only to face comical complications when he recovers. In later years, Pasternack–who was also involved in helping cultivate the Hollywood careers of Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell, Mario Lanza and others–said about Durbin, “Deanna’s genius had to be unfolded, but it was hers and hers alone, always has been, always will be, and no one can take credit for discovering her. You can’t hide that kind of light under a bushel. You just can’t, no matter how hard you try!”

Throughout the WWII years, the studio would hand her either full-out dramas or less teen-oriented variations on her familiar output. The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943) was a romantic comedy and good family fun, as were two others that followed that same year, His Butler’s Sister and the third Three Smart Girls effort, Hers to Hold. In the change of pace musical Can’t Help Singing (1944), her one and only movie in Technicolor, Deanna was an 1840s senator’s daughter who heads west to be with her beau.

Universal then pushed her into the dark wartime drama Christmas Holiday (also ’44), which co-starred Gene Kelly. Audiences, thinking from the title and cast that hey were going to see a cheery Yuletide song-and-dance picture, were put off by the moody tale, and the box office was disappointing. Through the years, however, it has established itself as a “film noir” favorite. Another, lighter entry in the mystery/suspense genre came the following year, when train passenger Deanna witnesses a murder in a nearby building from her seat and teams with her favorite whodunit author (David Bruce) to find the culprit in Lady on a Train, a story that featured elements similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes. Truth be told, though, her fan base preferred seeing her in musicals.

The studio formula continued with would-be actress Deanna, eager for a shot at Broadway stardom, working to become the protégé of veteran stage star Charles Laughton in the comedy Because of Him (1946). Then, in 1947, Universal provided a Preston Sturges screenplay for I’ll Be Yours, and followed later that year with a song-filled romantic comedy, Something in the Wind. Here, along with Donald O’Connor, she was a singing disc jockey kidnapped by John Dall, who thinks Deanna was involved with his tycoon grandfather… a romantic comedy about being kidnapped? What was Universal thinking?

FOR THE LOVE OF MARYUp in Central Park (1948) brought Deanna together with Dick Haymes in a musical about politics and in her final film, For the Love of Mary (also ’48), Deanna plays a White House telephone operator who gets help from her unseen chief executive boss in straightening out her romantic problems.

Never comfortable with the celebrity grind, Deanna grew increasingly weary with the studio’s responses to changing tastes. By the late ’40s, she had been through two marriages to assistant director Vaughn Paul and screenwriter Felix Jackson. After the middling returns on For the Love of Mary, Durbin elected to call it a career at age 27. She explained later, “I couldn’t go on forever being Little Miss Fixit who burst into song.”

In climbing off the merry-go-round, Durbin did so emphatically. In 1950, she married French filmmaker Charles David, some 15 years her senior, who’d helmed her best-received latter-day project, Lady on a Train. They moved to his homeland and settled outside of Paris, where she has determinedly led a private life. Old friend Pasternak called “Edna Mae” every now and again to see if she was still happy in Paris and every time she said she was, he would say, “Darn, I hoped you’d say no!”

David reportedly told the press that Mario Lanza continued to plead with her for years to make a movie with him, but she resisted every offer to return to Hollywood life. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe tried to coax her from retirement to be Liza Doolittle on Broadway for their planned 1956 musical, “My Fair Lady.” Lerner came to her home in person and played some of the songs, but she turned him down. It’s been told she was also offered the part of Mother Abbess in the original stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” but decided she preferred privacy with her family.

In 1980, when gossip hounds guessed she might be sitting around in French cafes becoming “plump,” she quelled those rumors by sending a current photo of herself looking quite svelte to Life Magazine. Durbin surfaced for one interview in 1983 to film historian David Shipman, whom she chose because she admired his sentiments from reading his books. From that interview, she gave a respectable explanation of her retirement, “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. Whenever I complained or asked for story or director approval, the studio refused. 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.”

The Depression babies who comprised her fan base never forgot, though; with the advent of the home video revolution in the ’80s, they happily devoured her films as they surfaced on VHS videocassette and later in the DVD format. In 2004, Universal Studios Home Entertainment released Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack containing six of her most memorable films. Then in 2010, in conjunction with TCM, Universal produced Deanna Durbin: The Music and Romance Collection with five more. The exposure and revived interest ensure that Miss Durbin’s sizable skills will be in demand through the digital age and beyond.

Now, enjoy some scenes from the 1944 theatrical trailer for Can’t Help Singing:

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