At M-G-M, there was another girl singer singed to a movie contract named Judy Garland. The studio starred Durbin and Garland in a short film, Every Sunday (1936). The film was a showcase for the vocal talents of both young women. Garland’s contemporary “swing” style of vocalization contrasted with Durbin’s classical operatic voice. After the film’s release, the studio dropped Durbin from their star roster, but kept Garland. There are a lot of stories surrounding the reason Durbin’s contract was not renewed, but it just appears to have been more of an oversight than the studio preferring Garland.
When M-G-M didn’t renew Durbin’s contract, she was signed immediately by Universal Studios. Her first feature film, Three Smart Girls (1936) was a box office bonanza and is credited with saving the struggling studio from bankruptcy. The film was so popular that it made Durbin an overnight sensation. In 1939 she, along with Mickey Rooney, received a juvenile Oscar for her film work in 1938.
|Durbin, center, with her Three Smart Girls screen sisters Nan Grey, left and Barbara Read|
By the time Durbin celebrated her 21rst birthday, she was the highest paid woman in the United States and the highest-paid female movie star in the world. At her peak, she was earning $400,000 per picture. One of the best movies she made during this period was the romantic comedy It Started With Eve (1941), costarring Charles Laughton and Robert Cummings. As Durbin matured, she wanted to tackle more serious roles. She starred in the dark murder-mystery Christmas Holiday (1944), based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham. The dark-themed movie paired her with screen newcomer, Gene Kelly. With the innocuous title, Durbin and Kelly fans were probably expecting a musical rather than a noirish, melodrama. To many, it proved Durbin could act and if given the proper vehicle, she might have transitioned to more challenging adult roles. However, this was not to be; Durbin’s fans preferred her in lighter fare.
|Cheerful publicity shot of Durbin and Gene Kelly from the dark-themed Christmas Holiday|
Durbin turned down numerous offers to star in films at other studios. Bing Crosby wanted her to costar with him in Top o’ the Morning and A Connecticut Yankee in King Aruthur’s Court (both 1949). Supposedly, Durbin was Alan Jay Lerner’s first choice to play Eliza Doolittle in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. For years the offers would come and Durbin would turn them down. She shunned the press for decades. She reluctantly agreed to an interview in 1983.
|Durbin, the voice that saved a studio and charmed the world|
For a glimpse of Durbin and her extraordinary voice, check out the clip below from Mad About Music (1938). She was 16 years old when she recorded this version of "Ave Maria."