Saturday, October 4, 2014

Deanna Durbin: Winnipeg’s Sweetheart

This post is part of the O Canada blogathon hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. For more on famous Canadian movie folk, see the link at the bottom of this post.

Deanna Durbin sang on
Eddie Cantor’s radio show.
Canada born
Deanna Durbin was born on December 4, 1921 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. In 1923, Durbin’s parents moved to Southern California where they raised Deanna and her older sister Edith. From a young age, Durbin’s extraordinary singing voice was recognized and nurtured. Before long, Hollywood took notice and Durbin was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935.

That other girl singer
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.

M-G-M’s loss was Universal’s gain
A mature glam shot from
the 1940s.
When M-G-M didn’t renew Durbin’s contract, she was signed immediately by Universal Studios. Producer Joe Pasternak cast her in her first feature film, Three Smart Girls (1936). It was a box office bonanza and is credited with helping to save the struggling studio from bankruptcy. The film was so popular that it made Durbin an overnight sensation. She, along with Mickey Rooney, received a juvenile Oscar for their film work in 1938.

International superstar
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Durbin was one of the biggest and most beloved movies stars in the entire world. She was one of Anne Frank’s favorites; Frank had a picture of Durbin on her bedroom wall, in the home where the Frank family hid during World War II. When Durbin received her first screen kiss in 1939’s First Love, from Robert Stack, the press dubbed it “the kiss heard around the world.”

One of  Durbin’s most enduring films
Highest paid woman in the world
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. 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. Even though Christmas Holiday was a box office success, Durbin’s fans preferred her in lighter fare. Durbin followed up Christmas Holiday with Can’t Stop Singing, her one and only Technicolor film. The musical, featuring a score by Jerome Kern with lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, was a box office smash. It broke all records at New York’s Loew’s Criterion Theatre between December 1944 through January 1945.

Durbin puts her hands and feet in cement
at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
Little Miss Fixit no more
During the rest of the 1940s, Durbin continued to star in successful light romantic comedies. Even though the quality of her films wasn’t always the best, she was still a big box office draw and her fan club was the largest in the world. Growing tired of the poor scripts Universal was giving her, Durbin later declared, “I couldn’t go on forever being Little Miss Fixit who burst into song.” By 1949, Durbin turned her back on Hollywood and decided to retire at the ripe old age of 28. She married for a third time to producer-director Charles David and moved to France where she lived a very private life as wife and mother.

Gene Kelly and Durbin in
Christmas Holiday
Leave me alone!
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 Arthur’s Court (both 1949). Pasternak, now at M-G-M, tried to lure Durbin to his new studio. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II wanted Durbin to star in the Broadway production of Oklahoma! 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.


My Deanna Durbin Coffee Mug
Lasting legacy
In spite of Durbin’s disillusionment with Hollywood, she left a body of work that documents her extraordinary vocal range. Combined with her natural acting abilities, Durbin endeared herself to a generation of moviegoers. Today, Durbin’s films might seem corny and formulaic, but even in her most pedestrian vehicles, her warmth and charm shine through. Deanna Durbin may have turned her back on Hollywood and all that came with screen stardom, but her fans never turned their backs on the girl with the golden voice.


Some Durbin essentials:

Three Smart Girls (1936)
One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937
Mad About Music (1938)
That Certain Age (1938)
Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)
First Love (1939)
It Started With Eve (1941)
Can’t Help Singing (1944)

See and hear Deanna sing “I Love To Whistle” from Mad About Music


Portions of this blogpost appeared in a post dated December 4, 2010, Ms. Durbin’s 89th birthday.

Can’t get enough of Canadian movie folk? Click here for more interesting posts in the O Canada blogathon!
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