Saturday, April 25, 2020

“Christmas Holiday”’s unlikely stars and Hollywood’s fascination with Sigmund Freud

During the 1940s, Hollywood discovered that psychological thrillers could mean big box office.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1942) dealt with the psychologically damaged “Uncle Charlie.” Gaslight (1944) concerned a husband systematically attempting to drive his wife mad. In 1945, Spellbound dealt with a psychiatrist trying to help a man whose suppression of a childhood trauma haunted his adult life. Rope (1948) dealt with two psychologically disturbed young men who wanted to know what it would feel like to kill someone.

In Spellbound, psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman tries to help Gregory Peck remember his suppressed childhood trauma.

So the fact that Christmas Holiday (1944) dealt with an unnatural relationship between a mother and a son and its effects on the son’s wife was a theme that 1940s film audiences were primed for. What would have been surprising was the casting.

Gene Kelly opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942)

Gene Kelly was still a relative newcomer to the movies. Before 1944, Kelly had only appeared in five films, none of which had him as the male lead. It was on loan-out to Columbia for Cover Girl and Universal for Christmas Holiday (both released in 1944) that Kelly got equal billing with his female costars. The dancing, clowning, and charming Gene Kelly that we remember today, that image hadn’t been firmly established yet.

Deanna Durbin with Mickey Rooney when she was under a short-term contract with M-G-M

Deanna Durbin, on the other hand, was a true superstar. She was a radio personality when she was a child, appearing regularly on Eddie Cantor’s weekly radio program and she was also a recording artist, often recreating her movie songs for commercial release. At fourteen, she made her first feature-length film, Three Smart Girls (1936), and became an overnight sensation. Every parent in American wanted a daughter like Durbin. As she matured, the studio was careful to manage her girl-next-door image. When she made First Love (1939), she received her first on-screen kiss from a young Robert Stack. The press dubbed it “The Kiss Heard ‘Round the World.” In 1944, Durbin was a 22-year-old divorcee and was ready to tackle more adult roles. The question was would audiences accept her as something other than the perfect daughter on screen. Christmas Holiday was a commercial success—her biggest thus far—but audiences still seemed to prefer her in light comedies and musicals. By 1949, Durbin was finished with the movies and Hollywood. At 28, she decided to retire. In 1950, she married French director Charles David and moved to France, where she lived for the remainder of her life. She died on April 17, 2013. She was 91. After her retirement, many people tried to get her to come back to the stage and movies. Lerner and Lowe offered her the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, but she turned it down, saying, “I had my ticket to Paris in my pocket.” She turned down roles in the stage and film version of Kiss Me Kate (1953) and the film version of The Student Prince (1954). Producer Joe Pasternak, who helped develop her talent at Universal from day one, begged her to come with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but nothing could persuade Durbin to return to performing.

Durbin turned into a glamorous young woman.

Interesting Durbin Trivia
“Such was Durbin’s international fame and popularity that diarist Anne Frank pasted her picture to her bedroom wall in the Achterhuis where the Frank family hid during World War II. The picture can still be seen there today, and was pointed out by Frank’s friend Hannah Pick-Goslar in the documentary film Anne Frank Remembered.” The Jewish Standard 2010

The arrow points to Durbin’s picture in Anne Frank’s bedroom.

Indian director Satyajit Ray mentions Deanna Durbin while accepting honorary Oscar.

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