December 4, 1921– Deanna Durbin:
“God made me a singer, and I just sang.”
Deanna Durbin should be just a footnote to me. I have a deep love of Film History, yet although I never really cared for or about her, Durbin ends up holding a special place in my life because of a little anecdote.
Durbin made her first film appearance in 1936, at 14 years old, playing opposite Judy Garland in Every Sunday at MGM. Then she signed a contract with Universal Studios, where she was paid $400,000 per film. Her success as the ideal teenage girl in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936) was credited with saving that studio from bankruptcy.
In 1938 Durbin won a special Academy Award for Best Juvenile Actor. A sequel, Three Smart Girls: Beyond Thunderdome followed. She was Universal’s Number One star in the late 1930s.
Durbin almost always played an earnest young woman with wisdom beyond her years, and with more common sense than the adult characters around her.
She had an ordinary upbringing in Winnipeg, Canada, born to British parents. They noticed her singing talent from an early age and enrolled her in voice classes when she was 10 years old.
She was discovered in Canada by an MGM casting director searching for a young girl who could play an opera star. Durbin sang Il Bacio for Louis B. Mayer who cried at the sound of her voice and signed her to a six-month contract.
On screen, Durbin came across as pretty and wholesome. As an actor, she was noted for being obedient and pliable. She lacked Garland’s temperamental complexity. She always got the job done.
Unlike her other rival, Shirley Temple, who was a tiny bundle of precocious, striking, stunning talents, Durbin had a very narrow range as a performer. She played nice, uncomplicated girls, but she never seemed like she was on her way to becoming a great actor.
The public did not seem to care. Parents found her to be a reliable role model for their young daughters. Little girls adored her. Her films were tailored to fit both her personality, which made the word “vivacious” feel like an understatement. Her singing voice was powerful, sweet, clear, and mature beyond her years. Durbin recorded a series of albums, where she was billed as “America’s Sweetheart of Song”, which was not an exaggeration.
As she grew older, Durbin grew dissatisfied with the girl-next-door roles assigned to her, and attempted to portray more mature characters with a sophisticated style. Cast as a wartime missionary who smuggles Chinese children into the USA, Durbin’s first adult starring role, in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943) proved to be tough. Director Jean Renoir was unhappy with Durbin’s performance. Even worse was the noir-ish Christmas Holiday (1944) opposite Gene Kelly. She plays a tough dance hall hostess, which made her fans unhappy, preferring the other Durbin.
At the time, she was still one of the highest paid females in Hollywood, but her career was simply not working out like she had hoped. The comedy with music, For The Love Of Mary (1948) was her last film. Yet, for that brief time that she was working, 1936-1948, Durbin’s fan club was the largest in the world.
She, like Garland, was a total Hollywood creation and a worldwide phenomenon. Still, Durbin walked away from Hollywood in 1949. She married film producer-director Charles Henri David in 1950 (her third husband), and the couple moved to a farmhouse near the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, outside of Paris. She withdrew from public life and she fiercely guarded her privacy. Unlike Greta Garbo, who famously would stroll the streets of NYC, Durbin truly wanted to be left alone.
In 1980, she sent a current photo of herself to Life magazine, with a note explaining that she was upset at the stories that she was growing fat. After her retirement, Durbin granted a single interview. In 1983 she said:
“I did not hate show business. I loved to sing. I was happy on the set. I liked the people with whom I worked and after the nervousness of the first day, I felt completely at ease in front of the camera. I also enjoyed the company of my fellow actors. What I did find difficult was that this acquired maturity and had to be hidden under the childlike personality my films and publicity projected on me.”
Winston Churchill adored her movies, and Durbin was Anne Frank‘s favorite movie star.
So here is that anecdote: It was told to me by a very successful film and stage producer who I had an affair with in 1974. I won’t name him, but I will tell you that I got to hold his Tony Award (one of several) while he did unspeakable things to my 20-year-old body. So, here we go:
Judy Garland had suffered from extreme drug and alcohol abuse, plus she had become overweight and very ill. After a long convalescence, weight loss, and vocal rest, she returned to the concert stage with a simple program of “Just Judy”. Her Concert at Carnegie Hall on the night of April 23, 1961, has been called “The Greatest Night In Showbiz History”.
Garland’s live concerts had become huge successes and the double album of the big event was a gigantic bestseller, spending 73 weeks on the Billboard charts, including 13 weeks at Number One. It won seven Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year.
It seems that while Garland was enjoying her amazing comeback with those fabled concerts, she had been trying to reach her childhood rival Deanna Durbin who lived in a place with no telephone. Garland would not give up on her attempt to reach the reclusive Durbin. She was finally able to speak to Durbin via a telephone at the local parish church. Garland gushed to Durbin about all her new-found success and her very happy circumstances. When there was finally a pause, Durbin said:
“Oh, Judy dear… are you still in that shitty business?”
It is a phrase I use to explain my own exit from showbiz.
Durbin did take that final bow in the spring of 2013. She was 91 years old when she left this world.