Deanna Durbin was one of the biggest stars of the 30’s and 40’s. She was the favorite actress of Winston Churchill. Anne Frank had her picture on the wall of her attic room. Yet today, sixty years after her abrupt retirement, she is pretty much forgotten. For those under the age of 40, she is just about unknown.
How could this be?
From starring in pictures that were the biggest of her day, sharing an Academy Award with Mickey Rooney, the highest paid actress of her time, how could Deanna Durbin be forgotten?
Even seeing her films today is a chore. While a few have been released on DVD in a single DVD collection, several have never even made it to VHS and rarely are any shown on TV.
Deanna began her career as a singer. Born in Canada, her family moved her to California to advance her career. There she appeared in a short film for MGM, EVERY SUNDAY.
EVERY SUNDAY featured Deanna as a young girl trying to help her grandfather keep his job as the conductor at the local town outdoor concert. When told that if he doesn’t have a good crowd at the next Sunday’s concert he will be fired, Deanna and a friend try to draw the biggest crowd possible by spreading leaflets about the show around town. When that doesn’t work, they take the stage to each sing a number with the band. This draws the crowd and saves his job.
The short didn’t do much to help Deanna’s career as MGM dropped her. In fact, the short wouldn’t really survive to this day if not for her co-star in it, someone that MGM was much more interested in, a young Judy Garland.
While it didn’t work out with MGM, Deanna had better luck with another studio, Universal. She was signed with them to appear in the film THREE SMART GIRLS.
In this film, she appeared as the youngest of three daughters of a divorced, wealthy woman living in Europe. When they read in the paper that their father is getting remarried, the three girls head to the US to get to know their father and try to stop the marriage.
THREE SMART GIRLS turned out to be such a hit that, legend has it, its profits saved Universal from bankruptcy. Deanna made all of her subsequent films with Universal.
Her follow up film was ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, which stands to this day as one of her strongest, especially for the music. In this film, Deanna’s father is an out of work trombone player. He tries to get a job with Leopold Stokowski (playing himself). When he finds that difficult, Deanna joins in the fun.
The musical sequences in this film are outstanding. It opens with a five minute scene of Stokowski performing. Several other long sequence follow.
She went on to make 21 films in all. Most of them were very funny, lightweight musicals. Only one (CAN’T HELP SINGING) was shot in color.
She attempted to make more serious films. In CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY she played a bordello singer who marries a killer (Gene Kelly). And THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY began as a Jean Renoir directed film, but he left early on in the shooting, and it was lightened up quite a bit. You can still see some of Renoir’s influence on the film.
But, the audience wanted to see Deanna make the comedies she was known for. So, the studio kept pushing her back into that genre. Sadly, Deanna wasn't happy with the comedies and grew to dislike the whole industry because of it.
Her films are an excellent look at the time period, especially among the supporting cast. She worked with actors such as Charles Winninger, Eugene Pallette, Ray Milland, Mischa Auer, Arthur Treacher, William Frawley, Melvyn Douglas, S.Z. Sakall, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, and many more. Billy Wilder had an early job working on the script of one of her films (THAT CERTAIN AGE).
But, after 21 films, before she even turned thirty, she had enough. She walked away in 1948 never to make another film.
So, what ever happened to her?
Deanna moved to France with her husband and stayed there. She still lives there today. She kept in touch with her Hollywood friends but lived far from the spotlight. In the sixty years since leaving Hollywood, she has rarely even given an interview
In 1980, she sent a current photo of herself to Life Magazine, with a note saying that she was tired of reading all the stories of her gaining weight, so she wanted to prove to the world she didn’t.
She has communicated with her fans, singing photos, and such. But hasn’t made any appearances on film. She will be 89 in December.
After seeing one of her films on TCM a few years back (IT’S A DATE) and reading the story of her life, I was fascinated with it. I then was able to track down all of her films. That was quite a chore in itself, as many have never even been released on VHS.
There was a DVD release of six of her films a few years back, but that is all that is currently available in the US. A second volume is in the works for 2010 release.
In the UK, where she is more popular due to the popularity of her films in wartime, 19 of her 21 films are available. Two of them (one of my favorites SPRING PARADE and IT’S A DATE) have all sorts of rights issues around them that have held up their release.
It is hard to believe that she went from being so popular, to barely even being remembered. I once began work on a biography on her, since there has never been one written. But, early on in my research, I found out another was in the works. It seems it has fallen through. I have read that she was against any bio being written, so I guess I won’t continue.
Her films do deserve to be seen a lot more. They still hold up today.