Family & Companions
Though her name was little-remembered by anyone under the age of 50, Deanna Durbin once saved a major Hollywood studio from bankruptcy with a winning smile, an operatic singing voice and a can-do attitude. A MGM discovery, the 13 year-old Canadian émigré was dumped by the studio in favor of a young Judy Garland in one of Tinseltown's most notorious intra-office screw-ups. Taken in at Universal, Durbin was groomed as a rival to Fox's pint-sized headliner Shirley Temple. Her first picture, "Three Smart Girls" (1936), was an unexpected box office smash and a string of subsequent hits made Durbin Hollywood's highest paid female star and an honorary Academy Award winner. As her international fame grew, Durbin's fans came to include British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. Shrewd investments and a share in a line of trademarked merchandise made the actress independently wealthy by the time she was 18 years old. With the end of the Great Depression and America's entry into World War II, Durbin's trademark sparkle faded somewhat, eclipsed by the rising stock of Judy Garland at MGM. Unhappy in her final roles for Universal, Durbin walked out of the limelight in 1949, never to return to films despite lucrative offers from Hollywood and Broadway. Raising a family in France with her third husband, Durbin refused all but one interview over the subsequent decades, preferring peace and privacy to her lasting fame as Hollywood's "Little Miss Fix-It."
Deanna Durbin was born Edna Mae Durbin on Dec. 12, 1921, at Grace Hospital, a Christian community medical center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her parents, James and Ada Durbin (nee Reed), were British immigrants who had landed in Canada with their daughter Edith from Lancashire in the United Kingdom. James Durbin worked as a machinist with the Canadian Pacific Railroad until ill health prompted him to move his family to the more forgiving climate of Southern California, where he supported his wife and two daughters through the first hard years of the Great Depression via a string of menial jobs. Enrolled at Bret Harte Junior High School in Burbank, Edna Mae enjoyed swimming, roller-skating, school dramatics and singing at church functions; it was her sister, Edith, who thought she possessed a singing voice worthy of cultivation and gambled her weekly salary as a school teacher on voice lessons. While a student at the Ralph Thomas Academy, Edna Mae received attention from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, on the hunt for a teen singer with an operatic voice to play the younger Ernestine Schumann-Heink in a proposed biography of the famed Austrian contralto.
Brought into Metro, Edna Mae sang an aria from Luigi Arditi's "Il Bacio" for a number of studio executives and later MGM head Louis B. Mayer, for whom she auditioned via telephone. With her voice at age 13 already as refined as that of a mature soprano, Durbin won the role but the diagnosis of leukemia and subsequent death of Mrs. Schumann-Heink in 1936 finished MGM's plan for a movie biopic. Edna Mae had been given a provisional six-month studio contract and was renamed Deanna Durbin, a stage name inspired in part by her family nickname of Deedee. MGM promoted their new acquisition in the trade papers and loaned her out for singing engagements on the radio. Just before the step contract was to expire, Mayer ordered a screen test of Durbin and another young hopeful named Judy Garland to determine which of the gifted singers might be retained as MGM's answer to Shirley Temple. Produced as a short film, "Every Sunday" (1936) prompted Mayer to bark to a subordinate "Drop the fat one." He had meant Garland, but it was Durbin's contract which was allowed to expire, leaving the now 14-year-old hopeful a free agent.
When MGM casting director Rufus LeMaire, who had played a part in Durbin's discovery at the studio, shifted his allegiance to Universal, he brought Durbin along with him. Put on a $300 weekly salary, Durbin was plugged into the ailing studio's "Three Smart Girls" (1936), as the youngest of a trio of sisters who contrive comedically to reconcile their estranged parents. While the film was in production and Universal was busy trumpeting their new star, Durbin was invited to perform on the weekly radio program of singer Eddie Cantor; after her first on-air appearance, Durbin received 4,000 fan letters. During production of the film, the Hays Office gave the script its stamp of approval, which encouraged Universal's new studio head, Charles Rogers, to upgrade the miserly $100,000 budget to nearly four times that. Produced by Joe Pasternak and directed by Henry Koster (who coached Durbin extensively through shooting), "Three Smart Girls" was a hit, earning close to $2 million at the box office and pulling Universal back from the brink of insolvency.
As instant a movie star as Hollywood ever minted, Deanna Durbin's weekly salary was increased to $3,000 per week to suit her celebrity standing. As her public stock rose, so did her asking price and the size of her perquisites, which included a $10,000 per-picture bonus. "Three Smart Girls" would spawn two sequels: "Three Smart Girls Grow Up" (1939) and "Hers to Hold" (1943). Durbin's name was placed above the title in the credits for her second film, "One Hundred Men and a Girl" (1937), which put her on the screen with legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, appearing as himself. Another popular hit, the film stamped the Deanna Durbin template; part Andy Hardy, part Nancy Drew and somewhere between Shirley Temple and Jeannette McDonald, Durbin was an archetypal virginal schemer whose plans to help others - usually one or both parents - seem doomed to failure until the climactic deus ex machina brings tears of happiness and songs of joy. "Mad About Music" (1938) and the Oscar-nominated "That Certain Age" (1938) both returned significant box office receipts and solidified Durbin's standing as a top box office draw.
In 1939, Durbin and her old MGM stable mate Mickey Rooney received Juvenile Academy Awards "for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth." Later that same year, Durbin was given her first highly-publicized onscreen kiss later in "First Love" (1939), courtesy of a 20-year-old Robert Stack, making his film debut. During this period, Durbin attained the age of consent and weathered two short-lived marriages; the first to assistant director Vaughn Paul and the second to producer Felix Jackson. By 1940, she had seven box office hits to her credit, but Durbin was growing frustrated by Universal's refusal to allow her to graduate to mature roles. In 1941, she was put on suspension for refusing a project and 1942 came and went with no new films starring Deanna Durbin. When Universal and Durbin came to terms at last, the actress had won the power of script approval. Her first film under this new agreement, "The Amazing Mrs. Holliday" (1943), had a tortured journey to the screen, with original director Jean Renoir replaced after 49 days by producer Bruce Manning. The New York Times singled out Durbin for scorn for choosing as her adult debut a project so "slapdash. contrived and crude."
Stranger still for her fans was Durbin's appearance in "Christmas Holiday" (1943). Despite its title and the pairing of Durbin with Broadway hoofer Gene Kelly, the Robert Siodmak film was not a Yuletide-themed musical but a noir-inflected adaptation of the Somerset Maugham tale of a good woman brought down by a smooth-talking wastrel. Intimations of incest between Kelly's natty wastrel and onscreen mother Gale Sondergaard and the suggestion that Durbin's character has turned to prostitution to support herself were a bitter pill for audiences who watched "Little Miss Fix-It" grow up at the movies. "Can't Help Singing" (1944) marked Durbin's only film shot in Technicolor and remained illustrative of how her home studio was impeding her career. At MGM, Judy Garland had made the Technicolor musical "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) and was moving on to other A-list star vehicles while Durbin remained stalled in mostly juvenile roles. In 1943, Universal refused to loan Durbin to star in "Oklahoma!" on Broadway, setting the inevitable outcome in motion.
Durbin's final films for Universal were a mixed bag for audiences and critics alike, but the comic mystery "Lady on a Train" (1945) introduced her to the man who would become her third husband, French director Charles David. Unhappy in her work, Durbin was conversely the highest paid female star in Hollywood during this period, her home a sprawling 1.5 acre estate in the Pacific Palisades. Separated from her second husband and raising their daughter alone, Durbin found herself at constant loggerheads with Universal, which kept her on salary even as they shelved or recut her films, keeping "For the Love of Mary" (1948) off the screen for a year and slashing songs from the film adaptation of the Broadway musical "Up in Central Park" (1948). In 1949, Durbin was released from her studio contract. Decamping to France, she married Charles David in 1950 and bore him a son the following year. Having severed her ties with Hollywood, Durbin spent the rest of her long life in the company of family and close friends, fending off increasingly lucrative offers to make her comeback.
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Singing debut on the "Eddie Cantor Radio Hour"
Short film acting debut in "Every Sunday"
Feature film debut in "Three Smart Girls"
Considerable publicity attended the release of "First Love", in which the young Robert Stack gave the 18-year-old Durbin her first screen kiss
Last film, "Up in Central Park"