Farewell Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin (born December 4, 1921) is a Canadian-born, Southern California-raised retired singer and actress, who appeared in a number of musical films in the 1930s and 1940s singing standards as well as operatic arias.

Durbin made her first film appearance in 1936 with Judy Garland in Every Sunday, and subsequently signed a contract with Universal Studios. Her success as the ideal teenage daughter in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936) was credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy.[1] In 1938 Durbin was awarded the Academy Juvenile Award.

“Amapola”

Later, as she matured, Durbin grew dissatisfied with the girl-next-door roles assigned to her, and attempted to portray a more womanly and sophisticated style. The film noir Christmas Holiday (1944) and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945) were, however, not as well received as her musical comedies and romances had been.

Durbin withdrew from Hollywood and retired from acting and singing in 1949. She married film producer-director Charles Henri David in 1950, and the couple moved to a farmhouse in the outskirts of Paris. Since then she has withdrawn from public life. Born Edna Mae Durbin at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, she was given the professional name Deanna at the beginning of her association with Universal Studios in 1936, when she was still 14 years old. Her parents, James and Ada Durbin, were immigrants from Lancashire, England who would become U.S. citizens after moving their family from Winnipeg to Southern California in 1923. Durbin had an older sister named Edith, who recognized Deanna’s musical talents at an early age and helped Deanna to take singing lessons at Ralph Thomas Academy. This led to her discovery by MGM in 1935. In late 1936, Cesar Sturani, who was the General Music Secretary of the Metropolitan Opera, offered Deanna Durbin an audition. Durbin turned down his request because she felt she needed more singing lessons. Andrés de Segurola, who was the vocal coach working with Universal Studios (and himself a former Metropolitan Opera singer), believed that Deanna Durbin had an excellent opportunity to become an opera star. Andrés de Segurola had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to watch her progress carefully and keep them advised. Durbin started a collaboration with Eddie Cantor‘s radio show in 1936. This collaboration lasted until 1938 when her heavy workload for Universal Studios made it imperative for Durbin to discontinue her weekly appearances on Eddie Cantor’s radio show.[2]

“Lover”

Durbin signed a contract with MGM in 1935 and made her first film appearance in a short subject, Every Sunday (1936), with another young contract player, Judy Garland. The film was to serve as an extended screen test for the pair as studio executives were questioning the wisdom of having two female singers on the roster. Ultimately Louis B. Mayer decreed that both girls would be kept, but by the time that decision was made Durbin’s contract option had elapsed.[3]

Durbin was quickly signed to a contract with Universal Studios and made her first feature-length film Three Smart Girls in 1936. The huge success of her films was reported to have saved the studio from bankruptcy.[4] In 1938 she received a special Academy Juvenile Award, along with Mickey Rooney. 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.

Joe Pasternak who produced many of the early Deanna Durbin movies said about her:

“Deanna’s genius had to be unfolded, but it was hers and hers alone, always has been, always will be, and no one can take credit for discovering her. You can’t hide that kind of light under a bushel. You just can’t, no matter how hard you try!”

In 1936, Durbin auditioned to provide the vocals for Snow White in Disney’s animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but was ultimately rejected by Walt Disney, who declared the 15 year old Durbin’s voice “too old” for the part.[5]

“Every Sunday” with Judy Garland

Durbin is perhaps best known for her singing voice, variously described as being light but full, sweet, unaffected and artless. With the technical skill and vocal range of a legitimate lyric soprano, she performed everything from popular standards to operatic arias. Dame Sister Mary Leo in New Zealand was so taken with Durbin’s technique that she trained all her students to sing in this way. Sister Mary Leo produced a large number of famous sopranos including Dames Malvina Major and Kiri Te Kanawa.

The Russian cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich in a late 1980s interview cited Deanna as one of his most important musical influences, stating: “She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try and recreate, to approach her purity.”[6]

Durbin was the heroine of two 1941 novels, Deanna Durbin and the Adventure of Blue Valley and Deanna Durbin and the Feather of Flame, both written by Kathryn Heisenfelt and published by Whitman Publishing Company. “The heroine has the same name and appearance as the famous actress but has no connection … it is as though the famous actress has stepped into an alternate reality in which she is an ordinary person.” The stories were probably written for a young teenage audience and are reminiscent of the adventures of Nancy Drew. They are part of a series known as “Whitman Authorized Editions”, 16 books published between 1941-1947 that featured a film actress as heroine.[7]

“Musetta’s Waltz” from La Bohem

Between December 15, 1936 and July 22, 1947, Deanna Durbin recorded 50 tunes for Decca Records. While often re-creating her movie songs for commercial release, Durbin also covered independent standards, like “Kiss Me Again”, “My Hero”, “Annie Laurie“, “Poor Butterfly“, “Love’s Old Sweet Song” and “God Bless America“.

The star-making five-year association of Deanna Durbin, producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster ended following the film It Started With Eve in 1941. After Pasternak moved from Universal to MGM, Durbin went on suspension between October 16, 1941 and early February 1942 for refusing to appear in They Lived Alone, scheduled to be directed by Koster. Ultimately, the project was canceled when Durbin and Universal settled their differences. In the agreement, Universal conceded to Durbin the approval of her directors, stories and songs.[8]

Durbin married an assistant director, Vaughn Paul, in 1941 and they were divorced in 1943. Her second marriage, to film writer-producer-actor Felix Jackson in 1945, produced a daughter, Jessica Louise Jackson, and ended in divorce in 1949.

In private life, Durbin continued to use her given name; salary figures printed annually by the Hollywood trade publications listed the actress as “Edna Mae Durbin, player.” Her studio continued to cast her in musicals, and filmed two sequels to her original success, Three Smart Girls. The second sequel was a wartime story called Three Smart Girls Join Up, but Durbin issued a press release announcing that she was no longer inclined to participate in these team efforts and was now performing as a solo artist. The Three Smart Girls Join Up title was changed to Hers to Hold. Joseph Cotten, who played alongside Deanna Durbin in Hers to Hold, praised her integrity and character in his autobiography.[9]

“When You’re Away”

She made her only Technicolor film in 1944, Can’t Help Singing, featuring some of the last melodies written by Jerome Kern plus lyrics by E. Y. Harburg. A musical comedy in a Western setting, this production was filmed mostly on location in southern Utah. Her co-star was Robert Paige, who is better known for his work in television dramas in the 1950s.[10]

“Begin The Beguine”

Durbin tried to assume a more sophisticated movie persona in such vehicles as the World War II story of refugee children from China, The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), directed in part by Jean Renoir, who left the project before its completion; the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945), but her substantial fan base preferred her in light musical confections.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking Broadway production of Oklahoma! in 1943 might have showcased Deanna Durbin as original Laurie, but Universal refused to accept the proposal.

In 1945 and 1947, Deanna Durbin was the top-salaried woman in the United States. Her fan club ranked as the world’s largest during her active years.

In 1946, her employers merged with two other companies to create Universal-International, and the new regime discontinued much of Universal’s familiar product and scheduled only a few musicals. Durbin stayed on for another four pictures, but her two releases of 1948, Up in Central Park, a film adaptation of the 1945 Broadway musical, and then what became her last feature, For the Love of Mary, saw her international box-office clout diminish. On August 22, 1948, two months after the latter film was finished, Universal-International announced a lawsuit which sought to collect from Durbin $87,083 in wages the studio had paid her in advance.[11] Durbin settled the complaint amicably by agreeing to star in three more pictures, including one to be shot on location in Paris. Ultimately, the studio would allow Deanna’s contract to expire on August 31, 1949, so the three films were not produced. Durbin, who obtained a $200,000 ($1,842,577 as of 2011),[12] severance payment[13] chose at this point to retire from movie making, already having turned down Bing Crosby‘s request for her to appear in his 1949 attractions for Paramount Pictures: Top o’ the Morning and/or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

“Can’t Help Singin”

In Paris on December 21, 1950, Deanna Durbin, shortly after turning 29 years old, married Charles David, the producer-director of both French and American pictures who had guided her through Lady on a Train (1945). Durbin and David raised two children: Jessica (from her second marriage to Felix Jackson) and Peter (from her union with David).

Over the years, Durbin resisted numerous offers to perform again, including two choice proposals by MGM, asking her to take the female lead in the screen version of Cole Porter‘s Kiss Me Kate (1953), and to costar with Mario Lanza in Sigmund Romberg‘s operetta, The Student Prince (1954). As for stage shows, Durbin had been invited to play Kiss Me Kate ‘s Lilli Vanessi in London’s 1951-52 West End production, and reportedly, Alan Jay Lerner first had Deanna in mind to portray Eliza Doolittle in the 1956 Broadway cast of My Fair Lady. Suggestions that Durbin vocalize at the major Las Vegas casinos went unfulfilled.

She granted only one interview in 1983, to film historian David Shipman, steadfastly asserting her right to privacy. She maintains that privacy today, declining to be profiled on Internet websites.[14]

“Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera, Turandot.

However, Durbin has made it known that she did not like the Hollywood studio system. She has emphasized that she never identified herself with the public image that the media created around her. She speaks of the Deanna “persona” in the third person and considers the film character Deanna Durbin a by-product of her youth and not her true self.[15]

Durbin’s husband of over 48 years, Charles David, died in Paris on March 1, 1999.

Deanna Durbin has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1722 Vine Street.

Frank Tashlin‘s 1937 Warner Bros. cartoon The Woods are Full of Cuckoos contains an avian caricature of Deanna Durbin called “Deanna Terrapin”.

Durbin’s name found its way into the introduction to a song written by satirical writer Tom Lehrer in 1965. Prior to singing “Whatever Became of Hubert?”, Lehrer said that Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been relegated to “those where-are-they-now columns: Whatever became of Deanna Durbin, and Hubert Humphrey, and so on.”

She is mentioned in Richard Brautigan‘s novel Trout Fishing in America, when the narrator claims to have seen one of her movies seven times, but can’t recall which one.[16]

Sources: Wikipedia, youtube, imdb.com

Film credits
Title↓ Year↓ Role↓ Notes
Every Sunday 1936 Edna short subject (opposite Judy Garland)
Three Smart Girls 1936 Penelope “Penny” Craig Academy Juvenile Award
One Hundred Men and a Girl 1937 Patricia Cardwell
Mad About Music 1938 Gloria Harkinson
That Certain Age 1938 Alice Fullerton
Three Smart Girls Grow Up 1939 Penny Craig
For Auld Lang Syne: No. 4 1939 Herself short subject
First Love 1939 Constance “Connie” Harding
It’s a Date 1940 Pamela Drake a short subject, Gems of Song, was excerpted from this feature in 1949
Spring Parade 1940 Ilonka Tolnay
Nice Girl? 1941 Jane “Pinky” Dana
Friend Indeed, AA Friend Indeed 1941 Herself short subject for the American Red Cross
It Started with Eve 1941 Anne Terry
Amazing Mrs. Holliday, TheThe Amazing Mrs. Holliday 1943 Ruth Kirke Holliday
Show Business at War 1943 Herself short subject
Hers to Hold 1943 Penny Craig
His Butler’s Sister 1943 Ann Carter
Road to Victory 1944 Herself short subject
Christmas Holiday 1944 Jackie Lamont/Abigail Martin
Can’t Help Singing 1944 Caroline Frost her only film in Technicolor
Lady on a Train 1945 Nikki Collins/Margo Martin
Because of Him 1946 Kim Walker
I’ll Be Yours 1947 Louise Ginglebusher
Something in the Wind 1947 Mary Collins
Up in Central Park 1948 Rosie Moore
For the Love of Mary 1948 Mary Peppertree

Deanna Durbin songs

  • A Heart That’s Free [From “100 Men and a Girl”]
  • Alice Blue Gown
  • Alleluia [From “100 Men and a Girl”]
  • Always [From “Christmas Holiday”]
  • Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)
  • Amapola [From “First Love”]
  • Annie Laurie
  • Any Moment Now [From “Can`t Help Singing”]
  • Ave Maria [From “Mad About Music”]
  • Ave Maria [From “It’s a Date”]
  • Be A Good Scout [From “That Certain Age”]
  • Because [From “Three Smart Girls Grow Up”]
  • Begin the Beguine [From “Hers to Hold”]
  • Beneath the Lights of Home [From “Nice Girl”]
  • Brahms’ Lullaby [From “I’ll Be Yours”]
  • Brindisi (Libiamo ne’ lieti calici) [From “100 Men and a Girl”]
  • Californ-I-Ay
  • Can’t Help Singing [From “Can`t Help Singing”]
  • Can’t Help Singing (Deanna Durbin & Robert Paige) [From “Can`t Help Singing”]
  • Carmena Waltz
  • Chapel Bells [From “Mad About Music”]
  • Cielito Lindo (Beautiful Heaven)
  • Ciribiribin
  • Clavelitos (J. Valverde) [From “It Started with Eve”]
  • Danny Boy [From “Because of Him”]
  • Embrace Me
  • Every Sunday (with Judy Garland)
  • Filles de Cadiz (The Maids of Cadiz) [From “That Certain Age”]
  • Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya, Huh? [From “Lady on a Train”]
  • God Bless America
  • Goin’ Home [From “It Started With Eve”]
  • Goodbye [From “Because of Him”]
  • Granada [From “I’ll Be Yours”]
  • Home! Sweet Home! [From “First Love”]
  • Il Bacio (The Kiss) [From “Three Smart Girls”]
  • I’ll Follow My Sweet Heart
  • I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen [From “For The Love Of Mary”]
  • I’ll See You In My Dreams
  • I Love to Whistle [From “Mad About Music”]
  • (I’m) Happy Go Lucky and Free [From “Something in the Wind”]
  • (I’m) Happy Go Lucky and Free [From “Something in the Wind”] (Deanna Durbin & Donald O’Connor)
  • In the Spirit of the Moment [From “His Butler’s Sister”]
  • Italian Street Song
  • It’s a Big, Wide, Wonderful World [From “For The Love Of Mary”]
  • It’s Dreamtime [From “I’ll Be Yours”]
  • It’s Foolish But It’s Fun [From “Spring Parade”]
  • It’s Only Love [From “Something In The Wind”]
  • It’s Raining Sunbeams [From “100 Men and a Girl”]
  • Invitation To The Dance [From “Three Smart Girls Grow Up”]
  • Je Veux Vivre (from Roméo et Juliette) [From “That Certain Age”]
  • Kiss Me Again
  • La Estrellita (Little Star)
  • Largo Al Factotum (from The Barber of Seville) [From “For The Love Of Mary”]
  • Loch Lomond [From “It’s a Date”]
  • Love At Last [From “Nice Girl”]
  • Love Is All [From “It’s a Date”]
  • Lover [From “Because of Him”]
  • Love’s Old Sweet Song
  • Make Believe (Jerome Kern song)
  • Molly Malone
  • More and More [From “Can`t Help Singing”]
  • More And More/Can’t Help Singing [From “Can`t Help Singing”]
  • Musetta’s Waltz (from La bohème) [From “It’s a Date”]
  • My Heart Is Singing [From “Three Smart Girls Grow Up”]
  • My Hero
  • My Own [From “That Certain Age”]
  • Nessun Dorma (from Turandot) [From “His Butler’s Sister”]
  • Never in a Million Years/Make Believe
  • Night and Day [From “Lady on a Train”]
  • O Come All Ye Faithful
  • Old Folks at Home [From “Nice Girl”]
  • On Moonlight Bay [From “For The Love Of Mary”]
  • One Fine Day (from Madama Butterfly) [From “First Love”]
  • One Night Of Love
  • Pace, Pace, Mio Dio (La forza del destino) [From “Up In Central Park”]
  • Pale Hands I Loved (Kashmiri Song) [From “Hers to Hold”]
  • Perhaps [From “Nice Girl”]
  • Poor Butterfly
  • Russian Medley [From “His Butler’s Sister”]
  • Sari Waltz (Love’s Own Sweet Song) [From “I’ll Be Yours”]
  • Say a Pray’r for the Boys Over There [From “Hers to Hold”]
  • Seal It With a Kiss
  • Seguidilla (from Carmen) [From “Hers To Hold”]
  • Serenade to the Stars [From “Mad About Music”]
  • Silent Night [From “Lady On A Train”]
  • Someone to Care for Me [From “Three Smart Girls”]
  • Something in the Wind [From “Something in the Wind”]
  • Spring in My Heart [From “First Love”]
  • Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year [From “Christmas Holiday”]
  • Swanee – Old Folks At Home [From “Nice Girl”]
  • Summertime (from Porgy And Bess)
  • Sweetheart
  • Thank You America [From “Nice Girl”]
  • The Blue Danube [From “Spring Parade”]
  • The Last Rose of Summer [From “Three Smart Girls Grow Up”]
  • The Old Refrain [From “The Amazing Mrs. Holiday”]
  • The Prince
  • The Turntable Song [From “Something in the Wind”]
  • There’ll Always Be An England [From “Nice Girl”]
  • Two Guitars [“Две гитары” – Russian Gypsy Folk song (Lyrics – Apollon Grigoriev, music – Ivan Vasiliev), from “His Butler’s Sister” (1943)]
  • Two Hearts
  • Un bel di vedremo (from Madama Butterfly) [From “First Love”]
  • Viennese Waltz [From “For The Love Of Mary”]
  • Vissi d’arte (from Tosca) [From “The Amazing Mrs. Holiday”]
  • Waltzing in the Clouds [From “Spring Parade”]
  • When April Sings [From “Spring Parade”]
  • When I Sing [From “It Started with Eve”]
  • When The Roses Bloom Again
  • When You’re Away [From “His Butler’s Sister”]
  • You Wanna Keep Your Baby Looking Nice, Don’t You [From “Something in the Wind”]
  • You’re As Pretty As A Picture [From “That Certain Age”]
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