Deanna Durbin dies at 91; wholesome star of Depression-era films
Deanna Durbin, the singing starlet with the bubbly personality and the jewel-tone voice whose enormously popular movies were widely credited with saving Universal Pictures from bankruptcy during the Depression, has died. She was 91.
Her popularity peaked by her late teens and by her mid-20s Durbin had left Hollywood forever, made wealthy by her relatively brief career. She died in April in France, said family friend Bob Koster, the son of Henry Koster, who directed Durbin in films early in her career.
Durbin had lived just outside the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, near Paris, since moving there in 1950 with her third husband, director Charles David.
Although she appeared in only one short and 21 feature films in her 12-year Hollywood career, Durbin nevertheless left behind a trove of upbeat productions that made her one of the biggest stars of her era and earned her loyal fans decades after her last film was released in 1948.
“She was one of the last really legitimate movie stars from the 1930s who was still with us,” film historian Alan K. Rode told The Times on Wednesday. “She was a huge box-office star for a short period of time.”
At a time when most girls her age were barely discovering boys, Durbin was catapulted into her role as a wholesome teen idol to millions of young girls. Dresses, dolls, ski suits and hats were marketed in her name. Her fresh face and clear voice were known around the world. Poignantly, even Anne Frank, confined to her family’s hiding place in Amsterdam during World War II, pasted a movie magazine picture of Durbin on her wall.
And Durbin’s first screen kiss — with Robert Stack in the 1939 Cinderella story “First Love” — generated international headlines.
In 1938, Durbin and another young star, Mickey Rooney, were recognized at the Academy Awards for “bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.”
As a young teenager, Durbin was mentored by producer Joe Pasternak, who helped her develop the screen persona that worked so well for her and for Universal, where she made all of her feature films. Pasternak, a Hungarian immigrant, produced 10 of them.
Writing in the “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” David Thomson said Pasternak “appears to have grasped that Durbin was a rarity: a true teenage star, pretty, cheerful, clean and tuneful. He used her as a beaming social worker to unhappy adults and such balm proved very efficacious just before and in the early years of the war.”
Durbin later wryly called her image that of “Little Miss Fix-It Who Bursts Into Song.” Often, they were in the light classical or classical vein, such as “Alleluia” (Mozart) or “Brindisi” (Verdi), both sung in “100 Men and a Girl,” one of her most popular films.
In that 1937 musical comedy Durbin stars as Patricia Cardwell, whose father (Adolphe Menjou) is one of 100 musicians unable to find a job. She, of course, works her magic and by the end of the 84-minute film, all happily join together to make music under the direction of legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, who plays himself.
Six of her early films, including “100 Men,” were directed by Henry Koster, who had fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933, moved to the U.S. and directed such films as “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947) with Cary Grant and “Harvey” (1950) with James Stewart. Koster worked closely with the young singer to bring out credible performances.
Later the Durbin franchise was kept going by other producers and directors including director William A. Seiter and producer Felix Jackson, who became her second husband in 1945. At 19 Durbin had married producer Vaughn Paul, but the union lasted less than two years.
Edna Mae Durbin was born Dec. 4, 1921, (some sources say 1922) in Winnipeg, Canada, but the family soon moved to Southern California because of her father’s health. Her much older sister, Edith, insisted that her little sister’s operatic abilities be nurtured after hearing her sing “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” From her earnings as a teacher, Edith paid for Edna Mae’s singing lessons.
After an actor’s agent saw 14-year-old Edna Mae sing in a neighborhood show, she was quickly signed to MGM for $56 a week.
At MGM, Durbin and another young future star, Judy Garland, made an 11-minute film together called “Every Sunday,” which served as an audition for each of them. But there was only room for one girl talent at MGM, and Edna Mae was shuffled off the lot. She soon had a stage name, Deanna Durbin, and was making $300 a week under contract to Universal.
Durbin’s first film, “Three Smart Girls” (1936), was a musical comedy in which she played one of three sisters trying to reunite their parents. “The picture scampers along most cheerily,” the New York Times said, “its gaiety is contagious, its humor infectious.” Durbin, fans and film critics noted, held the picture together by winning over viewers with her wholesome, animated charm.
In the 1988 book “The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era,” Thomas Schatz wrote that the film, which cost $300,000 to produce, was “a bargain price for any musical — let alone a runaway hit that vaulted an unknown ingenue to stardom.”
Boosted by Durbin’s appearances on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, “Three Smart Girls” was the studio’s biggest hit of the year. It also was nominated for best picture, losing out to MGM’s “The Great Ziegfeld.”
After that, Durbin, Pasternak and Koster became known as the “Durbin unit,” which became the key to Universal’s survival for the next few years.
Durbin and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, who made their first Universal picture in 1940, “saved the studio from going down the tubes,” according to Rode, the film historian.
The Durbin unit would go on to make “100 Men and a Girl,” “Spring Parade,” “Three Smart Girls Grow Up,” “First Love” and “It Started With Eve.” Pasternak also produced the Durbin vehicles “Mad About Music,” “That Certain Age,” “It’s a Date” and “Nice Girl?” with other directors.
Before Durbin’s 20th birthday, she had appeared in 10 wildly profitable films for Universal. She also was one of the highest paid stars of her time, making a reported $250,000 a year.
Producer A.C. Lyles, 94, was working at Paramount when Durbin turned into a “major, major attraction for Universal.”
“She was a charming and talented lady,” he said Wednesday, “an amazing star with great talent.”
But, like many young stars, Durbin struggled to make the transition from sprightly teen singer to more serious actress with a broader range.
In the 1944 film noir “Christmas Holiday,” she played an unhappy honky-tonk singer opposite Gene Kelly, but the movie was seen as a disappointment. Film critic Thomson wrote that she was “hopelessly adrift” in the role.
At age 23, Durbin received good reviews for “Lady on a Train,” a 1945 comedy-murder mystery directed by Charles David, who five years later became her third husband. (The film was produced by her second husband.)
But her popularity had peaked. She made five more films after that, ending her career in 1948 with “For the Love of Mary,” in which she portrayed a White House switchboard operator juggling the attentions of three men.
By the time she and David married, Durbin was completing a near total retreat from the public eye.
Villagers in Neauphle reported seeing Durbin from time to time at the post office or dry cleaner but, at her request, maintained a strict code of silence about their famous resident.
“My wife retired from the film world when we married,” David told The Times in 1982. “When she was a star she behaved like a star, and played ball with the publicity boys. But she never enjoyed that part of her life. As soon as she could, she gave it up.”
David died in 1999. Durbin’s survivors include her daughter, Jessica Jackson, and her son, Peter H. David.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.
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