Deanna was born Edna Mae Durbin to Ada and James Durbin on December 4, 1921. Her parents were originally from Lancashire, England, and had emigrated to Canada some years previously. Edna Mae was born at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She had one older sibling, a sister called Edith. It was Edith who would later provide partial funding for Deanna’s singing lessons, as she became a schoolteacher. However, her father’s poor health soon made a change a scene necessary, and it was in this way that Deanna came to live in California.
Deanna had all the attributes necessary for a successful film career. A decent actress possessed of a charming light soprano voice, she had the pretty girl-next-door appeal that audiences found to be a welcome antidote to the older, earthier types such as the Joans, Blondell and Crawford. In comparison to such ‘scarlet’ women, Deanna came across as being a thoroughly nice girl. Ironically, Deanna made her screen debut together with another singer-actress whose life followed the exact opposite path to hers – Judy Garland. This was in a two-reel short entitled ‘Every Sunday’ during which the two girls sang a duet ‘Opera vs. Jazz’. Louis B. Mayer, head of the M.G.M studios, was away in Europe at the time and did not see the film until it had been completed.
With his characteristic lack of perception and cl;arity, his immediate response was ‘drop the fat one’. As neither girl was exactly obese, the hapless minion to whom the remark was addressed had no idea to which one of them his boss was referring. Faced with a 50 percent chance of making the right decision, he picked the wrong girl. Mayer meant Garland; the unfortunate sidekick promptly sacked Durbin.
Just as this farce was being played out, Universal’s Joe Pasternak was looking for a singer to star in a movie called ‘Three Smart Girls’. He had seen Judy Garland in Every Sunday and asked MGM whether it would release her for the production. When his request was refused he opted for Deanna instead. This change of plan meant that the script had to be re-written, for the girls were very different types of singers, but Pasternak went ahead with the movie.
Three Smart Girls was an enormous success, and Deanna was signed by Universal. She was also offered a long-term recording contract which enabled her to commit all the major songs from her films to disc.
Deanna’s next film, 100 Men and A Girl, paired her with the conductor Leopold Stokowski together with his symphony orchestra (the 100 men of the title). The film received an Academy Award for best score, although, bizarrely, the oscar was not presented to Frederick Hollander and saw Coslow who actually wrote the music, but to Stokowski who conducted it.
Entertaining though they were, it has to be said that none of Deanna Durbin’s films were likely to challenge the output of Eisenstein or Bunel in the list of all-time masterpieces. Hollywood’s philosophy of finding a good formula and sticking to it through thick and thin certainly applied in this case. All the plots bore a remarkable family resemblance to one another. Deanna would play a high-spirited girl with the unfortunate habit of interfering in other’s lives causing havoc in the process and liable to burst into song at the slightest provocation. Of course in the never, never world of escapist movies everything always turned out right by the end of the final reel.
Repetitive they may have been, but her films proved so popular that she was given a special award in 1938 for ‘bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth’. This was just the sort of award that the publicists and image makers loved. After all, there was no comparable award given to C Aubrey Smith for representing the personification of old age, to W C Fields for alcohol consumption or to Nelson Eddy for his remarkable impression of a waxwork.
Deanna's first marriage to Vaughn Paul occured on April 18, 1941. Three years later divorced on December 14, 1943. As time wore on and film followed film. Deanna committed one cardinal sin for which Hollywood could never forgive its child stars: she began to grow up. For her part, she had long since grown tired of playing girls years younger than her real age and wanted to assume more demanding, grown-up parts.
Finally in the 1939 Cinderella story First Love, Deanna received her first screen kiss. The actor who participated in this eagerly-awaited event was Robert Stack, who was later to become a household name as Elliot Ness in the TV series ‘The Untouchables’. During the next few years, Deanna’s screen roles grew progressively less juvenile without allowing her to express fully adult emotions.
At last, in 1944, Deanna was cast in a really juicy dramatic role in Christmas Holiday. Her co-star was Gene Kelly, on loan from MGM, who was seriously miscast as a vicious murderer. Deanna was now getting the sort of parts she longed to play, but it seemed that neither the public nor Universal cared much anymore.
For a long while the studio had refused to see her as anything but a bright young girl; now it seemed that audiences were equally unwilling to accept the fact that she was now in her twenties. Saddened by the way her career was turning sour, as Universal offered her increasingly unsuitable roles for her undoubted talents, Deanna bit the bullet in 1948 and announced her retirement.
She eventually left the United States to live in France – she was still only 26 years of age. For once, the judgement of the moguls had proven to be justified. Deanna had married Felix Jackson on June 13, 1945 (the ninth anniversary of her time at Universal). She had a daughter, Jessica, but they divorced on October 27, 1949.
After her first two marriages failed, she married for a third time on December 21, 1950. Her husband was Charles Henri David (died 1999), who had directed her in Lady on the Train. She has a son with Charles named Peter. She now lives in the French village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, near Paris, and she still retains her canadian citizenship. In 1980, annoyed at a story that stated she was become fat, she sent Life Magazine a photo of herself, saying: “Yes, I can still pass under the Arc de Triomphe without holding my breath." Only once has she been sincerely tempted to come out of retirement, and that was when My Fair Lady was being planned for Broadway.
She and her husband passed their retirement years journeying around the world, engaging in their love of fine music, arts and theatre. Despite having lived in anonymity for over fifty years, Deanna has retained an remarkable fan following. As has been the case with many stars, Deanna had gained a new generation of fans due to the exposure of vintage Deanna films on cable TV and video.
The music Deanna Durbin sang in her movies was always tuneful and perfectly suited to a voice as bright and sympathetic as her personality.
Some of her most popular films included Spring Parade, Christmas Holiday, Nice Girl, Three Smart Girls and Can’t help Singing, and the songs she sang in those films are a lovely souvenir of an artist who remains a star fifty years or more after she so memorably lit up the silver screen.
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LIFE IN PICTURES I ||| LIFE IN PICTURES II