Friday, December 19, 2008
The Christmas Album: Deanna
Day Nineteen of our Holiday countdown has dawned, along with the keen realization that Deanna Durbin's long years of retirement from the business of show seems much more understandable now that this particular image has emerged from the vault. Hollywood dress designers aside, the Canadian born Edna May Durbin blended a classically trained, lush voice with a sparkling personality that is hard to describe but highly enjoyable to witness on film. Despite the fact that she was a mere fourteen when her singing talent burst forth in Three Smart Girls (1936), like horror movies and later Abbott and Costello, Durbin's slim shoulders are often cited as lifting Universal from its artistic and financial coma, "saving" the ramshackle studio from bankruptcy with the sheer force of her mezzo-soprano voice and engaging manner.
At first under contract to MGM, they let her slip through their fingers while mulling over their preference for Durbin or Garland, (with whom Deanna warbled in the 1936 MGM short, Every Sunday). Universal snagged her services thanks to producer Joe Pasternak, who paired Durbin with veteran director Henry Koster, beginning with her appearance in that first feature, which consisted of her fixing up her divorced parents' lives, (despite the fact that little was wrong with them from an adult viewpoint). This was followed rapidly by One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), in which she straightened out maestro Leopold Stokowski's relations with many poor musicians, and nine other movies followed in rapid succession, in which Deanna played every variation possible as a Miss Fix-It with some phenomenal pipes, even as she became, with each passing year, more interestingly self-assured, and, despite attempts to quell Mother Nature, a very bodacious young lady, (which may account for two rather unfortunate early marriages off screen to older men).
This string of films, culminating in one of this viewer's favorite of her recently rediscovered films, was the gossamer farce, It Started With Eve (1941). In this film Durbin deftly stole scenes from that fine ham, Charles Laughton while playfully bringing out previously unrevealed likable qualities in her romantic leading man, Robert Cummings. While most observers seem to look askance at her post-Pasternak films at Universal, Frank Borzage's His Butler's Sister (1943), Robert Siodmak's noirish Christmas Holiday (1944) (with a non-dancing, very earnest Gene Kelly!) and the delightful musical mystery, Lady on a Train (1945), which was directed by her future husband, Charles David, are among Durbin's most entertaining and intriguing later films.
As she matured, the intelligent young woman became, despite her 400k per movie, an astute critic of her own screen persona, and longed for a truly private life, which she chose in 1949 at twenty-eight, moving to a French village, Neauphlé-le-Château, where she has since ignored all offers to emerge. Deanna Durbin once brushed off the fulsome praise heaped on her during her career by pointing out that "Just as Hollywood pin-up represents sex to dissatisfied erotics, so I represented the ideal daughter millions of fathers and mothers wished they had."