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Monday, September 11, 2006

Deanna Durbin --- Part Two

Deanna Durbin’s kind of popularity is unknown today. So few people even go to movies now, let alone read about them the way fan magazine purchasers did in her day. There are still Durbin scrapbooks languishing in attics, lovingly compiled by grandparents when they were teenagers. Hers was the kind of sanctified image that invited the approval of many otherwise indifferent to, or even scornful, of Hollywood. Franklin Roosevelt sent Joseph Stalin a print of His Butler’s Sister as a good will gesture. Axis agencies put word out among prisoners of war and allied troops in remote combat zones that she’d died, knowing this would reduce morale. Upon Japan’s surrender, American occupation forces chose Deanna Durbin features as first to be publicly shown, on the theory that their wholesome and non-political content would encourage calm and cooperation among the populace. I’m told she received $400,000 to do It Started With Eve. That seems a lot, even given her enormous popularity, but the status of having been highest paid woman in the United States seems not to have been challenged. A lot of viewers experiencing Durbin for a first time today will no doubt be skeptical as to accuracy of that --- what were those people thinking? It's still possible to be won over, however, especially if you follow her from beginnings with Three Smart Girls. There was an ingenious continuity running through all the Durbin vehicles. Her Penny Craig character in Three Smart Girls returns in two follow-ups, and in what must have been a nostalgic moment for moviegoers in 1943, "Penny" and her parents watch home movies featuring scenes not only from the first two Smart Girls pics, but other Durbin highlights as well. These clips are woven into the narrative as if all were incidents in Penny Craig's life. Universal was careful not to disrupt age progression for each new Durbin release, this providing a comfort level for young viewers whose own maturing and development could be measured against Deanna’s.

It was these intensely personal connections that assured fan loyalty as Durbin transitioned into romantic leads. She encouraged it, of course, but also realized the identification ended at her front door. Friends and family called her Edna May (actual name), and unlike stars who often confused who they were with who they played, Durbin was always quite clear as to the line of demarcation between Deanna and Edna May. When the fans rejected her noirish turn in Christmas Holiday (Durbin thought it best of the filmic lot), she pretty much went on autopilot for what was left of a performing career. This proprietary interest on the part of her admirers made Durbin a prisoner of Deanna. Any future in serious acting was as foreclosed to her as it would have been to someone standing outside those Universal gates. In fact, she’d wanted out after Christmas Holiday, but was talked into staying for the sake of an ongoing war effort. Durbin did throw a few curves, however, not least of which was an alarmingly sensual quality often summoned up for adult parts. That underlying carnality looms large in otherwise tepid romantic comedy situations wherein Durbin found herself paired off with Universal contract non-starters of the David Bruce and Robert Paige variety. Image and career stagnation also increased her appetite. Paige would later recall bountiful fried chicken picnics while on location for Can’t Help Singing, and by 1945 and Because Of Him, the effects were beginning to show. The spectre of overweight, real and imagined, persisted into retirement, causing Deanna to suspend her cardinal rule against media exposure when she mailed a current (1980), and svelte, photo of herself to LIFE magazine to dispel rumors of latter-day corpulence.

Deanna Durbin said in that 1983 interview that she strongly considered taking the Broadway lead in My Fair
Lady, but by then, was committed to family and retirement, so this and other offers (including Metro's for Kiss Me Kate) went unheeded. Buckets of money were offered up, but being among a rarified group of one-time child stars not to have been robbed by parents, Deanna turned all proposals down. Bill Everson wrote a career article for Films In Review in 1976 and received her polite acknowledgment, but Durbin still couldn’t understand why people would be interested in a character she found altogether alien in movies that to her seemed utterly artificial. She'd surface again in 1987, though, writing Everson to correct factual errors in a FIR article concerning Jean Renoir’s involvement with 1943's The Amazing Mrs. Holliday. Her letter on this occasion was detailed and insightful, making all the more regrettable her ongoing disinterest in writing memoirs or submitting to a detailed career interview/overview.

So where are her movies today? Certainly not on television. TCM has run a handful, but Durbin’s never been Star Of The Month, owing no doubt to Universal’s ownership of, and indifference toward, her films. Warners does own It’s A Date, by virtue of Metro having purchased its negative in the late forties for a Jane Powell remake, so that one’s shown often on TCM. A DVD "Sweetheart" pack of six Durbin features turned up several years back, but sales must have been slow, for there’s been no promise of more (until 2010, when five more came out). Her sustained popularity in Great Britain, always the most dedicated outpost in Durbin-land, resulted in Region 2 DVD release of nearly all her output, excepting one mired in ownership dispute (Spring Parade). On one hand, I can understand Universal’s disinterest in promoting movies so old and frankly dated as these. You could say there’s not enough revenue to justify effort of exploiting this franchise, and yet these are corporate assets, and do have a potential, if modest, earning potential. Like any asset, they need to be cultivated. Public awareness and appreciation, even if limited to a niche group, might eventually generate enough sales to increase value of these long dormant properties. I’m thinking not only of Deanna Durbin, but of other Universal groups as well --- W.C. Fields, Alan Ladd, pre-codes, film noir. None of this would happen overnight. These names and titles have been off a public’s radar too long to expect immediate consumer embrace of their revival, but a comeback, if modest, can be achieved by means of satellite broadcasts on Universal’s FLIX channels, licensing to other outlets (such as TCM), and of course, more DVD releases. Universal has gotten a little better about that over the last several months, as we’re seeing DeMille, Lombard, and Cooper groups, plus the Sturges, Cary Grant, and Bing Crosbys to
come. Sales expectations should be realistic, though, for it takes time for library assets to find a potential audience and generate meaningful sales. It will also require spending a little money on the front end, without usual guarantees of immediate pay-off (in fact, said pay-off would be anything but immediate), but over time, which Universal and its corporate empire obviously have plenty of, there could be some sort of revenue stream, along with favorable publicity attendant upon any gesture a company makes toward its classic output. We’re all realistic enough to know these old films will never again be major profit centers, but with patient handling, they can certainly be something more than buried relics too long ignored.

Photo Captions

With Robert Cummings and Charles Laughton in It Started With Eve
Fan Magazine Comparison --- Deanna and Judy Garland
With Edmond O' Brien in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday
Fan Magazine and Universal Portraits
Title Lobby Card --- Christmas Holiday
Title Lobby Card --- Can't Help Singing
Color Tinted Portrait by Tom Maroudas of Dream Pin-Ups
Deanna at The Hollywood Canteen
Color Fan Magazine Portrait
With Donald O' Connor and John Dall in Something In The Wind
Deanna in retirement with her son in 1958


Anonymous sjack827 said...

Thanks for providing the reasons why we (almost)never see Deanna Durbin on TV. One gets a very skewered view on what/who was really popular in classic Hollywood based upon how the studios handle their catalogues. Those stars who worked primarily for Warners ,RKO, Paramount and MGM get the most attention because those studios films are being shown the most on TV. People don't realize what huge movie stars people like Deanna Durbin, Gene Autry and Bing Crosby were because you hardly see any of their films. On the other hand we're deluged with Judy, Bette, Cary etc. It's great that there are people like you that keep up with things like this and maybe more films will get released.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Greg G. said...

Do you have the 1980 picture by chance? I'd love to seee it.

12:35 PM  
Anonymous Frank said...

I was an avid cinema-goer in the 50s, 60s and 70s and grew up on Universal reissues, yet I never saw a Durbin film until the British DVD release.

My father fondly remembered them all and patrons of our local cinemas asked for them endlessly, but, even back then, Universal seemed to have forgotten they ever existed. Strange.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Yes, thanks for the article. The 1980 picture was a small one published in the letters section of the May 1980 Life Magazine, taken by her husband, the film director of Lady On A Train, Charles David. It was in response to their amazing stars "Whatever happened to Mary Astor" missing stars issue.

Deanna wrote:

"I may have stopped being a movie star, but I'm still a ham at heart - proof being the enclosed photo, the latest snapshot my husband took of me. If you care to publish it, it might set straight the false rumors about my figure. These, after so many years of happy oblivion, still disturb me a little and are not compensated by that first sentence of old friends when meeting me "Deanna ! But you're not at all plump!" No I can still pass under the Arc de Triomphe without holding my breath."

She signed it Deanna Durbin David.

I keep the clipping of that photo, in my copy of the essential book Return Engagement.

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Mike Mercury said...

I must confess to never having seen a Deanna Durbin film, and I'm 44. I doubt if anyone younger than me has heard of her either - but then that's true of a lot of the older film stars, more's the pity.

I don't recall ever seeing a single film of hers being shown on UK TV. When the recent R2 DVD box set came out from DD Video, a friend of mine who works there couldn't understand why his company was bothering with them.

3:53 PM  

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