Spreading More Deanna Love
Universal recently (and quietly) issued another Deanna Durbin Collection on DVD as part of their TCM Vault series. This time it's five rather than the six titles we got in a "Sweetheart" pack of several years back, with pricing on Volume Two a deal-breaker for many at $69.95 retail (the initial half-dozen came delivered at $26.98, before discounts). Classic DVD is getting to be a boutique enterprise. If you want a lot of this stuff, get prepared to pay for it. A question just occurs to me ... did Deanna Durbin ever negotiate for profit participation in her films? Given she was Universal's principal asset for over a decade, wouldn't there have been a clause, at least in mid-to-latter 40's contracts, for a piece of turnstiles action? She'll be eighty-nine in a few weeks, by the way. I'd like to think there's a slice of my purchase $ winging to France and payable to venerable DD, just for sticking around so long and entertaining me (and hopefully some of you) with musicals still best in their category.
And what do we call Deanna's brand of amusement? To me, she's tops among screen underpups, that legion of girlish songbirds Hollywood once issued in such abundance. They seem alien to a current public that hasn't seen their like in generations. When did adolescents last go vocal in movies, let alone achieve stardom for doing so? I guess most recent (recent?) was Jane Powell. Should we blame their extinction on a culture's loss of innocence? (though I don't buy notions we were ever really "innocent"). A thing that impresses me reading about Durbin is her stability through celebrity's grind. The girl dodged improvident moves you almost expect from cover teens today. Not for a moment does she seem to have bought into studio foolishness, all the more remarkable in light of intoxicating effect a dream factory's angel dust had on late 30's/early 40's psyches. There was a Fortune magazine article in October 1939 called simply "Deanna Durbin," as if that were shorthand for money, which as of then and years after, it was. Unlike fan rags with their dribs and drab of truth, this was a profile written for serious dollar merchants to whom picture stars were ordinarily ephemera itself (I'd guess Fortune subscribers shunned theatres because there were no ticker tape machines in lobbies). Fortune laid down statistics normally withheld from film-followers, to-wit fact that Durbin's output had been accounting for seventeen percent of Universal's entire yearly gross. She'd been credited with putting that company into unaccustomed profit as well, after repeated seasons of near-bankrupt performance.
Did Durbin really save Universal's hide? Well, she certainly thrust them into bigger theatres, being a first contract player that could, and on a repeated basis. It got to where lines formed for whatever she did, and according to Fortune, Universal was for a first time able to increase percentage demands for first-runs from a maximum twenty-five to thirty-five percent of paid admissions. This was rarefied air for a purveyor of mostly westerns, serials, and B actioners. A thing I enjoy most about Durbins is fact of their being Universal pictures, with unmistakable look and sound attendant upon that. One from last night's viewing was the 1938 Mad About Music, set in Switzerland by way of village backgrounds congenial to Uni monsters long known and loved. I half expected bicycling Deanna to whistle past Wolf Frankenstein's castle retreat (perhaps to Ygor's shepherd horn accompaniment), so much did Mad About Music's art direction remind me of the following year's Son Of Frankenstein.
Durbin would soon turn eighteen when the Fortune article hit. Had I been her, there might have resulted a Take It Or Leave It contract renegotiation with Uni chiefs, assuming even half the content of said piece was on the level. Did any personality back then, let alone one of tender years, possess such bargaining power? Among things wonderful about these DVD's is how lush Durbin vehicles are, all the more so now that they're decently pressed from original elements. Universal didn't splurge often, but when they did, watch out. From penny-pinching over decades came expertise at stretching dollars that's delight here to behold. Three Smart Girls Grow Up opens with titular trio tracking through mansion environs (clear that Universal's just showing off for downtown palace audiences) toward the money shot of a formal gathering to overshoot entire cowboy and monster budgets elsewhere on the lot. It helps watching these to like Deanna's voice (in fact, that's essential). So happens I do, plus her admittedly go-get-it personality. That last can rankle if you don't cotton to aggressive adolescents, though Durbin tempered hers, knowingly I think, by adding piquant sex allure as soon as she was able. That last made her adult transition easy, as Universal put off transition toward maximizing viewer eagerness to see Deanna cut loose re girl meets boy. That she does in this set's Because Of Him, where she applies seductive wiles to unlikely partner Franchot Tone (hardly boyish ... he was sixteen years her senior) and reworks comedic bits with again co-star Charles Laughton from 1941's It Started With Eve. You'd think by obscurity of these shows that none amounted to much commercially, but au contraire, they were all hits to her last, and Universal cried real tears when Durbin finally closed the iron door in 1948.
Deanna wrote me once (in 1986). Yes she did. It was just a note acknowledging a flyer I'd sent for our Film Den show of First Love, but here it is, and from what I'm told online, she's no longer responding to fan mail (so much of it, with internet advent, as to finally overwhelm her). That last got me wondering if DD has a computer and maybe follows activities of her web-based fan legion (considerable). There are folks my age who refuse to acknowledge the keyboard monster, so how would this woman who chucked stardom sixty-plus years ago feel about it? I do hope she has a DVD player so as to watch these Universal volumes that are so superior to 16mm prints she's understood to have owned since Hollywood days (but how many of those have turned vinegar during the interim?). Durbin spoke to sound reasons for retirement in that one-off interview she gave David Shipman in the eighties: Why did I give up my career? For one thing, just take a look at my last four films and you’ll appreciate that the stories I had to defend were mediocre, near impossible. Whenever I complained or asked for story or director approval, the studio refused. I was the highest paid star with the poorest material ... today I consider my salary as damages for having to cope with such complete lack of quality. Interestingly, her final film, For The Love Of Mary, and yes, about as lame as she obviously found it, is among the recent DVD's. Others of the five include aforementioned Mad About Music, That Certain Age (Jackie Cooper for puppy love, Melvyn Douglas as suave object of DD crush, and my fave song of hers, You're As Pretty As A Picture), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (maybe her richest looking vehicle, and a good one), Because Of Him (Laughton and Tone reunited ten years after sailing the Bounty ... Deanna works well with both), and reviled, but still fascinating, For The Love Of Mary.