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Monday, November 15, 2010

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.
More Deanna Durbin at Greenbriar's Archive: Her Glamour Starters Part One and Two, plus Deanna, How Could You Let Them Do This?, and Deanna in Technicolor.


Blogger JavaBeanRush said...

Your blog post comes at an especially opportune time for me; I find myself on an insatiable Deanna Durbin kick. Thanks for mentioning the second DD movie package; I wonder why there's little or no fanfare about it.

About teenage songstresses. I did not notice that Jane Powell was being groomed to be MGM's answer to Universal's DD until I did a double take the other month watching Powell's Nancy Goes To Rio (1950) - a remake of DD's It's a Date(1940). Powell's early career suddenly made sense.

Sometimes there's a distinct disadvantage to home viewing and watching movies back to back, as opposed to waiting years for the next film to be released in theaters - as the child star grows up, her love interests may be the men who were her doting father figures in previous films (a fact which makes viewing some of DD's more mature roles a bit unsettling, even though we know it's all just fiction).

The Shipman interview was in 1982? I thought it was the year after that, for some reason. I'll have to change that info on my blog.

Thanks again.

- Java

6:12 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

give me DD over the other gals any day.I one word,Pleasant.
Shes the girl next door ..with sex appeal..

1:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Java, I'm hoping Warners Archive will get around to releasing "It's a Date," given fact they've owned it for many years now.

Also received an interesting e-mail from Donald Benson today ...

I picked up the first pack a few years back; probably won't go for the second. Deanna Durbin grownup is a little like Annette Funicello in the beach movies: appealing but as firmly sensible as your mother, which is not quite what you want in those films. "Lady on a Train" lets her play more ditsy and sexy; the blonde wig must have been liberating.

Is anyone else slightly creeped out by "It Started With Eve"? For me it came alarmingly close to being an overt romance between Durbin and her nominal father-in-law Laughton, and it doesn't help that romantic lead Bob Cummings is sort of sidelined, starting out as a serious adult male and switching to his lightweight comedy mode late in the game.

Donald, I'll need to watch "Eve" again, having read your above remarks. Always game for being creeped out by Deanna ... and with Laughton! ... Robert Cummings is someone I always enjoy watching, whether comic or serious, so having him both ways is all the better.

I'll save Annette for another day, perhaps when I finish a long-gestating post on "How To Stuff a Wild Bikini."

7:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Have thoroughly enjoyed your Deanna posts...I wonder why my favorite Durbin film, HIS BUTLER'S SISTER, hasn't made a DVD set yet?

That's an interesting "take" on IT STARTED WITH EVE mentioned above, but I can't say it struck me that way.

But then, I don't think FOR THE LOVE OF MARY is a bad movie, either...

Best wishes,

2:52 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Hi John:

When Deanna returned to America with her husband Charles David and young son, Peter David, there were many reports that she was interested in making another film, despite her repeated denials to the press.

And at least one columinst reported: "[H]ere is the lowdown on Deanna's financial situation: She has been drawing hefty checks from U-I for many years for her percentage on her old films. Some of the checks are way over the $100,000 mark." But who knows if it's true?

Java, don't change the date on your blod just yet. Although I'm not certain what date he actually did the interview with her, David Shipman's interview with Deanna was first published in December 1983, which suggests he did it some time that year.

1:57 PM  
Blogger JavaBeanRush said...

I didn't notice any sexual overtones in the Durbin-Laughton banter in EVE [though, there seems to be a hint of it in BECAUSE OF HIM, which I don't find creepy at all; Laughton should have ended up with Durbin in that film].

EVE is one DD film that I find near perfection as far as casting goes. Cummings doesn't seem the least intimidated by Durbin, and neither does Laughton, which makes the three-way onscreen chemistry more balanced than usual in a Durbin film.

Many of her leading men seem rather anemic next to this megastar, which distracts me. But in EVE, no such problem exists.

Granted, I may feel this way because EVE is the first DD movie that I ever saw and have been hooked ever since.

Thanks for sharing, John.

2:01 PM  
Blogger JavaBeanRush said...

Hi Mark,

When did Durbin return to the U.S.? I had not heard that she has ever set a foot stateside since the '40s.

Please tell me the source for that information. That must have been quite a decision for her to make.

Was she planning a comeback? Was she just visiting? Was her husband planning to direct in the U.S. again? What year was it?

More info, please.

-- Java

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post as usual.
And congratulations...getting a signed note from the lady herself!

Good assortment of images, too, as always. Nice rare shot of Lou Costello with Miss Durbin. If anyone was wondering, no these two did not make a movie together. Lou is just visiting her on the set of her 1943 movie "The Amazing Mrs. Holliday".
But there actually is one movie connection beween the two: she is mentioned in the song "Let's Play House" by Peggy Ryan and Lou in the 1945 Abbott & Costello feature "Here Come the Co-eds".

9:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

This to Laura: I really love your site, "Laura's Miscellaneous Musings" and appreciate your favorable mentions of Greenbriar there.

Your classic movie news feature is about the best anywhere as far as I'm concerned.

Everyone should visit Laura's site and bookmark it:

6:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, sorry, I forgot to sign my above post...that was me with the trivia about the still of Lou Costello with Miss Durbin.
--- Richard Finegan

2:49 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

John, your kind words mean a great deal to me, especially as I have enjoyed your blog so much. Your photo roundups and header photos are amazing! (My all-time favorite is a header photo you ran of Gloria DeHaven and Mickey Rooney in SUMMER HOLIDAY. Just beautiful.)

Thanks and best wishes,

7:41 PM  

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