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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Deanna Departs

Deanna Durbin was in movies for what, thirteen years? ---  from 1936 to 1948 and by-then starring vehicles so poor, at least by her reckoning, as to drive real-named Edna Mae out of the business. Said abbreviated career came to 14.28 percent of Durbin's life, so a question for fans is: How important was any given 14.28 percent of your lives so far? --- let alone a portion that ended sixty-five years ago (I'm still waiting to have been around that long). Most people stay thirty to fifty years at a job/career before retirement or death. Durbin toiled but a fraction of that. Should it be wondered that she chose afterward silence over reflection? Think of folks you've known who submitted to workaday rut for decades until rescue of social security and 401K. Do any of them look longingly back on teller windows or grocery management? Deanna Durbin said she never enjoyed being a movie star, and that put her square in line with fans who for a most part hated their toil as well. She was relief from their misery, but where was relief for Deanna, other than flight to France and utter withdrawal from public life?

Deanna Durbin was my favorite actress, along with Norma Shearer. I sort of clung to hope she'd invite me to Rue Du Whatever for cakes and an afternoon reminiscing, but a most this fan received was a friendly note dated 1/30/86, that being plenty in light of near-none access her followers had. Internet disclosure of Durbin's changed address and, well, the Internet itself, renewed avalanche of mail to levels unknown since Universal peonage, which maybe isn't an apt word, for pay-packs gone Deanna's way were said to be most profuse in the industry. How many stars walked away from such money? DD's vehicles were slipping, but not her appeal. She could have gone to MGM and entreaty of Joe Pasternak and done any number of musicals w/ Astaire, Kelly ... name your song/dancing mate. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers with her would have been a certainty. All that's speculation, and it's a cinch Deanna would not have lived to serene ninety-one had she kept pulling careerism's plow.

I could ask all the way out to the county line and find not one who's heard of Deanna Durbin. Ann checked the news earlier and saw nada about her passing. The problem was always Durbin being retired too long and the pictures shown too seldom. Selling her to a modern audience was tough for an image locked into distant past and movies like fragment from another galaxy. Think TCM will salute Deanna with a half-dozen features this week? That would need quick licensing from Universal and attendant expense, the only DD Warner owns being It's A Date and short subject Every Sunday. Maybe there'll be increased Amazon orders for Sweetheart DVD packs. Haven't decided myself what of hers to get out. Lots are eminently rewatchable. Wonder what it's like to outlive nearly everyone you worked with and virtually all of first-run's fan base. Durbin never understood why anybody would take an interest in her screen persona. Was she equally baffled by modern-day devotees?

More Deanna Durbin at Greenbriar's Archive: Her Glamour Starters, Parts One and Two, plus Spreading More Deanna Love, Lady On A Train, Deanna, How Could You Let Them Do This?, and Deanna In Technicolor.


Blogger Unknown said...

Obviously Deanna, like many people, had become deeply unhappy in her life and work,and felt she needed a change. Unlike many people, she had the resources to let her do so.

12:05 PM  
Blogger JavaBeanRush said...

Because of her strong need for privacy, and desire to let the past rest, I have often wondered if all this hoopla from perfect strangers is the proper way to honor her.

But how else could one go about it?


6:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Here's a wonderful Deanna story shared by Scott MacGillivray:

Did I ever tell you about Peggy Ryan's 80th birthday? There's a Durbin connection here. It was one of Mike Fitzgerald's annual Universal reunions (and it turned out to be the last one), and Jan and I attended with Gloria Jean. After the various celebrity guests were announced and applauded, there were three telegrams for Peggy from well-wishers. I don't remember the first two -- one might have been from the President of the United States or Hillary Clinton or someone prominent, I honestly don't remember -- but then Gloria Jean took the microphone and read the final telegram, from the sender congratulating Peggy, mentioning the old days at Universal, and regretting not being there in person. Then Gloria read the signature.

I can still hear Gloria's voice: "Love... [pause]... Deanna Durbin."

And I can still hear the immediate response in the one second that followed. No polite applause, no cheering... a big, deep, incredulous, communal gasp from the entire crowd, whose members were about 80 years old themselves. I could hear everybody thinking, My God, it's the Queen Mother of Universal! Nobody hears from Deanna Durbin! Then everybody applauded warmly, I think as much as a tribute to Deanna Durbin as it was to Peggy Ryan.

And with Deanna Durbin's passing, I guess that little speech became Durbin's farewell to the troops.

Best wishes -- Scott

8:19 PM  
Blogger JavaBeanRush said...

What a great story from Scott MacGillivray!

Jacqueline Lynch just posted on her blog that a great star always leaves them wanting more.

-- Java

8:53 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for the mention, Java. Love that story from Scott MacGillivray. Terrific.

9:36 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

Deanna Durban was unique.

6:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Having known Dan Mercer was a Deanna fan since we were in college together, I've just been waiting for him to salute her, and here he is:

I became a fan of Deanna Durbin long before I saw any of her movies or heard her voice. I was a freshman in college, and during my first week in school, I discovered that the library had bound volumes of LIFE magazine going back to the first issue. I began turning through the pages, entranced by this glimpse of another world. Advertisements for shoes and automobiles, stories about politicians and other pretenders, a parade of fashions, and a kind journalism much more vigorous than anything I was familiar with in the LIFE still being published then.

I hadn't gotten very far into my reading when I was stopped by the cover of an issue from 1937. On it was the full face photograph of a very pretty girl, with round cheeks and full lips, and with eyes that could only have been the bluest of blue, though the picture was in black and white. She was lovely, but what made her all the more was a certain radiance, as though she was the very epitome of innocence and joy.

This was my first encounter with Deanna Durbin. The story inside was about the filming of "100 Men and a Girl," but also the phenomenon of her popularity. She'd had what was intended as a supporting role in her previous picture, "Three Smart Girls," but the preview audiences had loved her so much that her part was built up in extensive retakes, something unusual for frugal Universal Pictures. This was to be her first full fledged vehicle, and the interest was such that the gangsters and match kings ordinarily featured in LIFE had to give way before this young girl.

Months later, I saw my first Durbin picture, "It Started with Eve," broadcast by that New York flamethrower, Channel 9, and not long after that, MCA released a collection of her recordings. The voice was extraordinary, both on the LP and in the film, and in the latter, there was more than a suggestion of a beguiling personality and talented actress. As much as I wanted to see her other films, however, their appearances would always be rare and infrequent.

It was also a time, however, when she gave virtually her last statements to the public, on the occasion of Judy Garland's death. They were child stars around the same time and had appeared together in one picture, a short subject titled "Every Sunday," but their careers had not paralleled each other so much as sharply diverged. Durbin had been much the bigger star in the beginning, but her studio never found a way of giving her what she needed, while she was too little interested to do much about it. Garland had a much more desperate need for the stardom Durbin forfeited. She burned brightly for a while, until she was consumed.

In those statements, Durbin displayed a sympathy towards Garland and an understanding of the cost she had paid, but was strangely dismissive of her own career. The character she played in films, she said, had not ever the slightest resemblance to who she was.

I'm not sure I can quite believe that. There was too much of her in the cover photograph that so captivated me, and her voice, when I finally heard it, was so filled with passion and a depth of emotion, that it could not have been a mere instrument, but the very expression of her soul.

What she must have meant was this, that the reality of life was much more satisfying than the pretense that attended her stardom, so that she would gladly give up all that went with that stardom, the good with bad, to have what she had come to know and love. Celebrity and reputation were like the discarded leaves of a season past, when there is always a new spring for one who lives a life.


6:13 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In 1980 I brought motion picture sound pioneer Bernard B. Brown to Toronto for three days. I was celebrating the 50th anniversary of LOONEY TUNES. The year before I had brought up Bob Clampett who was so pleased with the way we worked together he introduced me to Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Grim Natwick, Heck Allen and Mr. Brown. I was to learn a lot from them.

"Brownie" went back to playing first violin in the orchestra that accompanied THE BIRTH OF A NATION (as THE CLANSMAN) at Clune's Auditorium through 365 performances. He was 16. He directed the sound recording on the 1927, THE JAZZ SINGER and in 1939, directing sound on Deanna Durbin's ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL he fought with Leopold Stokowski over the sound recording of THE PHILADELPHIA ONE HUNDRED orchestra. At that time recording was done with a single microphone hung over the musicians. "Brownie" wanted to break them up into sections, record them separately and then mix them. After a long fight Stokowski said, "Let's do it his way. Let's do it the right way. Let's just get it done." The next day, "Brownie" told me, when Stokowski heard the playback he apologized on the set to Brown who got one of two Academy Awards and Eleven Oscar Nominations for his work on that film. This only marginally deals with Deanna Durbin, I admit, but is a story worth telling. Mr. Brown was an invaluable help in my own work creating a score for THE BIRTH OF A NATION designed to have regular working class movie goers, not film buffs, feel the power of the film. Brown regularly received cards from the women whose voices he recorded. He told me that after we ran a few of his films and he said, "Now I know why I still get cards from them" It was an amazing moment filled with equally amazing people.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Another neat Bernard Brown story is his recording Nelson Eddy ap against a piece of wood for THE PHANTOM ON THE OPERA (1943).

"YOU DUBBED MY VOICE!" shouted Eddy when he heard the playback.

Said Brown, "No, Nelson, I just added a little timbre to it."

Brown had a fine ear for sound which is why the women he recorded sound so fine.

9:06 AM  

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