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Monday, September 11, 2023

Swing Shift Deanna Goes All In for Victory


War, Love, Loss, and Deanna Durbin

Constant wartime query was What Are We Fighting For, to which Hollywood supplied answer off respective contract lists. Prominent was Deanna Durbin, watched intently as she grew from girlhood to romantic leads. Age 21 and Hers to Hold was leeway for Durbin to clench and be clenched by partners mostly older, in this case Joseph Cotten, then 38 as undisguised “wolf” endorsed by industry favoring men who fought. Cotten’s credo is “When a girl says no, she means yes,” though like comrades bound for battle, he shuns commitment and stateside expectation that will create. How could he or affianced be assured of his coming back? Stories were then told by slide rule that guided war-set narratives. Impressionable watchers might engage courtship based on how screen couples did theirs, so fantasy figures needed to be on best and most responsible behavior. Truest love should prevail whatever the gamble, especially now that it was life or death. Homefront drama therefore got greater intensity by default, like being spotted points in a sporting match. Urgency bred into wartime relationships permitted star images to mature more rapidly than circumstance might otherwise allow, Durbin’s passion for Cotten a distinct depart from two years earlier Nice Girl? with infatuates Franchot Tone, too mature thus disqualified, and Robert Stack, unthreatening Tiger Beat boy for the 40’s. Similar background of love, war, and parting lent new conviction also to Judy Garland’s romance with Robert Walker in The Clock, audiences gratified to see once-girls become seasoned women in the face of national emergency.

Uncertain opening of Hers to Hold suggests the old Deanna of ingenue ways, her again “Penny Craig” of previous two (as in Three) Smart Girl vehicles, this time a West Coast Deb whom photographers follow to ritual of her donating blood. Did daughters of the rich fascinate simply for being daughters of the rich? And were so-called debutantes as noteworthy in L.A. as they evidently were in New York? The character of Penny struck me as a sort of Oona O’Neill transplanted west, nothing accomplished besides being bred by wealth. Hers to Hold begins as another frivolous Durbin venture, Cotten coming on strong amidst sort-of screwball circumstance, posing as a doctor at the blood bank. He steals a kiss, in fact several, the second when he crashes a party at Deanna’s plush home. Here being 1943 and Cotten lately off Shadow of a Doubt, there is heavy remnant of Uncle Charlie in his “Bill Morley,” a character resorting to deceit in pursuit of Penny. Bill like Charlie is more surface charm than sincerity. Is he stalking Penny for access to money he knows she is heiress to? His maintaining the doctor pose is countered by a knowing Penny who inflicts him with a hypochondriac dowager much like “fat, silly, useless women” Uncle Charlie so detested, and despite Hers to Hold comedic intent, we can’t help being uneased by the Morley character as essayed by an actor just off spurt of wife killing in Hitchcock's film. Could then-audience reaction have been like seeing Anthony Perkins in something after Psycho? Morley/Charlie even blows smoke rings from his cigar, a signature Cotten made a point to repeat in roles, habit I had not noted till reading an article in the Hers to Hold pressbook where the actor described cigars as a must for all his screen work (remember Kane’s Jed Leland asking for them, Pearl Chavez enticed by them in Duel in the Sun?).

Slick Seducer Bill Morley (Joseph Cotten) Wants to Play Doctor with Deanna

There is something calculated in Joseph Cotten’s persona, an aspect that makes his Bill Morley more intriguing than, for instance, Gene Kelly opposite Deanna in Christmas Holiday, a character we know from outset is not to be trusted, Durbin’s dogged loyalty almost an irritant. Penny takes a defense plant job to be near sneaky Morley. We are given to understand that no woman is too good for aircraft assembly lines, thus Penny democratized and among class-unconscious labor force of You Fly ‘Em, We’ll Build ‘Em credo. Bill is there but higher up, him having been with the Flying Tigers and now awaiting U.S. Air Force orders, this why he’ll give Deanna the breeze same as gals who get too serious, their invite home for a thick steak his cue to fade. Were men in or out of uniform so casual in the face of willing consorts? Possibility of not surviving combat would seem to me a greater reason to push for whatever could be got in a meantime, this recalling "don’t do as we do, do as we say" ethos as Hollywood-practiced. Two offscreen incidents for evidence: Durbin and Cotten were hot/heavy in a parked car one beach evening, patrolling police in receipt of a peek and spilling the story to Hedda Hopper spies at the station house. Hopper told it next day in her column and fur flew. Stuff of legend this was till Orson Welles confirmed truth to Henry Jaglom in 2013’s My Lunches with Orson, Welles tattling thus: “He (Cotten) came up to her (Hopper) at a party and said, “Hedda, I just want you to understand, if you say that again, I’m going to kick you in the ass.” She didn’t believe him, kept talking about it, “and he (Cotten) just came and kicked her in the ass.” As to what had gone on between Cotten and Durbin, Welles merely said, “… he was balling Deanna Durbin … In cars, in daylight, where everybody could see!” Bless survivors of old Hollywood living long enough to give away long kept secrets.

War Workers Hangout Where Short Term Relationships Form

Vivid chunks of Hers to Hold took place on location that was the Vega Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California, Vega a subsidiary of Lockheed. The plant opened during 1940 and by 1943 was in full-time production of military hardware. Hers to Hold showed viewers what many wanted to see, work as ongoing at Vega and maybe glimpse of folk they knew. Vega is presented as a place where labor is concentrated and so is leisure. Close-by diners offer dancing and chance at brief assignations. Cotten’s Bill Morley keeps a willing Evelyn Ankers on the string even as he pursues Penny. Wartime hook-ups are understood to be fleeting and anything but permanent. Arrival of a telegram invariably means bad news, such as when Vega employee Fay Helm receives hers and everyone backs off knowing how it will read. Film stars could not volunteer at Vega or any war plant for myriad and obvious reasons. A most they might contribute was safety and morale boosts like Veronica Lake’s hair twisted in a drill press, 11/9/43 warn to fans who would imitate her styling, then venture close to machinery that could strip them bald. Best for notables to do their bit at the Canteen or join troupes that would travel and entertain. Deanna Durbin made herself available for greet-and-dance, was in readiness also for victory broadcasts like others of her screen stature. Friend who was a prominent historian and writer told me how Deanna would often select a serviceman at the Canteen who particularly appealed to her and take him home, to which I say you go DD, this further basis for my being a fan.

Temporary Lapse of Patriotic Spirit Sees Penny Asking Dad to Save Sweetheart from Active Service

As closeness to Bill increases, Penny will do anything to spare him active service, appealing to her father whose influence could keep Bill out of harm’s way. Judson Craig (Charles Winninger) shames his daughter on learning what she has in mind and Penny is contrite. How many in real life had power sufficient to enable offspring or close friends to stay home and thus duck combat? Slackers were shunned in movies but there were plenty out there, and I wonder how many regretted later (or didn’t) their decision to duck the fray. One thing we seldom got and for good reason was servicemen expressing doubt about worthiness of their mission like cynical John Garfield in Air Force who learns folly of me-first under fire. Penny hires on initially at Vega just to be near Bill but will recognize the greater cause she must serve, this to culminate with Durbin rendering showstopper Say a Prayer for the Boys Over There, a ballad hugely evocative in 1943 but heard less on lookbacks since. Hers to Hold has not so far been seen on DVD or Blu-Ray in the US or streamed/used by broadcasters stateside. Only way to see it apart from bootlegs is Region Two release in the UK from years back, part of a Durbin box and unfortunately a sole one of the lot derived from 16mm elements. We could implore Kino to lease Hers to Hold from Universal, but where is likelihood after reported soft sales of their previous Durbin set, more a pity because of all her grown-up vehicles, Hers to Hold may be a most rewarding.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Wondering if she ran into Joe Cobb on the assembly line? lol

7:22 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

Cotton figured strongly in an episode of A Date With Judy that I heard the other day, involving bobby-soxer Judy (Louise Erickson) being smitten with his screen persona. This would've been in 1945.

11:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Calling all plutocrats. Griff has a great idea on how to get all those Deannas restored and released for home viewing:

Dear John:

Excellent post. You don't just bring back the crazy flavor of the movie, but the all-important context of when and how it was produced.

Assuming that the Durbin movies are all still controlled, owned and copyrighted by Universal with no curious additional extant legal encumbrances, it is a mystery to me why some aged wealthy plutocrat with a lifelong fondness for Ms. Durbin's films hasn't dropped a big grant on a non-profit entity like The Film Foundation to restore 'em and quietly slipped Comcast a wad of cash to release them on video. Get 'em out there. In stores. On line. Let's have CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY on network TV every year!

I mean, that's probably what it would take at this point. To many today, they must seem like gorgeous, romantic oddities -- movies made on another planet or alternate universe. What's the old 'seventies tagline...? "If you believe, no explanation is necessary. If you don't believe, no explanation is possible."


12:24 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Re Durbin's patriotic overtime: If a soldier later bragged to his fellows, would anyone have believed him? Or was her image, Hopper item notwithstanding, too solid? Of course, that was exactly the fantasy sold by the movie "Hollywood Canteen" (one soldier begins a chaste but serious romance with a starlet; another lines up a tryst with a studio tour guide).

A farce plot: Young GI on leave, inclined to bragging, has frolic with famously virtuous actress. His fellows don't believe him. The actress arranges for encores, but artfully foils his attempts to get proof for the scoffers back in the barracks. Switching film rolls in his Kodak, giving him a "personal" token that's conspicuously on sale at Woolworth's, appearing at his base exactly when he's not there (his buddies figure he can't prove acquaintance, so is hiding), etc. She isn't just cheerfully messing with him, but keeping her studio from finding out. Not sure how it would end, but definitely NOT with a clinch.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Always fun to see character actor Gus Schilling in a forties film.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I inherited a copy of the Universal DVD set of Deanna Durbin films from a late relation; and I've never watched any of those films, as they really don't seem to be the kind of movies that I'd like.
Oddly enough, after I had read this fine GPS article about Ms. Durbin, I was watching something rather more interesting to me - specifically a film history of the Second World War which was made for TV back in 1952, a series called "Victory At Sea" which uses a lot of footage filmed during the combat to tell its story - and Deanna Durbin popped up yet again!
I was surprised to see in the episode of that series showing footage from the Allied invasion of Morocco - the episode entitled "Sea and Sand", specifically at the 20-minute mark - an American armored vehicle appear with the name "Deanna Durbin" stenciled in large white letters across its front, apparently the name given by its operators to this piece of military hardware.
This strange coincidence of having Deanna Durbin popping up to occupy my attention twice in a few days now has me thinking I ought to maybe dig that DVD set out of the bin and watch those movies after all!

Here's a link to that old TV show I mentioned:

7:55 PM  
Blogger Polish Fixer said...

I enjoyed watching movie "Christmas Holiday", old but good!

9:06 AM  

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