Deanna Durbin’s Star Shone Brightest in the World’s Darkest Hour
By Stuart Mitchner
It’s already old news now, as dated as its subject — the obituary notices announcing the death at 91 of Deanna Durbin, the “plucky child movie star” who saved Universal Studios from financial ruin; “the best-loved and most fondly remembered singing star of Hollywood’s golden age” who cut short her career at 28; “the perfect girl next door” who left the fans-next-door to live the rest of her long life in a suburb of Paris.
Was the Canadian-born Durbin truly the “superstar” claimed by the headline of the Associated Press obituary? Indeed she was, and then some. If anything, the Hollywood hype falls short because her impact on a world at war transcended stardom. Stay with the metaphor and you could say she outshone all the stars in Hollywood, whether her light was shining on the battlefield or the homefront, soldiers or civilians, regardless of nationality. The April 30 New York Times obit’s “wholesome, radiant, can-do girl who in a series of wildly popular films was always fixing the problems of unhappy adults” became the “can-do” embodiment of beauty and music and youth symbolically opposed to the problems of a disastrously unhappy world.
When the Japanese wanted to crush the morale of the American families imprisoned at the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila at the outset of World War II, they released the news that Deanna Durbin had died in childbirth, a sham presented so convincingly that it prompted a memorial service. Since the Japanese banned the use of radios, the prisoners continued to think the “can-do girl” was dead for almost three years, until a makeshift radio pulled in a broadcast from San Francisco and they heard her voice dedicating an evening of music “to the women of the Philippine Islands.”
On the other side of the world in Amsterdam, Anne Frank was taping two photos of Deanna Durbin on the wall of the secret annex, both from First Love (1939), a variation on the Cinderella story in which Durbin receives her first screen kiss from Robert Stack. Although there are no explicit mentions of the film in Anne’s diary, her frequent references to the developing relationship with Peter and their first kiss suggest that she must have given those images more than a few significant glances in the spring and summer of 1944. The photos remain on the wall, just as they were, at the Anne Frank House museum.
Another Durbin fan, British prime minister Winston Churchill, had no need of photographs; he made sure to see the films before they were released to the general public in the U.K., where she was even more beloved than she was in the U.S.A. Churchill’s special favorite was One Hundred Men and a Girl, in which Deanna helps bring together Leopold Stokowski with an orchestra of out-of-work musicians that includes her trombone-playing father (Adolphe Menjou). Churchill reportedly screened the film on celebratory wartime occasions while enjoying brandy and a cigar. The same movie was also “a great prewar favorite in Japan,” as were all of Durbin’s pictures, according to various sources, including Donald Richie, who says that Akira Kurosawa’s early film, One Wonderful Sunday “takes its concert finale straight from One Hundred Men and a Girl,” while paying homage to Durbin through the “jazzy optimism” of the fresh-faced heroine “pulling for her young man just as Deanna Durbin pulled for Stokowski — same polished cheeks, same tear-filled eyes.” Another example of her following among the Japanese: a Deanna Durbin film, His Butler’s Sister, was the first American movie that General MacArthur’s Occupation Committee permitted to be shown in Japan.
The fact that Durbin’s films were banned in Germany suggests that she was equally popular there; apparently the same was true in Italy, where in 1941 Mussolini published an open letter to “Dearest Deanna” in his official newspaper asking her to intercede with President Roosevelt “on behalf of American youth” to convince FDR not to become involved. The letter spoke of how “we always had a soft place in our heart for you” but that “today we fear that you, like the remainder of American youth, are controlled by the President and perhaps tomorrow will see fine American youth marching into battle in defence of Britain.”
Around the time Mussolini was calling on Deanna to intercede with Roosevelt (she sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at the memorial concert for FDR), her “hair, makeup, and on-screen outfits set fashion trends worldwide and were emulated by millions,” according to the AP obituary. In the 1941 hit Nice Girl?, the “spangled white organdy dress, ruffled and modestly cut” worn by 20-year-old Deanna “became the rage at proms and country club dances across the United States.” The teen-age soldiers-to-be who went to those dances with the girls in white organdy might lust for pin-up cheesecake like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, but Deanna was the girl of their lovesick dreams and deepest hopes. A soldier from England told her that she epitomized “Sincerity, tenderness, music, and laughter … it is just a little piece of Heaven to be able to visit the garrison cinema, see you and feel the sweetness and peace which surrounds you.”
Durbin also had admirers in the arts. Cellist and composer Mstislav Rostropovich cites her as one of his most important musical influences in an interview from the mid-1980s: “She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try and recreate, to approach her purity.” And when Indian director Satyajit Ray accepted a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992, he mentioned Deanna Durbin as the only cinema personality of the few he wrote to who had acknowledged his boyhood fan letter with a personal reply.
Headlong and Heartfelt
During the opening moments of her feature film debut, Three Smart Girls (1937), Deanna is coming right at you in mid-coloratura-flight while steering a boat on a Swiss lake, and you may find yourself wondering how much of this girlish virtuosity you can put up with. Graham Greene speaks of becoming “only too intimately acquainted with the hideous cavern of the human mouth” in his New Statesman review, which begins with a quote from Henry James, in mid-flight himself on the subject of divorce in What Maisie Knew (“To live with all the intensity and perplexity and felicity in its terribly mixed little world would thus be part of my interesting small mortal”). By the end of a film that was no chore to watch thanks to Henry Koster’s direction of a lively ensemble and lots of comic relief (oh rare Mischa Auer), you’ve been humbled by the sheer uninhibited power emanating from “the interesting small mortal” played with such seismic energy by Deanna Durbin. She’s a force of nature, nothing less, and no father (Charles Winninger) in the clutches of a gold-digging blond (Binnie Barnes) could resist her. Durbin’s headlong unstoppable emotional energy shows up Hollywood’s frequently cringe-inspiring attempts to believably duplicate “real feeling” between parents and children (or couples, for that matter), and when Deanna submits herself to the muse of song again, this time in a police station, her coloratura outburst seems as spontaneous as the joyous, loving laughter she shares with her father when they bond for the first time.
A Bizarre Noir
When I first read the news of Deanna Durbin’s death in the Times, one detail that caught my attention was the claim that she’d played a “prostitute in love with a killer” in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944). That bizarre noir, with its deceptively festive title, must be the most uncharacteristic, and, now that I’ve seen it, all-around best film she was ever in, along with It Started With Eve (1941) wherein Deanna and Robert Cummings hit, kick, pinch, and chase one another about and she and Charles Laughton enjoy an unforgettable night on the town. Until I found Universal’s 2-DVD Sweetheart Pack, all I knew of her work beyond One Hundred Men and a Girl was His Butler’s Sister, which I’d made a point of seeing only because it was made by a great director, Frank Borzage. Although it’s minor Borzage, the musical and romantic moments glow with the master’s touch and, as with just about every female star he directed, you’re seeing the 22-year-old actress at her most luminous.
Finding it hard to believe that Durbin had ever played a prostitute, I located Christmas Holiday on YouTube, and let it be known — Deanna does not play a prostitute. She’s only a singer going by the name of Jackie Lamont (her real name is Abigail Martin) in a high class New Orleans bordello called Maison Lafitte. True enough, she’s married to a convicted murderer, played with great verve and sleazy, sinister charm by Gene Kelly, whom she meets at a concert. Watching her intimate moments with Kelly — one where he awakens her late the night of the murder, another where she sings “Always” leaning close, her arms around his neck, as he accompanies her on the piano — it’s hard to fathom that a mere five years before she was an unbridled adolescent life force sweeping all before her. There’s much to admire in Christmas Holiday, including the uneasy noir mood, the cinematography, the New Orleans flavor, the extraordinary midnight mass scene during the subtly directed and acted night she chastely spends with a disoriented soldier probably not unlike the ones who adored her in real life. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way she manages to suggest both the wounded, worldly wise Jackie and the wholesome, loving, concert-going Abigail as she delivers a torch singer’s sultry, low-key rendition of “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” to the house band’s easy-swinging, Dixie flavored accompaniment while looking at once sweet and sexy in a daring if not quite risque black evening gown.
Some of the Durbin fans on YouTube busy assembling montages in tribute to her may choose to close out her career with the last Wagnerian moment of Christmas Holiday: a close-up of the bereft Abigail staring upward as the Liebestod plays and storm clouds part on a magnificently brilliant night sky. A still better ending to any tribute, including this one, would be the close-up of Deanna singing her heart out at the end of His Butler’s Sister. Her “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot is a long way from Pavarotti’s but it makes a passionate and radiant farewell.
The most useful source of information I found online was www.deannadurbindevotees.com.