Deanna Durbin: In Memoriam

2 May

First Annette and now Deanna Durbin, who was, in a way, the Annette Funicello of the 1930s (but way more popular). According to the New York Times obituary of May 1, 2013, Ms. Durbin died “a few days ago.” (As of this writing, IMDB still doesn’t list a death date, presumably because it still doesn’t have one!) Legend has it that Deanna’s film musicals, filled with youthful exuberance and musical cheer, starting with THREE SMART GIRLS (1936) and 100 MEN AND A GIRL (1937), were so popular they saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy and kept the studio solvent until Abbott and Costello came along in the 1940s. (Deanna and Annette connection: both co-starred in movies with Robert Cummings.)

Deanna Durbin (born Dec. 4, 1921) was one of the few major Hollywood stars to turn her back on the industry and walk away from it and live happily ever after. She moved to France in 1950 with her third husband, French director Charles David, after having made her last film in 1948 at the age of 26, and never looked back. Before that, she made a total of 21 features, mostly at Universal, from 1936-1948. As far as I know, she sang in every one of them.

I went on a Deanna Durbin kick two years ago after getting hold of two DVD box sets containing eleven of her films. I watched them all, plus her first two films, which I’d taped off  TCM. I have another of her films on VHS, which I reviewed for IMDB a long time ago, but haven’t re-watched since. I’ve only seen one other film of hers, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, on TV a long time ago. So that’s 15 out of the 21. Not bad.

The first Deanna film I saw was a black-and-white print of CAN’T HELP SINGING, her only Technicolor film—and also her only western–at a series of musicals curated by William K. Everson back in 1971. I always remembered the sight of her sitting on the seat of the wagon as it made its way to California and singing the title song with unrestrained joy. I later saw a few Deanna films on TV in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. I was struck back then by this perky, ever-cheery bundle of energy who sang in a beautiful coloratura soprano voice  at the drop of a hat. My memory of her from those early viewings was of someone who was always smiling and always bursting into song. One scene, in a film called MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1937), really struck me because she rides a bike, barreling down the Swiss Alps, while singing at the top of her voice. She was some kind of musical superheroine. (When I re-watched that film two years ago, I realized that my memory of the scene was a tad exaggerated.) When I got into Japanese pop music nearly eight years ago, part of the appeal was based on the fact that the exuberant and energetic J-pop musical numbers reminded me of the musicals from the Deanna Durbin-Judy Garland era. When I re-watched MAD ABOUT MUSIC two years ago, I was struck by how much that bicycling scene resembled a music video by the J-pop group AKB48. On my J-pop blog, I even did a shot-by-shot comparison to show the similarities.

 Here’s a link to that J-pop blog entry, from Feb. 14, 2011:

 Singers on bikes: Deanna Durbin meets AKB48

In binging on her films two years ago, I came to this conclusion after seeing seven of the films and wrote this in a post on Mobius Home Video Forum:

I’m not gonna assert that any of them are unsung masterpieces, but they do deserve to be seen. I don’t know if they’re for all tastes on this board, but the fact is they’re perfect examples of what passed for an “A” product at Universal Pictures at the height of the studio system. The strengths of those products—solid production values, vivid imaginative touches, a steady pace, and wonderful casts of actors—are all on view, while the weaknesses of those products—complete implausibility, contrived scripting, and a huge distance from anything resembling real life—are all there, too. I think they’re very instructive in that regard.  

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Later, after watching all 13, I wrote this:

Okay, I’ve gone through all the Deanna Durbins I own. So that’s nine within the past month and 14 in total. Interesting footnote in the history of Hollywood. Not exactly ripe for rediscovery after all. In her early films, she had a youthful glow and vitality and energy that was enchanting. It kind of wore off after she turned 20 and it needed to be replaced with…something. It never actually was. I don’t know if it’s because Universal simply failed to make good use of her or because she didn’t have anything more to offer. Maybe there was no there there. Her later films get more and more absurd and I just keep shaking my head at them.

 In my mind I keep comparing Deanna to Judy Garland, her onetime rival. Both started out together as adolescents in the same musical short, “Every Sunday” (1936) and were under contract to MGM at the time. The story goes that Louis B. Mayer told an executive to “drop the fat one” and the guy thought Mayer meant Deanna, so he let her go, and Joe Pasternak scooped her up for Universal and made her a star and saved Universal’s bacon. Mayer was furious, but Garland eventually turned into quite an asset for MGM, esp. after she joined the Arthur Freed unit. Check out FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942), Gene Kelly’s first film, just to see Judy’s budding greatness. Judy had an emotional quality that Deanna didn’t. There were reservoirs of pain beneath Judy’s smile. Judy was needy, hungry, she had a yearning. We sensed that from her and she spoke to us through that–and continues to do so. I strongly doubt that Deanna could have met the demands of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and THE CLOCK, but then Deanna never had a director like Vincente Minnelli.

In her movies, Deanna never seemed to want for anything. She was privileged. She had everything she needed. She could sing to her heart’s content whenever she wanted. And she did. In her early films, she’s “Little Miss Fix-it” and in her later films, her life is the one that sort of needs fixing, but only minor repairs. She never seems to really need another person. In those films in which she had a love interest and wound up in his arms, it never seemed like a fitting match. Who could handle someone like her? Charles Laughton, maybe, who’s with her in two films, but more as a father figure. But certainly not the ones she’s actually paired with, e.g. Robert Stack (in his very first film, FIRST LOVE), Robert Cummings (IT STARTED WITH EVE), Don Taylor (FOR THE LOVE OF MARY) or, in a particularly astonishing piece of miscasting, John Dall (SOMETHING IN THE WIND). Edmond O’Brien, of all people, was one of her suitors in FOR THE LOVE OF MARY (1948), a year before he held his own with Cagney in WHITE HEAT and tracked down his own killers in D.O.A. He might have been able to handle Deanna. Maybe if she’d done some film noir. She was definitely best when her leading men were interesting older actors: Herbert Marshall in MAD ABOUT MUSIC, Melvyn Douglas in THAT CERTAIN AGE, and, as mentioned, Laughton. Franchot Tone’s in two of her films and he’s not bad either. (But I can’t help wondering how she would have fared with John Wayne. Somehow that pairing sounds right to me, but I have no idea what kind of film was required.)

Deanna’s films are fast paced and beautiful to look at and filled with great character actors. The musical numbers are generally very nice on the ears, although I kept waiting to hear her sing something remotely akin to popular music of the era (1937-48). She finally does, in SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947), where she plays a radio singer and deejay, but the songs are surrounded by an increasingly ridiculous plot centering around a rich guy (ROPE’s John Dall) and his lunatic cousin (Donald O’Connor) who kidnap her for reasons too absurd to try to explain. In any event, O’Connor basically steals the show with his own number, “I Love a Mystery,” a definite polished draft for “Make ’em Laugh” from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

Deanna lied a lot in her films and participated in masquerades and impersonations and acts of deceit that add up to a pretty loose set of principles. It gets really disturbing after seeing a few of these in a row. THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP(1939) is worth singling out because Deanna’s behavior in it is especially egregious as she tries to fix her sisters’ love lives. Her mood swings are so extreme, she’d be diagnosed as bipolar today. One of her sisters even gives her a well-deserved slap in the face in a public place and, later, her mother basically tells her to shut up, stop interfering and go up to her room and stay there. Unfortunately, there’s a completely ludicrous deus ex machina ending involving her distracted stockbroker of a father and his miraculous redemption. My notes for this movie included the line, “These people are completely insane.”

What if Deanna had stuck around? What kind of parts would she have gotten if she’d persisted? My fantasy is seeing her as a saloon singer in a western, preferably a low-budget A.C. Lyles production of the 1960s putting her in the company of Howard Keel or Rory Calhoun and the requisite old-timers like Lon Chaney Jr., Richard Arlen, Pat O’Brien, and Barton MacLane. (Jane Russell did two of those, JOHNNY RENO and WACO. Russell, who died this week, was only a few months older than Deanna.) But what if she got to work with an actual, good director? What would she have been like in the hands of John Ford, or Hawks, or Sturges (Preston or John) or Cukor or Sirk or Nick Ray or…Robert Altman???

Oh, well…

The above came after posting reviews of five of the films: MAD ABOUT MUSIC, THAT CERTAIN AGE, IT STARTED WITH EVE, LADY ON A TRAIN and BECAUSE OF HIM. Here are the first four of those reviews, all written in early 2011, with pictures newly added:

MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1938) Dir.: Norman Taurog. Cast: Deanna Durbin, Herbert Marshall, Gail Patrick, Helen Parrish, Marcia Mae Jones, William Frawley, Arthur Treacher, Jackie Moran.

This is in the “Music and Romance Collection” box set (pictured above). It’s Deanna’s third starring film after the two 1937 films listed above [THREE SMART GIRLS, 100 MEN AND A GIRL]. I believe she was 15 during production because she turned 16 during production of her next film. Deanna’s first scene in the movie (and the second scene in the film) is quite a spectacle as Deanna and her schoolmates at a high-end Swiss girls’ academy ride their bikes down a country road singing “I Love to Whistle.” This was the scene I immediately thought of when I first got turned on to Japanese pop music. Morning Musume’s sheer exuberance made me think back to Deanna Durbin.

The plot is kind of a standard sitcom deal where Deanna has to lie about her parents to cover up an elaborate secret involving her widowed mother who happens to be a big movie star (played by Gail Patrick, which stretches credibility quite a bit) who hasn’t told the world that she’s a widow and a mother. So Deanna fabricates letters from a father who is supposedly an explorer and big-game hunter and the lie escalates to the point where she has to recruit someone to actually BE her father and the thankless job falls to Herbert Marshall, playing a renowned composer trying to vacation in this quaint Swiss town with his fussy assistant, Arthur Treacher. Marshall resists at first, but is so charmed by Deanna (and who wouldn’t be?) that he goes along with it. He is very funny in the scenes where he’s making up stories of his adventures to impress Deanna’s classmates and one of them, the skeptical “mean girl” in the bunch (well-played by Helen Parrish), keeps catching him in contradictions of the stories Deanna’s already told, so he has to keep backtracking.

Then, at some point, the action shifts to Paris where Deanna’s mom has arrived to promote her latest film (which is shown in English with French subtitles at a Parisian theater in one scene), and Deanna contrives to get her mom and poor Marshall, her new “adopted” dad, together, despite the best efforts of Mom’s calculating manager, William Frawley, to keep all of them apart. What struck me about this is the constant escalation of Deanna’s lying and her odd conviction that crossing her fingers every time she lies somehow makes it all right. If I had to sum the film up in one line, I’d say, “Congenital liar with father hunger causes havoc at Swiss girls’ school.” One thing notable about so many of Deanna’s films is that they deal with father figures or older men in some way. And she often has to pretend to be someone else or get someone else to pretend to be someone else. You’ll see that in the other reviews. For such a wholesome and innocent persona, her characters sure relied a lot on deceit.

William Frawley, Gail Patrick in MAD ABOUT MUSIC

Curiously, Marshall, in composer mode, plays the piano while Deanna sings in one scene and he never once mentions how great her singing is or that he’d like to use her in a show or something. She’s much more interested in acquiring parents than in promoting her singing career. Deanna sings three songs by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson, plus a church choir performance of “Gounod’s Ave Maria,” where she’s joined by a choir that IMDB tells us is the Vienna Boys’ Choir. (They aren’t credited in the movie.) Deanna’s character has a puppy love admirer in fellow American Jackie Moran (who was Huck Finn that same year in THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and future sidekick of Buck Rogers in the Universal serial).

Jackie Moran, with Deanna Durbin in MAD ABOUT MUSIC

Sid Grauman, owner of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, appears as himself in the very first scene. William Frawley plays a devious bastard. Arthur Treacher is quite amusing in a variation on his patented butler role. Director Norman Taurog also directed musicals with Judy Garland, Deanna’s longtime rival. He later directed nine Elvis musicals and two spinoffs of the Beach Party series.

I liked seeing the sets that were used in Universal’s Frankenstein movies in a different context.

 

The film was nominated for four Oscars: Writing (Original Story), Cinematography, Art Direction, Music (Scoring). And Deanna and Mickey Rooney shared an Honorary Award that year.

THAT CERTAIN AGE (1938) Dir.: Edward Ludwig. Cast: Deanna Durbin, Melvyn Douglas, Jackie Cooper, Peggy Stewart, John Halliday, Irene Rich, Jack Searl.

Deanna turned 16 while shooting this. She’s teamed with Jackie Cooper in a plot framework that looks forward to the “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” style of musical begun the following year over at MGM with BABES IN ARMS, starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Here, the show is a bit more highbrow, showcasing Deanna’s singing and the orchestral skills of the local kids, rather than the dancing and comedic skills of Mickey, Judy & co. The show-within-the-film has a “Carmen”-like theme as Deanna sings “Les Filles de Cadiz.”

This is set in an affluent neighborhood of Westchester County, New York and the planning for the show gets thrown for a loop when Deanna’s parents’ summer guest comes up from NYC to take over the guest house which the kids were planning to use as rehearsal space. At first they harass the poor guest to try to drive him out, but then Deanna gets all infatuated with him and the show suffers, for a time, from her lack of interest in it. The house guest is globetrotting newspaperman Vincent Bullitt (Melvyn Douglas, who was 37 at the time), who appears to be based on the famous swashbuckling lefty journalist Vincent Sheean (author of “Personal History,” optioned by Alfred Hitchcock and then completely discarded when he made FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, 1940, from it).

Melvyn Douglas rides with Deanna in THAT CERTAIN AGE

Young Mr. Cooper is crestfallen by this turn of affairs and strikes a lovelorn pose throughout the film. He even delivers a “best man won” speech to Douglas at a party late in the film. The film works largely because of Cooper’s performance. He doesn’t sing or dance or try to be funny, like Rooney in BABES IN ARMS, but he’s got sincerity to spare and he breaks your heart, unlike Rooney, who I found abrasive and obnoxious in the musicals he made with Judy Garland. In any event, Douglas is apparently horrified to learn of Deanna’s affections and contrives a way to discourage her. (The resolution of this situation is surprisingly weak and not well thought out.) Deanna is, of course luminous throughout.

Jackie Cooper and Melvyn Douglas in THAT CERTAIN AGE

For a time, another girl, Mary Lee (Peggy Stewart) tries to take Deanna’s place in Jackie’s heart and even takes her part in the show after Deanna abandons it. Peggy Stewart later made a name for herself in B-westerns and crafted quite a career out of them. To this day, she’s still acting and still touring western conventions and the like. I’ve seen her in one B-western, STAGECOACH TO DENVER (1946), a Red Ryder western with young Bobby Blake as Little Beaver, and she plays a bad-girl-turned-good in it and gives quite a moving performance.

Jackie Cooper with Peggy Stewart in THAT CERTAIN AGE

Curiously, Deanna’s father (John Halliday) is a big-time New York City newspaper publisher, yet he’s got plenty of time on his hands and hangs out at home all day, with his star reporter as a guest. Was there nothing significant happening in the world in 1938?

This film was Oscar-nominated for Best Song and Best Sound Recording. Plus, Deanna got an Honorary Award, that she had to share with Mickey Rooney. The basis of Deanna’s honorary award was the two films she made in 1938: this one and MAD ABOUT MUSIC. Here’s the wording: “Special Award to Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.” (miniature statuette trophies)

I would argue that BABES IN ARMS was a better musical than THAT CERTAIN AGE, since the musical sequences are what make that film, but I would also argue that THAT CERTAIN AGE was a better film, with more interesting characters and plot developments.

IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941) Dir.: Henry Koster. Cast: Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton, Robert Cummings, Guy Kibbee, Margaret Tallichet, Walter Catlett.

As a film, this is arguably the best of the Deanna films I’ve seen. There’s some residue from CITIZEN KANE, which was released earlier that year, as we see a newspaper headline right at the beginning announcing the death of tycoon Jonathan Reynolds (Charles Laughton), with the editor stopping the presses until confirmation of the death comes in. Cut to the dying man’s bedside at which arrives his son (Robert Cummings) who shows up without the fiancee he’d told his father about. Reynolds demands he go out and get her and bring her to him. Long story short: Cummings can’t find her at the hotel and with an offer of $50 persuades hat check girl Deanna to take her place so that the old man can die in peace. Longer story short: Reynolds is so delighted with Deanna (and what old man wouldn’t be?) that he literally stops dying and is soon up and about. He even has a dance number with her late in the film.

Charles Laughton with Deanna in IT STARTED WITH EVE

What makes this film so special is the intensity of the scenes between Laughton and Deanna. It’s really their love story. When the inevitable happens and Cummings dumps his real fiancee (a perfectly nice girl in her own right, to the film’s credit, and played by Margaret Tallichet), we don’t quite buy it because there’s no chemistry between him and Deanna. It’s all between her and the old man.

Laughton is amazing, as you would expect, and he brings out the best in Deanna. He was only about 41 at the time of filming and he plays an old man quite convincingly. What makes it all the more interesting is that Deanna’s character is not a complete saint. She has a mercenary motive, given that she’s an aspiring singer and Old Man Reynolds has a lot of connections in the classical music field in New York. When she hears that Leopold Stokowski will be coming to New York and will visit Reynolds, she continues the “fiancee” masquerade, even though Cummings wants it to end, hoping it will lead to an audition with Stokowski. (Hard to believe that Deanna, who’d already sung with Stokowski in her second film, 100 MEN AND A GIRL, 1937, can’t get an audition with him without help.) The CITIZEN KANE connection is hammered home by the presence in the cast of Gus Schilling, the club manager from CITIZEN KANE (“Oh, thank you, Mr. Thompson”).

Deanna with Robert Cummings in IT STARTED WITH EVE

LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) Director: Charles David. Cast: Deanna Durbin, Ralph Bellamy, David Bruce, Dan Duryea, George Coulouris, Edward Everett Horton, Patricia Morison, Elizabeth Patterson, Samuel S. Hinds, William Frawley, Ben Carter.

This one is officially classified as film noir by Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward. It’s more of a screwball comedy murder mystery, a hybrid genre that thrived in the 1940s, but it does have noir elements, including nighttime urban cinematography by Woody Bredell (PHANTOM LADY, THE KILLERS), a score by Miklos Rozsa (THE KILLERS, CRISS CROSS), and, in the cast, notable noir actor Dan Duryea (BLACK ANGEL, SCARLET STREET). It’s based on a story by Leslie Charteris (The Saint). While her commuter train is stopped at the elevated station at 125th Street in Manhattan, Deanna sees into the window of a building by the tracks and witnesses an old man being murdered by someone. After futile attempts to tell the police about it, she tries to recruit her favorite mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), author of The Case of the Headless Bride, to join her in trying to solve the crime. His fiancée, the beautiful Patricia Morison, is not amused.

Deanna follows the couple into a movie theater and sees a newsreel announcing the death of shipping magnate Josiah Waring (Thurston Hall), whom she recognizes as the man who was murdered, even though the newsreel attributes his death to an “accident.” The newsreel has definite Charles Foster Kane touches in its recall of the man’s life, just as the introductory shots of the dead man’s sprawling, dark Long Island estate are a tad reminiscent of Xanadu. Citizen Kane’s dyspeptic guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher himself, George Coulouris, shows up as a mysterious antagonist and cradles a white cat every time we see him. Deanna pretends to be the dead man’s mistress and shows up at the reading of the will, at which she gets everything, much to the dismay of the rest of the family, although neither Ralph Bellamy nor Dan Duryea seem to mind. (Oddly the real mistress, when she ultimately finds out, doesn’t seem to mind either.)

George Coulouris and Samuel S. Hinds in LADY ON A TRAIN

There’s a scene where Deanna’s character walks along the actual elevated train tracks at 125th Street trying to locate the window representing the site of the murder. We see a stand-in for Deanna in long shots actually walking the tracks at the real location, intercut with closeups of Deanna herself done at the studio with rear screen projection. Deanna sings “Night and Day” at a nightclub smack in the middle of a scene in which the killer’s henchmen were pursuing her. (They wait patiently backstage until she finishes the number.) It’s a completely insane film, filled with absurdity from start to finish, but my interest never flagged for a second. It’s quite a bit different from her earlier films, which had more music in them. She only sings twice more in the film, doing “Silent Night” over the phone to her (unseen) dad, and another time, also at the nightclub, where she sings a more “adult” song than she was accustomed to–a ditty called “Give Me a Kiss, Will, Ya’?” It’s pretty good, and I wish she’d had more roles that allowed her to sing like that. She would have been great as a saloon singer in westerns, but Yvonne De Carlo got all those roles at Universal in the late ’40s. (Surprisingly, Yvonne was ten months younger than Deanna.)

The director of this film, Charles David, a Frenchman, had only one other Hollywood film to his credit, RIVER GANG (1945), starring Gloria Jean, who had been groomed as Deanna’s successor at Universal, but never quite made it. Monsieur David eventually became Deanna’s third husband and spirited her off to France around 1950, where she has remained ever since.

And that’s all I’m able to share right now from my past writings about Deanna, although I’ve supplied some links below to other reviews I’ve done on the web. I wish I’d written something about CAN’T HELP SINGING, which is probably my favorite of her films, simply because it’s a western that was shot on breathtaking locations in beautiful Technicolor.  It’s in the Sweetheart Pack box set so I was able to grab two shots from a musical number she performs on location:

How magnificent is that?

Here’s the Amazon page for The Music and Romance Collection set, which contains my review, the second one on the page:

Deanna Durbin: The Music and Romance Collection

The review attracted some insightful comments from a Durbin fan who took issue with my comparisons of Durbin and Garland. Those comments are worth reading.

And here’s my IMDB review of another Durbin film, IT’S A DATE (1940), which I didn’t like very much:

It’s a Date

Finally, I was so intrigued by the elevated subway sequence from LADY ON A TRAIN that I’d like to post some screen grabs from it. The first two are shots of Deanna in the studio in front of rear screen-projected location footage, while the second two show a Deanna double actually walking the tracks near 125th Street on location:

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3 Responses to “Deanna Durbin: In Memoriam”

  1. Ted Hicks May 2, 2013 at 11:12 PM #

    Maybe I missed it, but it doesn’t look like you included Robert Siodmak’s CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944) in your Deanna Durbin coverage. Have you seen this film? It has the distinction of casting Gene Kelly way against type as a sociopathic killer who marries Durbin’s character. The result is pretty uncomfortable and disturbing. I don’t remember (saw it last summer during Film Forum’s Universal series), but I don’t think she sings in this one. Could be wrong, though.

    • briandanacamp May 3, 2013 at 6:02 AM #

      I just looked up CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY in “Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style” by Silver and Ward and it lists two songs used in the film, “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” by Frank Loesser, and “Always,” by Irving Berlin, and in the comments on the film, there is a reference to Deanna singing in it.

  2. V.E.G. December 30, 2013 at 12:51 PM #

    May her memory be eternal!

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