Hi, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here again with our THIRD blog devoted exclusively to Deanna Durbin.
As with yesterday’s dispatch, we are inspired by a wonderful communication from Mark, one of our regular readers and a Durbin fan par excellance. Today, he sheds renewed light on how commercially important the star’s career was to Universal Pictures. He also provides a new look at the supposed Deanna Durbin-Judy Garland faceoff at MGM. (Don’t you love the photo above of the soda-sipping pair as verry young women.)
You might be surprised that after all these years, Durbin would provoke such sustained interest and strong reaction. After all, the former Edna May Durbin — the belle of Winnepeg, Alberta (her Canadian birthplace in 1921) — had a movie career that was over in 13 years, a relatively moderate span for a big juvenile star of the period.
And since Deanna hung it all up more than 60 years ago — and has been living in a small village in north central France ever since — it’s somewhat surprising that she’s remembered today as the more than a historical footnote.
Correspondent Mark has lots to say, beginning with the subject of Durbin’s match-up with Garland in 1936’s EVERY SUNDAY, in which both amply display their vocal wares. Some say the MGM short was effectively a studio audition of the two teenagers — won by Judy who remained at MGM, and lost by Deanna, who flourished at rival studio Universal.
Mark disagrees with this interpretation. Here he is:
“Contrary to longstanding reports , EVERY SUNDAY was never produced as a “video audition” to help Metro executives decide whether to keep Durbin or Garland under contract. By the time the short was filmed in late June/early July 1936, Deanna had already been under contract to Universal for about a month and cast in THREE SMART GIRLS, and her fate was out of Metro’s hands. As reported in a blurb in the June 1, 1936 edition of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, it was Universal, not MGM, who gave “Edna May Durbin” her professional name of “Deanna.”
— However, a provision in Deanna’s Metro contract, allowed MGM to call on her services for up to 90 days following its’ termination providing she wasn’t working on a new film/stage production. As production for THREE SMART GIRLS wasn’t scheduled to begin until September, Deanna found herself back on the Metro lot appearing in a short that was always (rightly) conceived primarily as a vehicle for long-term MGM contractee Judy Garland.
— Durbin became an immediate film star and worldwide phenomenon when THREE SMART GIRLS was released in early 1937. In fact, most major newspapers and periodicals proclaimed her an instant star based on previews of the film. She had been a superstar for several years by the time she turned 18 in December 1939.
— A FORTUNE magazine article on her career, published in October 1939, credited her films with 17 percent of Universal’s total profit margin in the late 1930s.
— Although her popularity did decline in the late 1940s with the poor reception accorded her last vehicles for Universal-International, Deanna remained a top worldwide attraction until well into the 1940s. She was not only the top star in Britain for several years, but, as late as 1945, was Number 4 at the British Box Office. She was the top star in Japan and Russia and a “Top Five” attraction in the rest of Europe and South America and much of Asia.
— Her 1943 film, HIS BUTLER’S SISTER, was a top grosser of the year in Australia and was specifically chosen by General Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. Occupational Forces in Japan, as the first American film to be shown to Japanese audiences following the Japanese surrender. It played to packed houses despite the exorbitant admission prices, which were three times higher than those for other films.
— Such was Deanna Durbin’s fame in Italy that Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini wrote an open letter to her in his personal newspaper, IL POPOLO, in essence begging her to act as a model for American Youth in rejecting President Roosevelt’s efforts to bring America into what became World War II.
— Such was Deanna’s fame throughout Europe and Asia that the rumor that she had died a horrible death in childbirth, begun by the Axis powers as a means of demoralizing Allied POWS and troops, was among the most widely circulated of World War II. Contemporary articles in periodicals like TIME Magazine, cite questions about the status of her health as being among the first asked by liberated Allied POWS and troops.
As you can tell, there is a good deal of inaccurate information that has been disseminated about Deanna Durbin through the years. I think her career and her talent, and the significant impact she had on Hollywood and popular culture in general, is ripe for re-evaluation and re-appraisal.
It was, in many ways, an absolutely unique career, and a remarkable one. The lady would have quite a story to tell if she ever chose to do so.”
Our profuse thanks to Mark. Keep reading and writing us.