Last month, Deanna Durbin, one of the brightest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, died at the age of 91. She had been living in France and out of public view for the last 64 years.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, noting that we have probably received more (and more impassioned) emails about Durbin than any other star we’ve written about.
And, for those who may have forgotten, the Canada-born Deanna rivaled Judy Garland at MGM — both a mere 13 when they started at the studio — and then moved to Universal where her huge popularity in a series of movies literally saved the studio. Her movie career comprised 21 titles, and crested in 1946 when she became the second-highest-paid woman in America (Bette Davis was first).
The New York Times obituary described Deanna adeptly as everyone’s kid sister or spunky daughter, a wholesome, radiant, can-do girl who…was always fixing the problems of unhappy adults….Many of (her) films were Depression fairy tales in which Ms. Durbin won over or defeated silly rich people with the help of butlers, cooks and chauffeurs, who often risked their jobs to aid her.
Never happy making pictures, Durbin retired in the late Forties and set up residence with her third husband, French director Charles David, in a small village (Neauphle-le-Chateau) outside Paris. There she raised her two children, avoided reporters at all cost and sang in her signature soprano for at least an hour each day.
There’s lots more to tell, and we do so in what we have published so far: A Deanna Durbin Quiz (March 13, 2012) and the Answers (March 23, 2012); Who Was Deanna Durbin? (Oct. 7, 2011) and — most especially — three blogs based on contributions from faithful reader and avid Durban fan, Mark: Need To Know Deanna Durbin – A Reader Authoritatively Tells All (Nov. 10, 2011); Deanna Durbin – Rival To Judy? (Nov. 11, 2011); and Deanna Durbin – A Glamour Puss? How Insulting (Nov. 10, 2012).
The latter blog, inspired by a Mark contribution, gets to the heart of Durbin’s onscreen appeal via an article written by Frank S. Nugent about Universal Pictures misguided attempt to sell Deanna to moviegoers as a “glamorous” star.
(The New York Times’ motion picture editor and critic from 1936 to 1940, Nugent was a prominent member of that rare club — movie critics turned successful screenwriters. He went on to pen more than 20 screenplays, notably 11 for his pal, director John Ford, including those for 1948’s Fort Apache and for 1949’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.)
Here’s what Nugent wrote about Universal and Deanna:
Spring seems to be a little late this year, so until it arrives we’ll have to get along with Deanna Durbin, the closest thing to this side of the equinox. A couple of books could be written on Miss Durbin’s singular appeal, but none of them would contain the horrible epithet Universal’s advertising staff fastened on the miss last week.
“Glamorous” was the word they dared employ and we haven’t said a civil word to Universal since.
It doesn’t matter how the dictionary defines it–some literal poppycock about “a charm or enchantment working on the vision and causing things to seem different from what they are.” We know what Hollywood means by glamour and we won’t have our Deanna playing in the same category as Hedy, Marlene, Greta, Joan, Carole, Loretta, Merle and Tyrone.
Glamour indeed! As if it had not been her very freedom from glamour, Hollywood style, that has endeared her to her millions. Glamour! as if that were a quality more precious than the freshness, the gay vitality, the artful artlessness and youthful radiance she has brought to the screen!
Glamour! as if that were what we wanted of the perfect kid sister (not that there really ever was one). Glamour forsooth! and was it glamour that made Judge Hardy and his brood, or glamour we found in the late Marie Dressler and Will Rogers, or glamour in Mr. Deeds or Zola or Pasteur, or glamour for that matter (though we hate to mention it) which keeps little Mistress Temple as the nation’s four time box office champion?
What is this thing, glamour, anyway, that it has grown so great?
Deanna, to put an end to the libel, is not the least bit glamorous in her latest delight, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, and she has not grown up so much herself. She leaves that, and the romantic troubles, to the older sisters, contenting herself with being the matrimonial broker of the family.
Usually we dread these Little-Miss-Fixit roles. The brats are all so superior about it all and so right– like George Arlis as Disraeli or somebody. But Deanna manages to make even a half-grown meddler attractive. She is guilty of the most awful —blunders; she quite forgets her manners; she sulks and has tantrums when her plans go agley; and eventually she has to call on father.
And that, of course, is the way it should be, and would be unless the Miss Fix It had been Shirley Temple. No, Deanna is all right, up to par or better, and when Universal next says ‘G…..r’ it had better smile.