Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys here again to declare without reservation that we love reader comments, the more informed and passionate the better.
A passing mention of Thirties child star Deanna Durbin in our “More Child Stars” blog in late August drew a pair of reader responses that are so interesting on both counts — information and passion — that we’ve decided to share them with you.
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. (Mickey Rooney’s career is still going.)
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.
Having said that, we hastily mention that Deanna was an exceptionally gifted and hugely popular child star of her period. By the age of 15, Durbin had been signed by MGM, By 18, she was a star at Universal making about a quarter-million (in 1939 dollars) per year.
Her movies, such as her portrayals of matchmaker Penny Craig in 1936’s “Three Smart Girls” and 1937’s “One Hundred Men and a Girl” (both directed by her Universal mentor Henry Koster), generated enough box office cash to spare the studio bankruptcy.
Durbin’s first screen kiss sparked national headlines. Like Shirley Temple at Fox, Durbin at Universal inspired a line of dolls and dresses. She shared with Rooney 1939’s “Juvenile Award” Oscar. A vocalist of talent, she made a “Madame Butterfly” aria into a popular hit. She was, in fact, considered the most popular performer of her day, and was ranked the No. 1 star in Great Britain in the years 1939 through 1942.
Supposedly, Durbin underwhelmed MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. After viewing her in 1936’s “Every Sunday,” a short co-starring 14-year-old Judy Garland, Mayer couldn’t make up his mind about which to sign. By the time he decided to sign both the studio had let the option on Deanna’s contract drop. Universal then stepped in and the rest is……….
“I often wonder how Deanna Durbin’s career would have been different if Mayer had picked her over Garland,” writes Jessica P. (Comet Over Hollywood). “He liked Durbin better, just didn’t think she would sell as well. Might be blasphemous, but I think I like Durbin better too, ha ha.”
It’s interesting to speculate on that, Jessica, on the prospect of Durban flourishing at MGM instead of Universal, and what effect that might have had on Garland’s Hollywood career. (We invite reader feedback on that one.)
Joe, who along with co-author, Edward Z. Epstein, wrote the first book ever published about Judy Garland, personally believes that if Deanna were under contract to MGM during the time it would have had NO effect on Judy’s illustrious career. But that Durbin’s career at MGM might not have been as big as the one she earned at Universal.
Our second correspondent, Mark, says point blank: “Deanna Durbin’s career fascinates me.
“From her first feature film, she was THE star of every film in which she appeared: the majority of which were vehicles specially tailored for her that didn’t have the prior name recognition a film adaptation of a literary classic like THE WIZARD OF OZ or a film adaptation of a Broadway hit like FUNNY GIRL, to generate audience interest.
“The few Durbin films that did originate from recognizable prior sources like CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY and UP IN CENTRAL PARK, were produced long after she’d become a star.
“She also never appeared opposite a comparably popular box office star, and, though she was one of the greatest musical stars of the 1930s and 1940s, she almost never appeared in a film musical. In fact, she was almost always the sole musical presence in her films.
“Are there any other stars of that era, musical or non-musical, who were so singularly responsible for the success of their films? Offhand I can’t think of any…
“I think she also may be the only enduring child star of that era who didn’t come to films from a professional/performing background. Unlike Temple, Garland, Rooney and her other peers, she didn’t become a movie star after years of Vaudeville/Professional Children’s School/Film shorts training and experience, but had to learn her craft and develop her talent as the whole world watched her grow up onscreen.
“It’s amazing that she didn’t crack under all that pressure, and a testament to her talent and appeal that she scored such a remarkable success, and continues to attract new fans to this day.”
Again, Joe agrees with Mark. Although at MGM she might have made musicals and in Technicolor, at Universal the films where built around HER and as she grew into adulthood the studio fashioned vehicles for her and let her grow.
Joe thinks it’s fascinating that she’s one of the few stars in Hollywood who made ALL her features for ONE studio. Universal never lent her out. And after she left them she refused all requests from other studios to return to films.
Durbin spent one season on radio as a regular on Eddie Cantor’s program. But soon her work at Universal occupied all her time. By the late 40s her stardom was fading but she was one of the highest paid people in America, reportedly earning $400,000 a year.
Between 1938 and 1942 however she was world famous. Anne Frank had a picture of Deanna on the wall of her room in her Amsterdam hideaway ! Durbin’s fans (including Winston Churchill) were legion and loyal.
Thanks for your thoughts, Jessica and Mark. Keep reading us.