Saturday, 3 December 2011

Deanna Durbin: An amazing career (1936 - 1949)

December 4, 1947, Winnipeg Free Press

This is part 3 of a look back at the life and career of Winnipeg-born singer and actress Deanna Durbin who is celebrating her 90th birthday on December 4, 2012!

Part 1: From Winnipeg to Hollywood (1922 - 1936) 

Thanks to her powerful voice, Edna Mae began singing at events and recitals around Los Angeles. This led to local radio appearances, (listen to one of her first radio appearances here at age 13), then to Eddie Cantor's syndicated radio variety show. 

One man who heard her voice was Jack Sheppard,who would go on to be her long-time manager. He got her an audition with MGM Studios which happened to be looking for a girl singer at the time.

February 1, 1936, Winnipeg Free Press

Edna Mae wowed executives and was signed to a contract. She attended school at the MGM studio lot where she met and befriended another newcomer named Frances Gumm. The studio renamed the girls; Edna Mae became Deanna and Frances became Judy Garland. (Though Edna Mae didn't apply to officially change her name until December 1938.)

Every Sunday on YouTube

The two girls were cast in a short film, essentially a glorified screen test, called Every Sunday. It allowed them to showcase their very different singing styles and for the studio to gauge the reaction to each of them. It became so popular that it was later was re-cut and released as a movie short.

At the time MGM only had room for one singing teenager. An often-told Hollywood story, confirmed by Deanna in a 1983 interview, was that fellow Canadian Louis B. Mayer watched Every Sunday with studio personnel then instructed the studio to "get rid of the fat one", (he later claimed it was the "flat" one as Garland missed some of her high notes.) Whatever he said, he meant Garland but the staff misinterpreted and Deanna ended up getting cut.

Deanna said that when she got the news she felt like killing herself. She didn't remain out of show business for long, however, as Universal Studios snapped her up almost immediately.

Top: Calgary Herald, December 26, 1936 
Bottom: Life Magazine, September 6, 1937

Universal had a project in mind for the young star, a 'B movie' called Three Smart Girls (1936). Thanks to Deanna and her voice it turned out to be a smash hit, clearing a million dollars for the studio which at the time was near bankruptcy. They rushed her into another film called One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) which proved that it wasn't a fluke - movie-goers loved Deanna Durbin.

That same year, the first chapter of Deanna Durbin Devotees was created and is still active today. She also had her debut feature article in the September 6 edition of LIFE Magazine. It gushed that aside from her mature voice:

“...she has what most singing stars notably lack - a captivating screen personality. These combined assets may well ensure her both an operatic career and top-rank stardom in the movies.”

In fact, her voice was too mature to allow for what would have been an interesting Winnipeg - Hollywood side story. Deanna was initially chosen to be the voice of Snow White for Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The Snow White character was designed by Winnipeg artist "Cartoon"Charlie Thorson based on Kristin Solvadottir, a local cafe waitress!

October 6, 1937, Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeggers could hear Deanna regularly on CKY Radio which picked up the syndicated radio show that she was on and caught her in Every Sunday, but it would take months after the U.S. release of 100 Men for it it play here.

In the meantime, fans could get a Durbin-inspired permanent wave for $3.50 at Scientific Beauty College on Portage Avenue. Eaton's carried licensed Deanna Durbin pullovers and beach togs, the start of what would be a merchandising empire built around the young star.

October 8, 1937, Winnipeg Tribune

100 Men and A Girl opened a the Capitol Theatre on October 7, 1937. Guests of honour included Governor General Hon. W. J. Tupper and his family as well as Deanna's Winnipeg family.

Granny said after the screening: "The music and the singing were so fine. I could just picture her as she used to sing at home." The Winnipeg Tribune movie reviewer noted the strong musical score and fine supporting cast, but: "…it is Deanna Durbin’s picture from start to finish, and as such a triumph of which any artist on the screen might well be proud.”

Between the success of 100 Men and the release of Every Sunday, Deanna got a chance to visit Winnipeg at the finish of an Eastern United States singing tour with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Initially, it was rumoured to be a ten day visit with a possible concert at the Auditorium.

The prospect of a home visit must have been a challenge for studio executives as they kept Deanna's public image and private life tightly controlled. Universal tweaked facts about Deanna's background, making her a "St. Vital girl" and her father a real estate broker (Pasnak p. 263). They also had a 'reporting ban' on her personal time while on her musical tours, (which even extended to her 1941 wedding ceremony, as pointed out but this a LIFE reader.)

In Winnipeg, though, people knew the family and her granny, a minor celebrity, was always willing to tell the papers about what was going on in her granddaughter's life. Her father, when in town, was also quite candid with local media.

April 2, 1937, Winnipeg Tribune

Deanna arrived in Winnipeg with her mother and manager Jack Shepperd in the early morning of April 2, 1937. Hundreds of people jammed the rotunda of the CPR depot on Higgins to catcha  glimpse. The Free Press noted: "Deanna stepped from the train to face the most extraordinary demonstration that Winnipeg has seen for many a day." 

Her fans got just a wave, then it was off to breakfast in a suite at the attached Royal Alexandra Hotel with the mayor and other dignitaries. From there she was whisked to the studios of the Richardson family’s CJRC radio, located in the hotel, for a radio address. She thanked her fans for their support and understanding that this was a short trip to spend time with family.

When she left the hotel it was off to city hall to sign the guest book then to Berrydale Avenue in St. Vital to spend the rest of the day and overnight with her relatives. One reporter who camped out nearby noted the sounds of laughter and a back yard snowball fight. For the most part, however, local media kept their distance.

The next morning Deanna and her entourage were on a train back to California.

Manitoba Calling, January 1941

Deanna's father's ill health was getting worse around the time her career was taking off, so he left work to manage her career, which he did until her 1941 marriage.

Two movies were released in 1938: Mad About Music (1938) and That Certain Age (1938). They were variations on the same theme as the first two, something Pasnak (p. 21) calls it the Durbin Formula in which "...hapless, helpless adults who are unable to fix their problems" meet the precocious Durbin character with the angelic voice who will "...use wit and ingenuity combined with luck to solve (them)."

As if to emphasize how closely they were sticking to this formula, her next movie was a sequel to her first,
Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939).

In December 1939 Deanna turned 18. It was a crowning end to an incredible year that began with her and Mickey Rooney receiving special "juvenile" Oscars at the 11th Academy Awards "...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."

Her films to date had all been hits, earning Universal millions of dollars. Her salary was on a steady increase as well, from
$126,000 in 1938, (about $2m in 2011 dollars), to $260,000 in 1940. Not bad for a teenager!

May 12, 1939, Winnipeg Free Press

Deanna's first on-screen kiss was released that year in First Love with newcomer Robert Stack. It went over well despite Universal's initial concern that it might alienate fans by having her grow up too fast!

Deanna's mother, in town on vacation, assured local fans that despite the kiss her daughter had little time for romance: "
Often on a Saturday night, Deanna will come home, have supper, take a shower and curl up in bed with a book of poetry”. She did make time to do normal teenage stuff, though, "... as if she had been living her whole life in the northern climate of Winnipeg.

L to R: The Durbins; Deanna and Vaughn; the Pauls (source)

Deanna was growing up much faster than the studio wanted her to.

In December 1940 she announced her engagement to Vaughn Paul, who had worked as a second assistant director on Three Smart Girls. The two were married on April 14, 1941 in a grand ceremony in Los Angeles with 850 guests. Thousands crammed the street outside the church to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds.

April 18, 1921, Winnipeg Tribune

The invitation list included a number of Winnipeggers. There was Deanna's grandmother, though her
two uncles stayed behind. The Smith family, former Winnipeg neighbours still living at 2260 Gallagher Avenue. Also, Mrs. H. H. Bradburn. The Bradburns and Durbins were close friends, regularly visiting each other throughout the years. The Bradburns' cottage at Lake of the Woods was a welcome retreat.

From the Amazing Mr. Holliday (source)

Universal's publicity department couldn't plaster over some cracks that began to form in Deanna's personal life.

Growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of adult, dramatic roles being offered, Deanna refused to come to work in 1941 prompting the studio to suspend her in October. She returned in early 1942 to do
The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943) and Hers to Hold (1943).

In December 1943 her marriage to Vaughn Paul ended with Deanna citing mental cruelty.

September 22, 1920, Winnipeg Free Press

Though Deanna does not to appear to have come to Winnipeg in the 1940s, she did keep a local charitable presence.

In 1941 Rosemary Lobb, a 14 year old girl who lived at the
Rothesay Apartments on Preston Avenue in Wolseley, wrote to Deanna. She explained that she was blind since birth, a student at the CNIB school and a lover of music and opera and hoped that one day she could hear Deanna sing Ave Marie on one of her radio shows.

Deanna did one better. She recorded a special version of Ave Maria for Lobb that included her and her mother sending along personalized greetings. The recording was broadcast as part of a radio-thon to raise funds for Winnipeg's Community Chest of charities, which included the school for the blind.

Bottom: August 12, 1944, Winnipeg Tribune

In early 1944 Kinsmen International approached Durbin to sponsor a home that would be raffled off to raise funds for their Milk for Britain program that shipped milk (powdered, of course) off to England for children impacted by the blitz and wartime rationing.

Deanna agreed and the R.M. of St. Vital donated a lot on Kingston Crescent. Architects Lloyd Finch and Fred Walker created the home, though it was said that Durbin herself approved the final design.

Deanna did not come to Winnipeg for the raffle as many had hoped. Her mother participated in the sod turning and Deanna did a ceremonial signing over of the deed, and from time to time sent recorded messages or telegrams to local media supporting the project.

Deanna Durbin Model House

The home was won by
W.G. Campbell, a farmer from Neville, Saskatchewan who opted instead for the $10,000 cash guarantee. The house was then sold off.

Deanna Durbin house still stands and yes, the owners know its pedigree! They held an open house for its 60th anniversary and say that with one small change the exterior of the house is in its original state.

December 30, 1944, Winnipeg Free Press

The year ended on a sad note when on Christmas Eve 1944 Deanna's 'granny' died at the age of 83. There is no mention of Deanna or her mother attending, just her father. Whether that was in fact the case, or the media allowing her privacy, is not known.

June 14, 1945, Winnipeg Tribune

In June 1945, 23-year-old Durbin got married for the second time to Felix Jackson (43), the Universal producer who became their point-man for steering Deanna's career after her 1941 walkout.

The couple eloped to Las Vegas. There is no reference to her parents attending the ceremony though Deanna's sister Edith gave her away. Edith's husband Clarence Hickman, a former bank clerk who now acted as Deanna's personal manager, was also there.

Deanna's areer seemed to be getting back on track. Her latest film Christmas Holiday (1944) with Gene Kelly was the darkest and most dramatic of her career, though it didn't get great reviews at the time. By the end of 1945 she was listed among the top ten paid people in the U.S..

After 1945 Deanna's career struggled. As the Amazing Deanna Durbin blogger

"Deanna Durbin’s film career can be divided into three overlapping eras: the adolescent years...; the post-adolescence/struggle era...; and the resignation years, when Universal’s movie veteran - weary over the struggle for challenging scripts - essentially gives in to whatever work is offered."

A financially secure Universal had a number of newer, younger, cheaper stars now on the lot and felt less of a need to cater to Deanna. After the mixed reviews of Lady on a Train (1945) and Because of Him (1946) Durbin took time off to have her first child in March 1936.

That year she also had the sad task of suing her sister and brother-in-law, also her personal manager. She claimed that one of her properties, a home in Brentwood, California, was to be held by Hickman in trust but he instead sold it off for a deflated price. The couple countered by saying that the home was gifted to them by Deanna.

March 1949, Winnipeg Free Press

Upon her return to Universal it was, as Pasnak writes, as if she came full circle back to her adolescent film days. She was presented with a group of light, fluffy romantic comedies ending with For the Love of Mary (1948). This triggered another sit-out by Deanna.

Deanna had been tiring of Hollywood and the battles with the studio. She is said to have confided in her old radio show mentor Eddie Cantor that she wanted to quit the business, (Parish p. 276). Her father told the Winnipeg Free Press on June 5 1947 that Deanna would rather pursue her first love, which was opera "
...but lacks the time for it. It takes study for that and her motion picture schedule doesn't allow it."

Another thing that may have given Deanna cause to think was the plight of Judy Garland. They began their film career together at MGM but by 1947 Garland, addicted to booze and pills, suffered her first nervous breakdown. In 1949-50 she was replaced on three different film projects for not showing up on time and was finally dumped by MGM.

Universal and Deanna settled out of court to reduce the number of films left in her Universal contract. In the end they chose to pay her to sit the time out.

Next: Whatever happened to ...
Hollywood Songwriters by Parrish and Pitts
The career of Deanna Durbin Pasnak
The Star Machine by Basinger

See the end of part 3 for a full list of sources and reference sites.

© Christian Cassidy 2011

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