Saturday, May 4, 2013
A Proper Perspective on Deanna Durbin
I've been reading all the obituaries and tributes paid to Deanna Durbin after her passing at age 91 was announced earlier this week. I couldn't help but feel that almost all of them have described her inaccurately and that the know-nothing writers who penned them used the IMDB and Wikipedia as their primary source. I was getting annoyed with reading people who clearly had never seen her work comment ignorantly about her, that I figured I would offer my two cents worth of knowledge about Durbin. She wasn't just a "child star" of the 1930s, because she matured into a lovely and popular leading lady of the 1940s. And I thought it was wrong of people to describe her as someone whose star was sliding by the time she retired in 1948. She was still a major leading lady, even if her last few films weren't critical successes. I became a Deanna Durbin fan when I was in elementary school and, from that point on, I have read almost everything I could get my hands on about the woman. Even though her last few films were not the greatest, she was still considered a popular film star whose mere presence in a movie could guarantee success. If Durbin walked away from her career in 1948, it wasn't so much because her popularity was sliding as it was that she had gotten fed up with working in films with inferior material that was being offered to her by her studio, Universal. I have a feeling that, if she was given better material and, consequently, was happier with the direction of her career, she might have stayed with it and continued working for decades.
I was also annoyed reading some articles that seemed to imply Durbin was somehow inferior to Judy Garland. Durbin became a big star before Garland did but happened to be under contract at Universal, a studio that did not pay as much attention to developing her career and her films in the way that MGM did for Garland. It's been documented that Garland felt a degree of competitiveness with Durbin because she achieved stardom earlier and had a more stable life. (It must have also bothered the insecure and narcissistic Garland to know that, when Louis B. Mayer watched the short 1936 film "Every Sunday" which MGM made as a "tryout" to decide whether to keep Durbin and Garland under contract, Mayer said "Get rid of the fat one" and a dumb executive thought he meant Durbin and dropped her, when in-fact Mayer actually meant that Garland should be dropped in favor of Durbin. This mistake led to her being signed by Universal, and led to Garland constantly comparing herself to Durbin.) If the general public does not know who Deanna Durbin is to the degree they do Judy Garland, it's because Durbin chose it that way when she retired from show business and moved to France. It's been documented that she lived in a village outside of Paris, and that she was known for doing her own shopping and chores and jealously guarded her privacy. The only time in the 65 years since she retired that she ever granted an interview was in 1983 to film historian David Shipman. In the few quotes we have of Durbin since she left the business, she appears to sound severe, harsh, almost unappreciative of the career opportunities presented to her at Universal.
However, I know that when I wrote her a fan letter some time in the mid-1990s, after her movies came out on VHS and was reminded of how much I enjoyed her work, she responded with a personalized autographed picture and a note thanking me for writing to her. She apologized that she couldn't make the note more personalized and address some of the comments I made about her movies, but indicated that the amount of letters she received had increased since her movies started being released on VHS and she needed to pace herself to ensure being able to respond to her letters in a timely manner. When I told my High School History teacher, who loved her as a child, that I had gotten the autographed photo, he asked if I would ask her to send him one. So I wrote her again and she responded by sending a personalized autographed picture and a short note thanking him for remembering her all these years later. It must be noted that, each time she wrote back to me, she paid for the postage and handling herself. (I was young and self-centered at the time and didn't think to enclosed a SASE to pay for the postage myself.) The fact that a woman who had long turned her back on her career was spending her own money to print photos for her fans, and pay for the postage herself all the way from France to the United States, indicates the degree to which she was still appreciative of the public's interest in her, even if she had no further interest in dealing with the media or Hollywood. This is further underscored by the fact that her family purportedly chose to announce her death by having a fan website disseminate the information, rather than contacting one of the major news agencies.
The thing that was great about Deanna Durbin is that it is hard to describe her movies to a modern-day audience because they don't fit into any easily categorized genre. Almost like Elvis Presley, Deanna Durbin movies were a genre unto themselves. Her movies were usually light, happy comedies with musical numbers interspersed throughout to allow Durbin to show off her incredibly mature, for her age, soprano singing voice. She had such a larger-than-life personality that, in some movies, she played characters that everyone in town knew about before she had even met them. She had a direct, forthright intelligence and honesty about herself as an actress that I greatly admired. Her energetic characters had an assertiveness that belied stereotypes of the dreamy, romantic, submissive teenage girl. Somehow she avoided being arch and annoying because her characters still had qualities of warmth, compassion, and vulnerability that justified her pushiness. It's been said that her early films from 1936 to 1941, produced mostly by Joe Pasternak, were her better films, and that assessment is mostly correct. With Pasternak, Durbin made many fine films including "One Hundred Men and a Girl" (1937), "Mad About Music" (1938), and "Three Smart Girls Grow Up" (1939), which were probably my personal favorites of the films she made. With these three, the right elements of a good script, sharp direction, and sparkling performances came together to make them delightful entertainments.
"One Hundred Men and a Girl" was probably the best film Durbin ever made. She played a young woman whose musician father (Adolph Menjou) is out of work, along with dozens of other musicians during the Great Depression. She thinks up a scheme to have the acclaimed Leopold Stokowski conduct a benefit concert comprised of these musicians in order to help establish themselves as a new, acclaimed orchestra so that they can be put back to work. In "Mad About Music," Durbin played a lonely young girl whose mother is a movie star in Hollywood. Her mother's manager believes that if the public ever learns her mother has a teenage daughter, it will ruin her career. As a result, Durbin is sent to a board school in Switzerland where she pretends that her father is a great explorer who writes lengthy letters of his adventures and sends her gifts and artifacts from his world travels. When Durbin suddenly has to produce a father in order not to lose face in front of the other girls, she picks unsuspecting Herbert Marshall, a bachelor composer living in Paris who is on holiday at the nearby village, to assume the role. Marshall, upon realizing what is happening, objects at first, but then relents when he realizes the humiliation Durbin will face with the girls. Over time, Durbin and Marshall become close and he becomes a genuine father-figure to her. The plot becomes even more complicated when Durbin learns her mother will be in Paris on a press junket, and she tags along with Herbert Marshall when he returns there on business. In "Three Smart Girls Grow Up," Durbin plays matchmaker for her two older sisters, who each are in love with the other's fiance. By the end of the film, she helps each of her sister's boyfriend's realize that they are in love with the other sister and helps bring about a touching ending for all involved.
In each of these movies, Durbin's screen image reached its zenith, as a wise, perceptive young woman who lies, schemes and manipulates in order to help her family, and the people she loves, find security and happiness. In the hands of other actors, such qualities would not have worked, but Durbin played these roles with a selfless quality that reminded audiences that these machinations were not for her own good or happiness, but for others. In "One Hundred Men and a Girl," she manipulates half of New York City to help her father and his friends find jobs. In "Mad About Music," she creates an illusionary heroic father figure in order to protect her movie star mother's public image so that her classmates will only ask about her father and not her mother. In "Three Smart Girls Grow Up," she risks the ire of her family, who think she's being a lovestruck, immature and spoiled brat, in order to help her sisters find true love. In the process, she helps her father and his colleagues in "One Hundred Men and a Girl" retain their dignity and self-respect, she helps Herbert Marshall in "Mad About Music" find happiness with a family life he never expected to have, and she saves her sisters in "Three Smart Girls Grow Up" from a future of unhappiness being married to the wrong man. In Deanna Durbin's world, the ends more than justify the means. She never becomes as hateful, spiteful, or annoying as the presumptuous and evil Mona Freeman character in the "Dear Ruth" series of movies from Paramount in the late 1940s/early 1950s, where Freeman played a snotty brat whose fanciful lies and manipulation turn her family's life upside down. This is because Durbin is always shown to have a conscience and humility about herself in her films that Freeman didn't have in her movies. Durbin is shown in her films as someone who doesn't want to lie, and is clearly uncomfortable doing it, and at times her lies come back to haunt her when she can't keep track of them. (Whereas, in Freeman's movies, she doesn't seem concerned about the problems she's caused, and is never punished enough or held accountable for being so thoughtless.)
What also helps these characters remain sympathetic is Durbin's ability to stand up for herself and others she cares about when people condescend to them. In "One Hundred Men and a Girl," in the scene where her character tries to convince Stokowski to conduct an orchestra of unemployed musicians for one night, Stokowski's own orchestra laughs at her when she asks Stokowski to come to a garage where the band is rehearsing to hear them perform. Durbin scolds them for being cruel and thoughtless to laugh at the plight of unemployed musicians, who have nowhere to rehearse but a garage, from the safety and comfort of their own jobs (especially since she wasn't asking Stokowski to replace his own orchestra permanently, just to lend his endorsement for one night to another one so that they might develop a professional reputation of their own). Durbin was so assertive that I never liked watching her in "First Love" (1939) a big hit where she played a modern-day Cinderella sent to live with her rich aunt and uncle and treated badly by her relatives. In that movie, Durbin becomes an atypical (for her) victim, the sort of role that Judy Garland excelled at, and it seems odd to see her abused and insulted throughout that movie. In contrast, in her best roles, Durbin set a good example for young women to stand up for themselves and not take guff from others.
As Durbin grew older, her characters took on more responsible roles as well. In "The Amazing Mrs. Holliday" (1943), she was an American missionary based in China who attempts to help a group of orphans enter the United States. In "Hers to Hold," a sequel to the "Three Smart Girls" movies, Durbin's character falls in love with an Army Air Corps aviator (Joseph Cotten) who is about to be deployed overseas. She gets a job at an aircraft plant in order to be close to him, but becomes alarmed when the husband of her friend and co-worker Hannah (Fay Helm) is killed overseas. Durbin tries to get her industrialist father Charles Winninger to use his influence to prevent Cotten from being deployed and he refuses to help Durbin, reminding her that she needs to be supportive of Cotten's deployment, and not assume she is entitled to preferential treatment, because all American women must be ready to accept the sacrifice of the men they love in order to win the war. For once, Durbin doesn't get what she wants in the movie but has matured enough to accept it. At the end of the film, as Joseph Cotten is about to deploy, he warns her that it may be difficult to be in love with a man who is away fighting the war. Durbin paraphrases her co-worker Hannah when she reassures Cotten, "I've got it all figured out. I'll build 'em. You fly 'em."
The specter of danger and death also loomed over Deanna Durbin's two forays into film noir territory, "Christmas Holiday" (1944), which I blogged about last month, and the comparatively light-hearted "Lady on a Train" (1945). In "Christmas Holiday," Durbin played a naive young woman who marries a charming no-account, played by Gene Kelly, who is convicted of murdering a bookmaker. Out of guilt over not steering him clear of his worst impulses, Durbin becomes a bluesy nightclub singer in a brothel that she presumably also works at as a prostitute. When Kelly breaks out of prison at Christmastime, believing she had betrayed him, he shows up at the brothel intending to murder Durbin. For once, Durbin is not surrounded by a circle of family and friends who provide a protective shield from the dangerous outside world, and her character lacks the confidence and assertiveness that we normally associate with her. If Durbin's earlier, light-hearted characters had any flaw to them, it's that they did have an air of entitlement to them despite the caring and compassion they had for everyone around them. In "Christmas Holiday," Durbin's character not only expects nothing from life, she even feels she is deserving of nothing. When a handsome young Army lieutenant (Dean Harens) who she has confided with on Christmas Eve offers her the bed in his hotel suite while he plans to sleep on the couch in the other room, Durbin refuses to put him out. She tells him, "You use the bedroom, it's your suite...as long as I have a pillow or some kind of a blanket...I'm very tired. This is much nicer than sitting up all night in a coffee shop. I'm really grateful to you...Look, Lieutenant, in my own little way, I'm just as much a gentleman as you are. Please let me stay here." Durbin's character has such low self-esteem in "Christmas Holiday," she can't even bring herself to accept a gentlemanly gesture from the one man in the story she can count on. Durbin's atypical low-key performance in the movie is also underscored by the way she performed her two songs in the movie, the standards "Spring Will be a Little Late This Year" and "Always." In contrast to her normally exuberant soprano voice, and with simpler musical accompaniment and arrangements, Durbin sings both of these songs with a bluesier, more soulful tone than what we're used to from her. She projects an air of sadness and regret in these songs that show that Durbin's musical range went far beyond interpreting the classics.
In "Lady on a Train," Durbin returns to her comedic roots and plays a daffy heiress, a murder-mystery buff, who witnesses a homicide from the compartment of her train and is unable to convince anyone that it actually took place. She takes it upon herself to go undercover and solve the crime. Even though it has a light-hearted tone, Durbin's character is often on the verge of death and danger at every corner. She proved to be a good thriller heroine and demonstrates how she should've been cast in more such roles. Durbin abandons the demure image that had characterized her up till now and goes the blonde, glamour/girl route, projecting the most genuine sex appeal she has ever had on-screen. At one point, while impersonating a nightclub singer who had been involved with the dead man, Durbin sings the slinky, sexy, surprisingly suggestive "Give Me a Little Kiss," the most seductive song she has ever performed. At one point, Durbin goes over to the table of leading man David Bruce and his fiancee Patricia Morison. As she sings "Give me a little kiss, will you huh? What are you gonna miss, will you huh?" Durbin delivers that second verse ("What are you gonna miss, will you huh?") in the direction of Morison, with a taunting and sneering tone in order to flaunt in Morison's face that she's flirting with her man right in front of her. Morison reacts with the appropriate level of indignation by the brazenness of Durbin's act and leaves. As Durbin sits in David Bruce's lap and sings "I wouldn't say a word if I was askin' for the world. But what's a little kiss, between a fella and his girl?" you know that she's got him in the palm of her hand. More than any other film, "Lady on a Train" demonstrates the sort of untapped potential Durbin had playing more adult roles in motion pictures and proves that she matured gracefully from being a juvenile performer to full-fledged leading lady.
However, the five remaining films Durbin made at Universal before permanently retiring didn't effectively follow-up "Lady on a Train" with roles that capitalized on this mature image. She was back to playing slightly grown-up variations on what she had already done before. If these remaining films didn't do as well as the earlier ones, it had more to do with the repetitive nature of the material than anything Durbin did. Her purported unhappiness with her career was not apparent on-screen because she still brought the right level of warmth and enthusiasm to her films as she always had. For whatever reason, Durbin had a sixth sense on when it was time to call it quits in the business and left the audience wanting more from her, in contrast to her rival Judy Garland, who never knew when the jig was up and instead became a pathetic, painful, public eyesore as she deteriorated before everyone's eyes. (Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli has done a good job of demonstrating that the Apple Doesn't Fall too Far from the Tree in that family.) Yes, Judy Garland was a greater star, made greater movies, had a much longer career, and was more famous than Deanna Durbin in the long run, but she ended up an emotionally immature and financially unstable substance abuser who squandered her opportunities in show business by being unprofessional and unreliable, was from all accounts not a particularly responsible parent, and was dead by the age of 47.
In contrast, Durbin was from all-accounts a shrewd business woman who became financially independent from wise investments (the terms of her Universal contract reportedly paid for showings of her movies in any media, which means she would receive TV, Cable, and Video royalties) and, as such, left Hollywood on her terms, when she wanted to, instead of allowing it to leave her before she was ready to, and quietly raised a family that didn't become tabloid fodder and had a son who became a medical researcher. I would not be surprised if, as with all families, there might have been some drama in Deanna Durbin's family and personal life, but we'll never know about it because she intended it that way by staying out of the limelight and not doing anything as a private individual that might have called unwanted attention to herself. Deanna Durbin was an enigma who left behind a refreshing air of mystery about herself when she passed away. Even if Deanna Durbin didn't identify with the light and innocent roles she played on-screen, it is apparent that her characters' qualities of wisdom, maturity and self-sufficient assertiveness reflected her real-life personality off-screen as well.