Singer-Actress Deanna Durbin Dead at 91

Deanna Durbin dead

Highly-paid star exited biz at age of 26

Singer-actress Deanna Durbin, who was the highest-paid female star in Hollywood in 1947 but quit the biz the following year at the age of 26, has died, her fan club announced Tuesday. No date or cause of death was given. She was 91.

Durbin landed at MGM at age 14 after a successful audition for a part in a biopic of opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink, which was never made. She actually debuted in the 1936 MGM short “Every Sunday” with Judy Garland (the two were only six months apart in age). Soon after Universal signed Durbin to a contract.

Her first film at U was “Three Smart Girls” (remade decades later as “The Parent Trap”). That box office hit, in which she played the perfect teenage daughter, paved the way for many more of the same, and Durbin was credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy. The film was also Oscar nominated for best picture.

During pic’s production Durbin began a regular gig on Eddie Cantor’s radio show that lasted two years until she became so busy at U that she was unable to continue on the radio. She was also recording for Decca Records.

Also in 1936, Durbin was offered an audition with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which she turned down because she felt she needed more training.

Durbin’s next three films were all stunning successes: “One Hundred Men and a Girl,” “That Certain Age” and “Mad About Music.” In these highly profitable films, Durbin worked with director Henry Koster and producer Joe Pasternak.

In a fashion that seems all too familiar today, Durbin soon became a highly profitable property generating multiple revenue streams: There were Deanna Durbin dolls, dresses and novels in which a fictional Deanna solved mysteries in the manner of Nancy Drew.

In the 21 films she made for Universal (including two sequels to “Three Smart Girls”), she would usually sing a few songs — some new material plus some arias from operas. The era of the original soundtrack album had not quite arrived, so she would record the same material in the studio for Decca. (Only one of her songs made the charts.)

Durbin’s soprano was said to be light, sweet and unaffected.

In addition to Durbin’s talent, the key to maintaining her success was mountains of publicity, which the studio and the press happily provided, as when the latter fawned over Durbin’s first screen kiss in 1937’s “First Love.”

In a reflection of their huge success and impact on showbiz, Durbin and Mickey Rooney were presented with a special Academy Juvenile Award in 1938.

Indeed, she was a hit overseas as well as domestically. Anne Frank famously hung a picture of Durbin on the wall of the attic in which she and her family were hiding from the Nazis. She was also a favorite of WWII leaders Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini.

A blogger on the Amazingdeanna site describes Durbin’s film career has dividable into three overlapping eras: “the adolescent years, from which comes the perky (and profitable) Durbin formula of youthful tenacity and pluck; the post-adolescence/struggle era, where the now-grownup star fights for mature material and sometimes wins; and the resignation years, when Universal’s movie veteran — weary over the struggle for challenging scripts — essentially gives in to whatever work is offered.”

Her partnership with Koster and Pasternak ended with 1941’s “It Started With Eve.” Pasternak left Universal for MGM, and U suspended Durbin for several months for refusing to appear in “They Lived Alone,” which Koster was to direct. Durbin ultimately won from Universal the right to approve her directors, stories and songs.

In addition to her increasing dissatisfaction over her films, Durbin was essentially a private person never comfortable with her ultra-public role as a movie star.

Durbin became disillusioned with Hollywood by the mid-’40s, particularly after the release of 1944 film noir “Christmas Holiday,” which disappointed at the box office. This adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel was her attempt to become a serious actress. Another disappointment was the 1945 whodunit “Lady on a Train,” which did not draw the kind of reception her earlier musical comedies had generated.

In 1950, she married her third husband, Charles David (who had directed “Lady on a Train”) and moved to Normandy, France, and thereafter remained out of the limelight.

She was tempted to return just once, for “My Fair Lady” on Broadway in 1956, but she resisted in the end.

Born in Winnipeg, Edna Mae Durbin moved with her British-born parents to Hollywood when she was just a year old. She began work with a singing teacher at age 10.

After decades of refusing to speak to the press, Durbin granted an interview to David Shipman in 1983.

“I did not hate show business,” she told him. Speaking in particular of her last four films, she added, “I was the highest-paid star with the poorest material — today I consider my salary as damages for having to cope with such complete lack of quality.”

Durbin married assistant director Vaughn Paul in 1941; they were divorced in 1943. She was married to film writer-producer-actor Felix Jackson from 1945-49. Third husband David died in 1999.

She is survived by two children: Jessica (from her marriage to Jackson) and Peter (from her marriage with David).

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  1. Ann Giles says:

    Your beautiful voice will live on Thank you my Deanna Durbin. Ann XX

  2. free movies says:

    download the full movie a good day to die hard her

  3. Nina Gale says:

    She will always be my favorite film actress. I have all her movies and will cherish them forever. Grew up watching her movies on late night tv. Glad I had that opportunity. She will live on in our hearts forever! Really too bad the studios made her hate Hollywood. Just think how she would have been in My Fair Lady.

  4. Fell in love with her as a boy although I later learned she and my mother were almost the same age. I loved her voice and her on-screen joy. I also had great respect for her wanting to be left alone to raise her children. The news left me feeling as if I just lost a favorite aunt.

    A local station here in Norfolk (VA) has a Sunday afternoon program called “From the Parlor”, which highlights music from the early part of the 20th century. Today they’re playing many of Edna Mae’s songs. (I’ve read she never liked the name ‘Deanna’.) The announcers mention of her passing, sadly, was the first I had heard of our loss.

    My condolences to her family.

    RIP, great lady.

  5. mark seward says:

    I have always loved her films and music, and feel sad that she has departed this world and would have liked to see her do more interviews through her life. I feel now that she has gone that there should be monument erected to her where she lived so fans can now pay there respect for a wonderful lady.

  6. Lizzie Shaw says:

    My mum loved Deanna’s film and introduced me to her films in the late 60’s.I’ve loved her ever since. Beautiful voice, beautiful lady. May she rest in peace.

  7. Larry Smith says:

    Deanna Durbin has died.

    Yes it is sad that she is gone, but thank goodness her films survive, for now.

    In fact it is because of inspiring feel good movies like Durbin’s and director Frank Capra’s that I got seriously involved with motion picture preservation.

    I first discovered the blue eyed, brown haired Canadian warbler back in the 1980s when AMC used to show American Movie Classics from the Universal Studios library without commercial interruption. I used to scourer the TV guide for old classic films rated 3 stars or better by Leonard Maltin. I discovered lots of gems and one those was Durbin’s One Hundred Men And A Girl.

    I at first found Deanna’s talents utterly charming, she was captivating to watch – a natural actress – and when she would break into song it was if the world had stop turning and now revolved around her. She became the center of the universe, for just that scene.

    Needless to say over the years I have tracked down all 21 of her films, the best in my opinion being: It Started With Eve, Spring Parade, Lady On A Train, His Butler’s Sister, Every Sunday, Mad About Music, That Certain Age, Three Smart Girls, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, Something In The Wind and First Love. Which means, to me most of her films are great!

    If you’ve never seen one of Deanna’s romantic comedies with music, I recommend you naturally start with It Started With Eve and if that does not hook you — you are a cynic and in need of a sense of humor and some humanity.

    Deanna, as it says in many of the obits now circulating the Google driven globe was both highly paid and by today’s generation mostly forgotten… but I want to ask those who are simply impressed with how much she was paid – ask yourself why was she the top money maker of 1947?

    Answer: It’s because she had talent and the public LOVED HER! It’s true she was discovered side-by-side with Judy Garland and was as popular as her for runner Shirley Temple (still alive and now 85). Deanna first film, Three Smart Girls (1936) was a huge hit and was nominated for Best Picture Of The Year! Now I love Judy Garland a lot too, but in 1936 her only film was Pigskin Parade where Judy was listed 9th in the credits long before The Wizard Of Oz and teaming with Mickey Rooney made her a star to compete with Durbin.

    Here’s in interesting observation, as Durbin skyrocketed to fame and saved Universal Studios with a handful of mega hits, one after the other Garland learned her craft and by the mid 1940’s it was Garland who was on top at MGM and Durbin was struggling to find good material and then decided to retire at the ripe old age of 28!

    I could go on, but instead I recommend you celebrate one the best of classic film who has just passed and try to see all 21 of her films before they too are lost.

    P.S. And send a fan letter to other living and forgotten stars Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Doris Day, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney!

  8. Alex says:

    “The era of the original soundtrack album had not quite arrived, so she would record the same material in the studio for Decca. ” I have read that Decca used her film voice tracks, as Universal could not spare her for the recording time, and as was common practice with “soundtrack albums”, re-recorded the background music with a smaller orchestra, to avoid paying union re-use fees, and achieve a cheaper cost for themselves. This was standard procedure with the majority of “soundtrack albums” until several years ago, when re-use fees were substantially reduced, making actual soundtrack recording more economically feasible.

  9. Melissa says:

    Very sad to hear about Deanna Durbin’s passing. Her movies were always very fun to watch when I was a kid. A small side note, while they have similar basic stories, The Parent Trap is not a remake of Three Smart Girls. It was actually based on and old German novel, Das Doppelte Lotchen, by Erich Kastner. :)

  10. Andrew says:

    I believe W.C. Fields rented the home next to Deanna. Apparently he shot at her conservatory while she was practicing her scales. I wonder if it was true. I do hope she had a happy life. Deanna presented such a pleasant image of the human condition on screen. I know many young ladies who today are transfixed by her special brand of peaches and cream joy. The company of Heaven has a lovely new voice to enhance the glory.

  11. Terri Jean says:

    I was a teen in the late 60’s and loved her movies. I always remembered her over the years and wondered why such a beautiful and amazing talent disappeared from the profession so young. She was missed. I hope she had a happy life.

  12. Miguelina says:

    I saw all her movies, loved her beautiful voice and her natural beauty. Even today there has not been another singer with a voice so sweet and perfect and effortless as hers. May she rest in the peace of the Lord,

  13. Deanna says:

    I was born in Sept. 1948 and my mother always told me she named me after Deanna Durbin

  14. Lorna says:

    Beautiful Lady amazing voice RIP Deanna!! Heaven has an beautiful angel!! God bless, all my thoughts are with you family too!! your were an amazing movie Star

  15. J. Richmond says:

    The news hit me so hard because she is my favorite singer. I was just listening to some of her songs a few minutes ago. I’ve never felt so sad at the passing of a Hollywood star. Goodbye Deanna, I hope to see you in heaven where maybe I can hear you sing in person.

  16. She was my father’s favourite actress and I remember her voice as being light and bright. Such happy memories of sitting on his knee as he enjoyed watching her films on TV.

  17. Chris Hanson says:

    I’m glad I was able to make contact with her about 15 years ago by mail, and she autographed some photos for me. I wanted her to know how much I enjoyed her movies.

  18. David Sumray says:

    Durbin had the most remarkable voice with a very unusual range – listening to her singing ‘Spring will be a little late this year’ one would never guess that this voice was capable of Puccini and Verdi. I can’t think of any opera singer who is able to sing popular standards as they should be sung, rather than as an opera singer would sing them. I think she was great – especially her attitude towards fame. And I love the end of ‘Can’t Help Singing’ where she wears two dresses in the same scene, because she couldn’t decide which one she liked best. Got to love that approach to continuity!

  19. Joan L Philbin says:

    I was born during the “Great Depression”, and believe me it wasn’t so “great”. Deanna Durbin’s movies were the highlight of my young years. She took me away from the horror of that time, especially during WWII. My Dad was in the navy, during the war, and had to be away, as most of the servicemen and women, so we needed something to lift our spirits. Deanna was able to do that for us. I have quite a collection of her movies and enjoy watching them, over and over. They still lift my spirits today. It’s sad that more people couldn’t see, and enjoy, her talents.

  20. ldflash says:

    When I was a child in the early 1980s, my father was stationed in England. Deanna Durbin movies were in constant rotation on the BBC and I sat with my mother, entranced by her singing. Those are such happy memories for me and I’m sorry to hear of her passing.

  21. Patsy says:

    Loved her movies. I miss that kind of entertanment noww days. RIP.

  22. Pam Goffinet says:

    My dad and I loved to watch Deanna’s movies together. She was his favorite actress ever. He owned all her movies and albums. I’m sure he’s ecstatic to finally meet her in heaven. He can now enjoy her singing forever. She was truly missed when she retired but she left memories that will last a lifetime.

  23. Matt Hough says:

    Her films were always entertaining, even the last ones she lamented so vocally. I’m glad many of them (though not all) are available on tape and disc for viewing so that I can continue to enjoy her immense talent and even larger heart.

    The article contains a couple of errors. “First Love” was a 1939 feature, not 1937. I’ve never heard “Three Smart Girls” as the original version of “The Parent Trap.” Yes, Deanna brings back together her separated parents, but the clever twist of “The Parent Trap” was the twins idea/ switching one for another so each could get to know the other parent. I’m only aware of one sequel to “Three Smart Girls.”

  24. Hans Dupont says:

    Deanna reminds me of my sister in my childhood in the forties
    Ever since I remained a fan. I have Lobby Cards stills DVDs and CDs of her. My sincere condolences to her family.
    Hans Dupont in Zürich Switzerland.

  25. F Grimes says:

    My childhood sweetheart, freshly beautiful with a voice from heaven. She was missed when she retired from films, now she is finally departed and a new angel joins the heavenly choir

    In my heart she will never die.

  26. E. H. Lepiarczyk says:

    Deanna Durbin was an icon. Her beauty, grace, poise, and her great talent made a profound mark on our world. Throughout my life I have always admired the work of Deanna Durbin.

  27. Joyce Langmead says:

    I remember Deanna Durbin as a child. I could not wait to see her latest movies
    I was an aspiring singer and followed her career avidly. I thought she was the sweetest person
    in Hollywood and also has a beautiful voice. I will remember her with great affection.
    Great .British fan Joyce Langmead

  28. David Whithorn says:

    The saddest day in a long time – just heard the news, tonight I’ll play a few of my old 78’s (‘Ave Maria’) and know that at least in these you will live forever in my heart, rest in peace, Deanna.

  29. Neva Davis says:

    My heart is breaking. As a young girl, when watching her movies Miss Durbin brought so much joy and light into my life. How I wished that I could have told her how much I enjoyed her. On screen she glowed and and her eyes sparkled like no one else’s. My condolences to her son and daughter and their families. Miss Durbin you sang like an angel and I know you must now be singing with angels, how lucky they are.

  30. I was named after this lovely lady, Deanna Durbin. I always wondered what had become of her, since she left the USA. My condolences to her family she may have left behind. It was an honor to be named Deanna.

  31. jack says:

    What a GAL!!! They don’t make them like that anymore.

  32. Debra says:

    A long life. Hopefully it was full and content to the end. She was a beauty and talent. Such a wonderful era she is known for. Maybe not the way the studios were run, but for us, the movie goers, the fans,
    It was so amazing.

  33. Marny CA says:

    RIP, dear lady. I never forgot you!

    • In 1947 Betty Grable was the highest paid female star and she was the
      biggest box office star for 10 consecutive years.
      This not to deride Deanna Durbin,s contribution to the movie box office of the 1940’s.

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