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).