Deanna Durbin

Active - 1936 - 1950  |   Born - Dec 4, 1921 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada  |   Died - Apr 1, 2013   |   Genres - Musical, Comedy, Romance, Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Canadian actress/singer Deanna Durbin learned at a very early age that she was blessed with a strong and surprisingly mature set of vocal chords. After studying with coach Andres de Segurola, Durbin set her sights on an operatic career, but was sidetracked into films with a 1936 MGM short subject, Every Sunday. This one-reeler was designed as an audition for both Durbin and her equally youthful co-star Judy Garland; MGM decided to go with Durbin and drop Garland, but by a front-office fluke the opposite happened and it was Durbin who found herself on the outside looking in. But MGM's loss was Universal's gain. That studio, threatened with receivership due to severe losses, decided to gamble on her potential. Under the guiding influence of Universal executive Joseph Pasternak, Durbin was cast in a series of expensive, carefully crafted musicals, beginning in 1936 with Three Smart Girls. This and subsequent films--notably One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) -- craftily exploited Durbin's remarkable operatic voice, but at the same time cast her as a "regular kid" who was refreshingly free of diva-like behavior. The strategy worked, and Durbin almost single-handedly saved Universal from oblivion; she was awarded a 1938 special Oscar "for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth," and when she received her first screen kiss (from Robert Stack) in First Love (1939), the event knocked the European crisis off the front pages.

Durbin remained popular throughout the first years of the 1940s, but when the box-office receipts began to flag, Universal attempted to alter Durbin's screen image with such heavy dramas as The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1942) and Christmas Holiday (1944); unfortunately, these films failed to make the turnstiles click. In 1945, Durbin had her best "grown up" role in the murder mystery Lady on a Train (1945), which allowed her to dress a bit more glamorously than in previous appearances. By this time, however, Durbin was tired of filmmaking, and began exhibiting a conspicuous lack of interest in performing. After For the Love of Mary (1948), Durbin retired, escaping to France with her third husband, Lady on a Train director Charles David. She so thoroughly disappeared from public view that rumors persisted she had died. Actually, as one writer has pointed out, the "Deanna Durbin" that fans had known and loved had died, to be replaced by a fabulously wealthy matron who had absolutely no interest in the past. Though she lived in comfortable anonymity for her last five decades, Durbin retained her fervent fan following and gained a whole new following thanks to exposure of the vintage Durbin films on cable TV and video. She died in 2013 at the age of 91.

Movie Highlights

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  • Received professional vocal training, and originally planned to pursue a career in opera.
  • Made her screen debut alongside Judy Garland in the 1936 musical short Every Sunday, originally intended as an audition piece for the young actors. Gained immediate success with her first feature, Three Smart Girls, which was Universal Pictures' highest-grossing film of 1936. Received a special Oscar in 1938, along with actor Mickey Rooney, for setting a high standard of ability and achievement as juvenile players. Retired from acting in 1948, following dissatisfaction with the Hollywood studio system and falling box-office returns. Moved to France and abandoned public life after marrying her Lady on a Train (1945) director, Charles David, in 1950.