“God made me a singer, and I just sang.” – Deanna Durbin
Note: I sat down to write a simple obituary of Deanna Durbin but decided to look into her life a little deeper…can’t help it, it’s the film historian in me…and ended up researching and writing this lengthy article which shows up how little known (by the general public) she really was as a person. Like Jeanette and Nelson, off-screen she was kind and genuine; also like them, she suffered personal trials and tribulations in her Hollywood years that changed the course of her life.
A very sad Mayday for us…sad but inevitable news. It was announced today that Deanna Durbin passed away, apparently a few days ago at age 91. She lived a long life but still it is a shock to hear the news.
Deanna Durbin was one of those rare few teenaged stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood who walked away from the madness and found a satisfying, somewhat normal personal life as a result. Only a handful of child superstars such as Shirley Temple have achieved that, to my knowledge.
Deanna’s story is an amazing one. She – like so many other young classical singers of her generation – looked to Jeanette MacDonald as a trailblazer and inspiration. The photo below from 1941 shows Jeanette with (from left to right), Susanna Foster, Kathryn Grayson, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin. It was taken at the Federation of Music Clubs event held at the Hollywood Bowl where these gals won medals for their movie singing. (Nelson Eddy was one of the guests who sang at this event.)
Deanna Durbin was first signed by MGM and co-starred with Judy Garland in the short film Every Sunday (1936). See below for a candid of the two girls on the MGM lot and a shot from that film. You can watch a clip of their onscreen duet on YouTube.
The story goes that MGM head Louis B. Mayer said, after this short subject was released, “Get rid of the fat one.” He meant Judy Garland but instead Deanna Durbin was dropped. Universal picked her up and after two films there, Three Smart Girls (1936) and 100 Men and a Girl (1937), Deanna was an overnight international movie star. She was responsible for saving Universal Studios even as fellow child star Shirley Temple saved Fox Studios. Of course Mayer was fuming all through 1937-8 because he had lost the potential Deanna Durbin goldmine. A year later he obviously felt appeased when Judy Garland became a superstar with The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Deanna Durbin was well-treated in her early years at Universal, according to Bernard Brown who was the sound director on her films there. I met “Brownie” at a Deanna Durbin film festival in the early 1970s in Hollywood. All of her films were shown and he was one of the guest speakers. I approached him for an interview since he had worked with Nelson Eddy on Phantom of the Opera. In fact, he told me that he built an entire new recording booth and setup for Nelson’s first (and ultimately last) Universal movie. Brownie felt Nelson’s voice had never been captured accurately at MGM and also, they always had to “turn him down” to compensate for anyone that he sang with. Brownie had only praise for Nelson’s professionalism at Universal and I agreed with him that Nelson’s voice was never better recorded on film than in Phantom. In fact, Brownie received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Recording for Phantom (but only won for a 1939 film, When Tomorrow Comes).
Bernard Brown had similar praise for and enjoyed recording Deanna Durbin during her movie career – and he also received Oscar nominations for four of her films: That Certain Age, Spring Parade, His Butler’s Sister and Lady on a Train. He told me that Deanna Durbin was a delightful, energetic, happy teenager. Despite her tendency to plumpness (by Hollywood standards), the studio did not starve her and/or put her on dangerous medications as did MGM with Judy Garland. According to Brownie, Deanna’s favorite breakfast was brought to her each day – French Fries and ketchup. In the afternoon there was always a break for tea and sandwiches.
Brownie told me a still little-known fact in the 1970s, that Deanna had a handicap with her left arm, which permanently hung at a slight angle. He called the arm “withered.” I later read press reports stating that she broke her arm at a young age and it healed incorrectly. In the photo below you can see that it was not withered but watching film footage of her, one can see the left arm is bent slightly at the elbow and is stiff at the wrist so as a result, her left arm appears shorter than the right arm. When she was filmed running in movies there was sometimes a visible awkwardness due to her having to favor the bad arm. Others might have used such a disability as a reason for failure in Hollywood but not Deanna Durbin. She was a huge international star and received a special juvenile Oscar in 1938. A few years later she was also the favorite of aspiring writer Anne Frank, who pinned Deanna’s photo on her “movie wall” in her wartime secret annex.
Below, Deanna receiving her Oscar from Edgar Bergen.
Like Shirley Temple, Deanna had an early marriage that failed, to assistant director on her early films, Vaughn Paul. Deanna’s assessment of that marriage: “I hibernated all my life, and when I married Vaughn Paul it wasn’t any different. I was sheltered, everyone thought for me, and at the age of 19 I stepped from that cloistered girlhood into a marriage that gave me the same sort of protection. Every girl should be allowed to think for herself. It wasn’t Vaughn’s fault or my fault that we failed to make a go of our marriage. He, too, was spoiled and an only child. If I’d had other previous romances I might not of married the first man I was permitted to go out alone with and to see. That would have saved him unhappiness and saved me from a marriage that should never have happened.”
Deanna’s second marriage to Felix Jackson was also short-lived. Felix Jackson had worked with Deanna since her early days at Universal. He was the screenwriter on her earlier films and produced her movies in the mid 1940s. They were married on June 13, 1945. Daughter Jessica Louise was born on February 7, 1946, seven and a half months later. Deanna and Felix separated soon after and divorced in 1949. The following year Deanna married producer/director Charles David (he directed her in 1945’s excellent Lady on a Train) and moved with him to France. They had a son together, Peter, and Deanna dropped out of show business altogether, never to return. This marriage was happy and they were together 50 years until Charles David died in 1999. Deanna shunned all attempts to return to the public forum in any manner, though she did provide this 1981 photo of herself via her husband to film historian William K. Everson:
Only a few photos were taken of Deanna in recent years by tabloid photographers who caught a rare glimpse of her. Like Greta Garbo, she wanted to be left alone. But over the years she very kindly did autograph photos sent to her by mail by her fans.
By 1940 Deanna had successfully made the transition on film from cute kid to young adult. Still, early that year snarky gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote: “Eighteen-year-old Deanna Durbin is putting on weight. Deanna loves spaghetti and candy and like all youngsters she hates to diet, but now Universal has told her she must reduce. Last time I saw Deanna she didn’t look too plump but I haven’t seen her since I returned and they tell me she has gained at least five pounds. If she is overweight she should take off the extra poundage and with a calorie diet well balanced that won’t injure her health. There are dieticians who make a business of compiling menus.”
The following year Deanna went on suspension for about four months, settling only when she was allowed to take control over her films’ directors, stories and songs. She also wanted to branch out into more adult roles.
In 1943, Deanna was offered the ingenue role of Christine in the Technicolor remake of Phantom of the Opera. But the supporting cast was different; Boris Karloff was to play the Phantom and Allan Jones would have taken third billing in Nelson’s role. At the last minute Karloff was replaced by Claude Rains and Nelson was wooed over to Universal with promises that he’d get to sing lots of opera plus there was never any question that he would get top billing. Nelson was a bigger box office draw than Allan Jones so the whole film would now be built around Nelson Eddy…not a problem in normal circumstances but in Phantom it was off-kilter to the actual story. Deanna reportedly did not want to vocally be compared to Jeanette MacDonald and she also didn’t want to viewed as a “Deanna Durbin and Nelson Eddy” team. In Deanna’s films, she was the main draw and the leading men were secondary. So if the above indeed was her thinking, such casting and plot revision would have been unworkable for her.
Now…today as I sit here remembering her wonderful films I have to wonder about that second marriage of hers. I did not realize that it was a shotgun marriage until doing a bit of research today. Below is a picture taken on the wedding day of Deanna Durbin and Felix Jackson. She’s wearing flowers at her midriff although it’s very early in her pregnancy.
I was surprised to read that about a year after their marriage – 6 months or so after the birth of baby Jessica, Felix felt the marriage was over. He left Deanna, moved to New York and their separation was formally announced on January 5, 1948. She had custody of Jessica, he was ordered to repay some monies he’d borrowed from her and their pre-nup had them both keeping their own individual incomes. Their divorce was final on October 27, 1949. In essence, these two got married after Deanna learned she was pregnant and Felix left her after the child was born. Below are two pictures of little Jessica and also a shot from her first birthday. She is an adorable baby with her bee-stung lips.
Now, this brings me to another interview I did in the 1980s with one of our club members, a retired Navy nurse, Pat Hudson. In the mid to late 1940s Pat lived in the Los Angeles area with her mother, who was dating a Hollywood undercover vice squad policeman. Pat was my source for some information about Gene Raymond including his 1949 arrest. Pat was a Deanna Durbin fan as well as a Mac/Eddy fan and she told me two pieces of information about Deanna Durbin that I thought little about in the ensuing decades. First, she told me that her mother’s boyfriend, the cop, had also discussed with them the time he caught a couple carrying on in a parked car one night on Mulholland Drive. He went over to bust them only to discover that the culprits were Joseph Cotten and Deanna Durbin. He let them go and they drove off. (The year of this incident was not specified.) The other piece of information came from a friend of Pat’s, a fellow nurse. According to Pat, her friend had nursed Deanna’s father at some point in his final years or days. (I can’t remember the details of his health issues but I did confirm today that Deanna’s parents lived in those years in Leisure Village (Laguna Hills Village). Deanna’s father outlived his wife by four years and died in 1976. According to Pat’s friend, Deanna’s father suggested that Joseph Cotten was the father of Deanna’s first child. Below, Joseph Cotten.
Today I did some research about the 1943 film that Deanna made with Joseph Cotten. This was the final installment in the Three Smart Girls series, originally titled Three Smart Girls Join Up but released into theaters as Hers to Hold. To my surprise, there was much speculation to be found on whether Durbin and Cotten had had even a brief affair during the filming. Here, for example, is a recent quote from Doug Bonner, a filmmaker and Emmy-winning sound designer. “The camera captured a palpable chemistry between Deanna Durbin and leading man Joseph Cotten.” He continues: “Of all the Durbin films, this is the one where she registers the most chemistry with her leading man. Actually, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper accused Deanna and co-star Joseph Cotten of having an affair during this film. (Durbin was on her way to the divorce court during the filming of Hers to Hold. Her next husband would be this film’s producer.) To get back at Hopper for the sex scandal smear, Joseph Cotten allegedly pulled the chair out from her at a party as she was sitting down, causing her to fall flat on her butt.”
Hers to Hold was released in July 1943. Even if they were involved in 1943 – the year Deanna divorced her first husband, she did not get pregnant until the spring of 1945. So…assuming that the above claims might be true, did they date on and off from 1943-45? Were they friends with benefits after working together? The fact was that Joseph Cotten was married to Lenore Kipp and remained married to her until Kipp’s death in 1960.
I next took a look at Joseph Cotten’s autobiography entitled Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. To my further surprise, he addressed the rumors of their on-set affair in the book, claiming that it was all an innocent mix-up. Both stars returned to the studio that particular night, for different reasons. Per Cotten:
Deanna had driven to the lot about eleven; I had come through the gate an hour later. We were both working on the same film, and our bungalows were just a few buildings apart. The guard at the gate, in all honesty, cannot be faulted for being suspicious.
Then he writes a paragraph that I don’t fully understand; was he just angry at Hedda Hopper who next morning reported the supposed studio tryst? Or who exactly was he angry with and why?
The area of embarrassment was wide, but as the orbit grew smaller and more personal, emotions grew larger. Embarrassment expanded to humiliation, and humiliation exploded into anger. Hot, hot anger that finally, when it reached its zenith, was transformed into icicles. The only warm thing in my igloo was my temper.
I telephoned Hedda. We were on a first name basis. I had met her during the making of Lydia about two years earlier. It old Hedda that as a journalist she had every right to air her opinion of my professional behavior on the screen, but that my personal life was none of her business. She replied that I was wrong, and went on with an earful of trite reasons…”free speech,” “duty to the reading public,” etc. “Would you like me to deny it, dear?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “Fine. I’ll simply say you called and said you did not have a midnight tryst on the lot…” “Forget it, Hedda,” I said. “And forget it forever….If you mention my name in your column personally again, I’ll kick you in the ass.” She did. And I did. [Cotten further explained that he got his revenge at a dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the US Vice President.] The Kick was not a boot that would have carried a football over the crossbar, but neither was it a token tap. Hedda was sitting in a cane-bottomed chair, and contact was positive enough to disturb the flower garden on top of one of the outrageous hats for which she was renowned.
Cotten finishes up with this anecdote:
One day she telephoned and said: I’m reading a piece here that says you once kicked me in the backside. I don’t remember any such thing ever happening, do you?” I laughed. She laughed. “Of course not,” I said. We buried the hatchet and remained friends.
Hmm. Though Cotten was angry at Hedda Hopper printing it, was she ultimately incorrect in her assumption? We know that from the Jeanette and Nelson story that wily Hopper knew much of the behind-the-scenes goings on and that included Jeanette’s 1938 pregnancy and miscarriage. Hedda Hopper couldn’t openly discuss it so she did the next best thing, had a picture taken of herself sitting at ailing Jeanette’s bedside, with the caption stating that Hedda heard that Jeanette was going to have a baby… Jeanette just laughed and said she wished it was true but it wasn’t. That’s how Hedda was able to break a juicy story without violating the unwritten rules of the day.
And, if this Deanna Durbin – Joseph Cotten affair didn’t take off in 1943, what about later on? Strangely enough, in his autobiography immediately after relating the story about Deanna and Hedda Hopper, Joseph Cotten launches right into an admission of his subsequent marital infidelity! He writes:
Perhaps reading, and rereading Hedda’s aggravating and obviously titillating remarks about my infidelity had an unconscious effect on my behavior. Perhaps the columns had nothing whatsoever to do with it…. I loved my wife. I had no intention of leaving her or in any way of hurting her, but I became unfaithful. It was very easy. I was a young, healthy, full-blooded American and had achieved a certain amount of fame, which of course made it easier. I was away from home a lot. Lenore did not want to fly, sail, or even travel by train, and whenever she could avoid these modes of transportation she stayed home. Although I think she would have liked us to be together, she thought separations were unharmful. And since her home was her castle, she entertained a lot, mostly musicians and card players. She was considered a snob by some people, but I think she just chose her friends carefully….We lived our own lives and were together whenever possible. My conscience didn’t bother me too much. As far as I could see, or would let myself see, she was a completely happy wife and a very busy hostess. She was surrounded by friends whose interests were not in the movies. I was an actor. A roamer. A lover. I made pictures, I made love, and I made martinis.
Boy, this sure sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Reminds me of a certain baritone and his spouse who also stayed married until death do us part…but who lived separate lives. Welcome to Hollywood, folks!
I have no idea of whether the paternity claim related to me by Pat Hudson is the truth. But if accurate, it might explain why Deanna might have married her longtime friend Felix Jackson – who stuck around for the birth of a child and then deserted her. As Joseph Cotten stated, he was not going to divorce his wife and in this circumstance, Deanna would have had to act quickly for her child to be born in wedlock. She could not have been allowed by Universal to have a child out of wedlock as the scandal would destroy her film career. Deanna later publicly blamed their divorce on their mutual “utter boredom”. She added, “Working together all day as we did, we found we had no outside interests.” Strange, isn’t it, since they had a newborn daughter together?
I read about some problems Deanna had in 1946 with her brother-in-law who had been her business manager. He badly mismanaged her affairs and after she fired him she learned what had been going on behind her back. Additionally, she wasn’t happy with the direction her career was taking. Her last three films were a return to the musical romances her public preferred but were weak efforts. Universal finally turned on her, suing her for her prepaid wages. She agreed to make three more films for them so Universal dropped the lawsuit but ultimately allowed her contract to lapse without making those films. Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that she was relieved to give up her career and move to France with Charles David, with whom she found lasting happiness.
Below, a rare photo signed with her real name: Edna May Durbin. [Note the spelling of her middle name: May.]
I like Deanna Durbin’s first two features, Three Smart Girls and 100 Men and a Girl and most of her other films including her basically non-singing murder mystery Lady on a Train. But my own two personal favorites are Mad About Music and Spring Parade. Spring Parade has never been released on DVD but can be watched on YouTube.
Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times obituary:
Deanna Durbin, who as a plucky child movie star with a sweet soprano voice charmed American audiences during the Depression and saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy before she vanished from public view 64 years ago, has died, a fan club announced on Tuesday. She was 91.
In a newsletter, the Deanna Durbin Society said Ms. Durbin died “a few days ago,” quoting her son, Peter H. David, who thanked her admirers for respecting her privacy. No other details were given.
Ms. Durbin had remained determinedly out of public view since 1949, when she retired to a village in France with her third husband.
From 1936 to 1942, Ms. Durbin was everyone’s intrepid kid sister or spunky daughter, a wholesome, radiant, can-do girl who in a series of wildly popular films was always fixing the problems of unhappy adults.
And as an instant Hollywood star with her very first movie, “Three Smart Girls,” she almost single-handedly fixed the problems of her fretting bosses at Universal, bringing them box-office gold.
In 1946, Ms. Durbin’s salary of $323,477 from Universal made her the second-highest-paid woman in America, just $5,000 behind Bette Davis.
Her own problems began when she outgrew the role that had brought her fame. Critics responded negatively to her attempts to be an adult on screen, as a prostitute in love with a killer in Robert Siodmak’s bleak film noir “Christmas Holiday” (1944) and as a debutante mixed up in a murder plot in “Lady on a Train” (1945.)
The child-star persona affected her personal life as well.
“When my first marriage failed, everyone said that I could never divorce. It would ruin the ‘image,’ ” she told Robert Shipman in Films and Filming magazine in 1983. “How could anybody really think that I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I found I didn’t love, just for the sake of an ‘image’?”
The man was Vaughn Paul, an assistant director, whom she had married at 19 in 1941. The marriage lasted two years. Her second marriage, to Felix Jackson, the 43-year-old producer of several of her films, also ended in divorce, after the birth of a daughter.
The third marriage was a success: in 1950, at 28, she married Charles David, the 44-year-old French director of “Lady on a Train.” After starring in 21 feature films, she retired to a French farmhouse.
“I hated being in a goldfish bowl,” she said.
Edna Mae Durbin was born on Dec. 4, 1921, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and grew up in Southern California, where she studied singing. She was discovered by an MGM casting director searching Los Angeles singing schools for someone to portray the opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink as a child.
Signed by the studio at 13, Ms. Durbin, who already possessed a mature coloratura soprano, soon appeared in a one-reel short, “Every Sunday,” with another recently signed 13-year-old, Judy Garland, who sang swing while Ms. Durbin sang classical music.
Her MGM career ended suddenly, however, when Schumann-Heink, who was to play herself as an adult in the movie about her life, died at 75 and the studio did not pick up Ms. Durbin’s option. Shortly afterward she moved to Universal, shepherded there by Rufus Le Maire, a former MGM executive who had switched his allegiance to the rival studio.
Ms. Durbin was quickly handed to Joe Pasternak, who produced her first 10 movies, and to Henry Koster, who directed six of them: “Three Smart Girls,” “One Hundred Men and a Girl,” “Three Smart Girls Grow Up,” “First Love,” “Spring Parade” and “It Started With Eve.”
In his autobiography, “Easy the Hard Way,” Mr. Pasternak — who would eventually move to MGM and build the careers of two other coloratura sopranos, Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell — said that stardom was always “a matter of chemistry between the public and the player” and that no one could take credit for discovering Deanna Durbin.
“You can’t hide that kind of light under a bushel,” he wrote. “You just can’t, even if you try.”
Ms. Durbin, who was originally to have ninth billing in “Three Smart Girls,” became the movie’s star when studio executives saw the first rushes. About the same time, in 1936, she began singing on Eddie Cantor’s popular weekly radio program.
In 1938 there was a nationwide search to choose the young man who would give Ms. Durbin her first screen kiss in the movie “First Love.” (Robert Stack was the actor chosen.) She was given a special miniature 1938 Academy Award for her “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.”
In movie after movie Ms. Durbin’s character found a way to help the struggling grown-ups in her life: reuniting her divorced parents, persuading the conductor Leopold Stokowski to help her out-of-work musician father, cajoling a stranger into becoming her father for a day.
Many of the films were Depression fairy tales in which Ms. Durbin won over or defeated silly rich people with the help of butlers, cooks and chauffeurs, who often risked their jobs to aid her.
After moving to France in 1949 and settling outside Paris in the village of Neauphle-le-Château, Ms. Durbin devoted most of her time to keeping her home, cooking and raising her children. In addition to Peter, her son from her marriage to Mr. David, Ms. Durbin had a daughter, Jessica, from her second marriage. Mr. David died in 1999, a few months before their 50th wedding anniversary.
Mr. David once said that he and Ms. Durbin had made a deal that he would protect her “from spiders, mosquitoes and reporters.”
Ms. Durbin, who gave almost no interviews after she left Hollywood, did send reporters a letter in 1958 that read in part: “I was a typical 13-year-old American girl. The character I was forced into had little or nothing in common with myself — or with other youth of my generation, for that matter. I could never believe that my contemporaries were my fans. They may have been impressed with my ‘success.’ but my fans were the parents, many of whom could not cope with their own youngsters. They sort of adopted me as their ‘perfect’ daughter.”
In the letter, which was excerpted in some newspapers, she also wrote: “I was never happy making pictures. I’ve gained weight. I do my own shopping, bring up my two children and sing an hour every day.”
According to her Wikipedia entry, in her later years “Durbin made it known that she did not like the Hollywood studio system. She emphasized that she never identified herself with the public image that the media created around her. She spoke of the Deanna “persona” in the third person, and considered the film character Deanna Durbin to be a by-product of her youth and not her true identity.”
Deanna herself told film historian David Shipman: “”I did not hate show business. I loved to sing. I was happy on the set. I liked the people with whom I worked and after the nervousness of the first day, I felt completely at ease in front of the camera. I also enjoyed the company of my fellow actors … What I did find difficult was that this acquired maturity had to be hidden under the childlike personality my films and publicity projected on me.””
Those of us who have studied the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy story can relate to the difficult personal issues that Deanna Durbin might have faced while in her mid-20s. It was never easy for a woman in the limelight to balance the career and personal happiness. We know that Jeanette, for example, confided in her later years to Miliza Korjus and others how she now agonized over choices she had made in her thirties. She argued with her fans that “I am not the angelic creature that I seemingly represent.” Nelson was far more blunt: “I personify a wonderful, nostalgic era for so many people – all they want from me is ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ and ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.’ I’m trapped in their thirties!” Both Jeanette and Nelson felt restrained by their screen images and were unable to break free in their personal lives.
Below, Deanna and her son Peter in 1958.
I began writing this “obituary” many hours ago when I woke to the news of Deanna’s passing. But it turned into a day of research and reflection about what had really gone on in her life behind the scenes. Perhaps now I have a better understanding of Deanna Durbin’s courage in chucking it all and walking away while she was still young enough to create a new second act in her life. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that somewhere down the road we will be allowed to read or learn more about her years in seclusion.
Despite her bitterness in later years about her studio years, Deanna Durbin’s films brought great joy to the worldwide movie audiences in the Depression years. And she continues to enchant with her film library available on DVD to new generations. It’s no coincidence that the most popular film stars of that era were singers: Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, etc. Music is universal, uplifting and transcends language and cultural barriers. Plus this handful of stars just mentioned had that indefinable quality and personal charisma that just radiated from the big screen and set them apart from other contemporaries. Deanna Durbin was a Hollywood legend in her own lifetime…and one hopes that Edna May Durbin David was able to come to peace with the rich professional legacy she leaves behind.
May 3 update: Richard Simonton kindly gave me permission to reproduce a 1994 letter he wrote to Deanna Durbin and her response. Here is part of his letter to her:
Page one of her reply to him:
And her PS to this letter: