There was a time when Hollywood and Hollywood stars represented hope and liberty.
Such a star was the radiant Deanna Durbin, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 91.
Durbin (b. Edna Mae Durbin) was a Canadian child singer turned actress who starred in a series of hugely popular and successful light musical comedies from 1936 to 1948. Durbin, at the peak of her career, was the highest paid actress in Hollywood, getting $400,000 per film. Her movies saved Universal, her financially strapped studio, from a looming bankruptcy.
She was, like Judy Garland, a Hollywood creation and a world-wide phenomenon, a fresh and natural presence on-screen. However, unlike Garland, you never got the sense that Durbin needed her audiences’ approval and love. More than anything, Durbin loved to sing, and when she hit the high C’s, her eyes sparkled with joy.
Deeply unhappy in the rigid studio system, and locked into an image—the cheerful girl next door—that increasingly felt alien as she matured, Durbin married her producer/director, Charles David, and retired in 1949 after just twenty-one films and thirteen years in Hollywood.
Durbin and her husband moved to France. They lived in a rustic farm house in the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, just outside Paris, where Durbin fiercely guarded her privacy and happily lived “the life of a nobody.”
In 1980, Deanna Durbin sent a current photo of herself to Life Magazine with a note explaining that she was upset at the stories of being overweight.
Since her retirement, Durbin granted only a single interview, to film historian David Shipman, in 1983. The transcript reveals a bright, articulate woman, unpretentious and sensible, blessedly at peace with her Hollywood past.
It is important to note that during World War II, Durbin entertained the troops. In particular she remembers one evening, writes Shipman, “when she was lifted on the back of a truck and sang without accompaniment to soldiers about to embark for overseas.”
Durbin’s particular image of clean-cut American decency is all but unknown today. After the Japanese surrender, and America’s occupation, the military authorities chose Durbin pictures as the first American movies to be viewed by the Japanese people. The theory was that her wholesome films, free of political content, would encourage the civil, democratic society America hoped to build upon the ruins of imperial barbarism.
Unlike Garbo, who famously strolled the streets of New York, militantly avoiding her fans (unkindly calling them “customers”), Deanna Durbin truly turned her back on celebrity.
More than anything, Durbin loved singing, and she enjoyed the fellowship of her co-stars. But as Shipman observed and Durbin agreed, “The system was firmly rigged against the individual in favor of the machine.”
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, the leading men who were so much older, like Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas, Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon, Joseph Cotten, Vincent Price and Robert Cummings. I did two films with my special friend, Charles Laughton. Working with these talented men helped me so very much and I grew up much faster than the average teenager. 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.
As her vehicles declined in quality the young actress, seeing the handwriting on the wall, walked away from Hollywood with a nice nest egg to live a comfortable retirement of sixty-four years.
Deanna Durbin’s brief but shining career is a Hollywood success story. She escaped the grind of fame to live the life she wanted.
While she was active, from 1936 to 1948, Durbin’s fan club was the largest in the world. Even today, her admirers harbor an affection for Durbin that is unique, for she represents a kind of innocence that is not just lost, but cynically mocked by our postmodern culture and today’s female strut-and-grind superstars — vulgar celebrities who resemble strippers more than singers.
Durbin was and remains, at least to her fans, a symbol of American generosity and optimism.
So it should come as no surprise that Deanna Durbin was Anne Frank’s favorite Hollywood star.
The young Jewish girl pasted Durbin’s picture to her bedroom wall in the Achterhuis where the Frank family hid during World War II. The picture can still be seen there today.
When I visited the Anne Frank House, Durbin’s picture brought tears to my eyes. Of all the grim images of the Holocaust, the glamor shot of Deanna Durbin has seared itself into my memory in a unique manner. It’s American goodness set against the darkening universe of European Jew-hatred and genocide.
Perhaps I’m cynical, but I don’t believe that there is a single Hollywood star who offers the hope of freedom to anyone, much less to victims of oppression and mass murder.
No, these days, Hollywood stars cheerfully make pilgrimages to tyrants like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.
The old glamor was, of course, a massive illusion. But it was an illusion that sustained the American dream and gave hope to millions.
RIP Deanna Durbin.
My friend Self-Styled Siren has written the definitive overview of Durbin’s career, a lovely tribute.
For an informative and revealing look at Durbin’s brief but radiant career, see Jeanine Basinger’s fine book, The Star Machine.
Deanna Durbin fan sites:
The Deanna Durbin Society — by subscription only