One Smart Girl – Deanna Durbin (1921-2013)

DeannaDurbinMar37Bar none, the best summer job I ever had was as a tour guide at Universal Studios. It was such a thrill running around that famed and historic lot where so many legendary talents had worked. To walk in the footsteps of Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, John Ford, Erich Von Stroheim, Irving Thalberg, James Whale, Alfred Hitchcock and a million other greats was heaven for a film history nut like me. Of course, we were told about all these people and many more during our tour guide training classes, but one surprising name really stuck out for me – Deanna Durbin. I had never really heard of her before and apparently neither had my classmates. Her name elicited quizzical looks and when we were told she “saved” the studio by doing something called 100 Men and a Girl, everyone suddenly became Beavis & Butthead with all the maturity and wit of a group of 14 year-olds. Fortunately, over time I matured (well, not really), but I was able to learn more about who this Deanna Durbin person was and I was both charmed and fascinated by this remarkable lady. Personally, I have always enjoyed digging into the stories of those who, although in their day were world-famous, are not as well-remembered today. There are some amazing people awaiting rediscovery and Deanna Durbin is definitely one of them. Yes, as it turns out, she did “save” the studio and a whole lot more, becoming for a period one of the most popular and famous stars in the entire world. And then she happily left it all behind her. Garbo, as it turns out, wasn’t the only one who turned her back on Hollywood, Deanna Durbin did it too and never looked back.

Now, word has come down that Deanna Durbin has died at the age of 91 in France, where she had lived in peace and quiet for more than six decades. The moment I heard this news I was suddenly transported back to my tour guide days and began giggling again over 100 Men and a Girl jokes. (I guess at heart I’ll always be 14.) Ultimately, the more mature side of me took over and I thought a brief retrospective of this extraordinary person was in order. If you have never heard of Deanna Durbin, please allow me to introduce her. You’ll like her.

And, as this is principally an architecture blog, I will intersperse her biographical sketch with a series of Maynard L. Parker photographs of Durbin’s beautiful, but sadly now lost, Brentwood Heights estate @ 421 North Saltair Avenue, designed by the highly talented and highly regarded Alan G. Siple in 1942.

Siple Durbin 1

In 1942, The Architectural Digest did an extensive layout of the new Deanna Durbin – Vaughn Paul residence in Brentwood Heights. All photos by Maynard L. Parker.
Siple designed a charming English Colonial for Durbin.

Deanna Durbin was born Edna Mae Durbin in Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada on December 4, 1921. When she was one year old her family moved to Los Angeles where her father became involved in the stock and real estate markets. At an early age, friends and family members began to take notice of the child’s remarkable singing voice, a voice that continued to grow stronger and more resonant as she headed into her teenage years. By the time she was ten years old, her older sister Edith convinced Durbin’s parents to invest in singing lessons for their talented offspring and for the next few years Durbin took weekly lessons from a local vocal coach named Ralph Thomas.

Siple Durbin 2

Siple pulled out all the stops in designing the Durbin residence. Note the variety of materials used including brick and shingles. Lacy wrought-ironwork gives the house a New Orleans feel. The stonework on the patio is beautiful but does not lend itself well to bare feet!

In 1935, MGM announced plans to make a film based on the life of Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink and were looking for a young girl who could sing to play the legendary contralto as a child. Through Thomas, Durbin was brought to the attention of talent agent Jack Sherrill who in turn took Durbin to MGM to test for the role. The studio was suitably impressed and signed her to a six-month contract while details were worked out on the upcoming production.  Before production could get underway, however, Madame Schumann-Heink died and the project was dropped.  Now MGM found itself in a dilemma: A few months earlier they had signed another promising young singer named Judy Garland. Both Durbin and Garland were unknown and untested, and the studio realized they only needed one of them. Which one, however, was not clear. While trying to figure out what to do with the girls, the studio put them both in a short film entitled Every Sunday (1936), in which they performed a contest, with Durbin singing classical and Garland singing jazz, to draw crowds to a weekly concert in the park. The short was essentially not just a contest on film it was a test to see which girl the studio would keep. In the end, it was Garland who was chosen and Durbin’s contract was not renewed. On the surface, it appeared that Durbin’s promising young start had come to nothing, but across town events were developing at another studio that would ultimately change the course of Durbin’s life and career.

Siple Durbin 3

The Entrance Hall. All interior decorating was executed by the venerable firm of W. & J. Sloane.

Producer Joseph Pasternak had been the head of European operations for Universal Pictures until the threat of war had brought his operation to a close. Forced to return to the States, Pasternak and director Henry Koster had been given a two-year production deal by studio chief Carl Laemmle Jr.. Before they could even be set up in offices, however, Laemmle sold Universal to a syndicate of investors. The sale came at a time when the studio was struggling through a major financial crisis so serious that it was, in fact, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. To cut costs, the new owners were anxious to cancel any deals made by the previous owners and they immediately sought to nullify the Pasternak agreement. The agreement, however, could not be abrogated, and the new vice president in charge of production, Charles E. Rogers, reluctantly assigned Pasternak and Koster office space and ordered them to come up with an idea for a low-budget film.  Koster suggested the title Three Smart Girls, and from there they built a story. As it turned out, the story was the easy part. Finding the right girl was another matter altogether. As Pasternak later wrote, “We needed a twelve-year-old girl with the indefinable charm of the girl who was once rightly called America’s sweetheart. That’s all. The plain fact was, everybody told us, there was no such creature.”  After searching fruitlessly for some time, Pasternak and Koster were considering changing the story to Three Smart Boys when Rufus LeMaire, Universal’s talent scout, informed him that he had found just the right girl and brought them a print of Every Sunday. Pasternak and Koster were thrilled with both girls, but after being informed Garland wasn’t available, they readily agreed they had found their perfect girl in Deanna Durbin. Pasternak recalled that Durbin on screen, “had a sweetness without being arch or cloying; she was a natural; she was pretty; she was wholesome; and she sang beautifully with a skill and ability far beyond her years.”

Siple Durbin 4

Although you have to look to spot any books in the “Library,’ it was nonetheless quite a charming space.

The fourteen-year-old Durbin was immediately signed to a contract at $125 a week and Koster personally took it upon himself to coach her in acting lessons in the weeks prior to shooting. The production of the low-budget film generated very little interest around either the Universal lot or Hollywood in general, yet Pasternak and Koster both knew something special was in the works. It wasn’t until the studio executives saw the first rough-cut of Three Smart Girls that, they too, knew they had a real find on their hands. As a result, Rogers increased the film’s meager budget and, although it was ostensibly about three smart girls, it was obvious that one of them, Durbin, had the makings of a star and scenes were rewritten to bolster her role. The plot of the film centered around three sisters’ efforts to keep their beloved father from marrying a shameless gold digger. Along the way, Durbin managed to find time to sing “My Heart Is Singing,” “Someone to Care For Me,” and “Il Bacio.” When it went into previews in December of 1936, audience members reacted with the same delight the studio executives felt about Durbin and suddenly a buzz began around Hollywood that long-suffering Universal might have discovered a new star. During this same period, Durbin was invited to sing at a party for Universal executives and their guests. One of those in attendance was comedian Eddie Cantor whose program on NBC was one of the most popular shows on radio. Cantor was so impressed by the teenaged songstress that he invited her to be a guest on one of his upcoming programs. Her appearance reportedly generated 4,000 fan letters. Cantor brought her back again and again until she became a regular on the program at the munificent salary of $1,000 a week.

Siple Durbin 5

The living room featured a piano that was actually used regularly.

Released on New Year’s Day 1937, Three Smart Girls became the studio’s highest grossing film of the year, bringing in a desperately needed $1,600,000 to Universal’s badly depleted coffers. The film was such a success that it spawned two sequels with Durbin, Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939) and Hers To Hold (1943). In 1948, the film was remade by MGM as Three Daring Daughters with Jane Powell in the Durbin role. To capitalize on the great success of Three Smart Girls, Universal quickly launched another Pasternak/Koster/Durbin vehicle, One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), which went on to even greater success than the first film. Depression-era audiences couldn’t seem to get enough of the pretty teenager with the angelic soprano voice who solved problems for the adults around her. Over the next few years, Universal churned out a series of popular Deanna Durbin films, films that were so successful that they are credited with single-handedly lifting the entire studio out of bankruptcy. It was estimated by at least one source that, by 1938, the Durbin pictures alone were generating seventeen percent of the studio’s total gross profits.

Siple Durbin 6

The dining room.

The Deanna Durbin phenomenon generated fan clubs worldwide and also brought about a merchandising bonanza with Deanna Durbin dolls, pajamas, hats, dresses, songbooks, and other such items, which netted the actress some $100,000 a year in royalties.  From the late thirties and into the forties, Durbin’s income increased exponentially until she became the highest-salaried female in the United States, earning, at her peak, nearly $500,000 per year. In 1938 she was honored, along with Mickey Rooney, with a special “juvenile” Academy Award that was presented, “for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players, setting high standards of ability and achievement.” As Durbin continued to grow into womanhood, producer Pasternak carefully orchestrated each step and in 1939, when she received her first screen kiss (from Robert Stack) in First Love, the event made headlines the world over. Two years later, she made the transition to full adulthood on celluloid with It Started with Eve.

Siple Durbin 7

Master bedroom.

Siple Durbin 8

Master Bedroom.

1941 proved a watershed year for Durbin and it marked the beginning of the end of her unprecedented rise to stardom. That year, much to the objection of all around her, including Pasternak and Universal, she decided to get married to cameraman Vaughn Paul. That same year, Pasternak left Universal for MGM and, without his expert guidance, Universal suddenly began to flounder in knowing how to properly handle their top-rated star. Over the next few years they placed her in one misfire after another most dramatically in 1944’s Christmas Holiday. With such a cheerful title, audiences were expecting a warm holiday romp with their singing do-gooder, instead, they were shocked to find a dark and depressing film noir with Durbin appearing as a singer in a seedy nightclub and married to an escaped killer played by none other Gene Kelly. The film was a rare Durbin flop at the box office, although she personally believed it was the best acting she had ever done. Durbin’s fans were still reeling from her 1943 divorce from Vaughn Paul when she married her producer on Christmas Holiday, Felix Jackson on June 13, 1945, a man considerably older than Durbin.

Siple Durbin 9

The Recreation Room was the most charming room in the house.

Siple Durbin 10

Recreation Room.

Siple Durbin 11

Recreation Room.

Durbin continued making films for Universal for the next three years, but after the failures of Something in the Wind (1947); Up in Central Park and For the Love of Mary (both 1948) she dramatically announced, at age twenty-seven, her retirement from motion pictures. Durbin did not mourn the loss of her screen career, having never felt comfortable with all of the publicity and the constant exposure that came with worldwide stardom. In 1949, she divorced Jackson and the following year married producer Charles Henri David. With her third marriage Durbin achieved what she had secretly dreamed of during her years as an international celebrity, “to live as a nobody.” The pair moved to France, settling in the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, where she remained in blissful retirement for more than six decades.


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17 Responses to One Smart Girl – Deanna Durbin (1921-2013)

  1. Sil Adkins says:

    Thank you so much for this story. Loved the pics of her home and the backstory. As usual, wonderful job!

  2. Steven Price says:

    Architectural sidenote: The Siple house you lovingly pictured was built by Paul Trousdale and sold to Deanna Durbin. When she retired to France, she contacted Trousdale and sold the home back to him, because she was touched by him saying how much he’d always loved it. He lived there till he built his next home ( by John Elgin Woolf) in Trousdale Estates in 1958. The Trousdale/Walker family had told me it was at 666 North Saltair, which never seemed quite right — though there is a similar house at that location. So thank you, Steve, for solving another research mystery of mine — 421 makes more sense, and it really IS too bad this gracious residence survives no more.

    • Steve says:

      Hey Steven – Here’s what my notes have and it may help solve at least part of the 421/666 mix up. I do not have Paul Trousdale as either original owner or builder of 421 Saltair prior to Durbin. I have that 421 North Saltair was built by George Holstein in 1942 for Deanna Durbin and her husband Vaughn Paul. They split in 1943 but Durbin kept the house. Apparently, for tax purposes the house was deeded to Deanna’s sister Edith who’s husband Clarence, by no coincidence I am sure, was Deanna’s business manager. Deanna later claimed they had an understanding that the house was simply being held “in trust” for her. In 1945, Durbin married again and relocated to 949 Las Lomas in the Palisades. The Saltair house was put up for sale and the buyers were Paul and Marguerite Trousdale. Apparently, this sale was done without the approval of Durbin and she wound up taking not only Edith and Clarence (her now former business manager) to court but Paul and Marguerite Trousdale as well claiming the sale (@ $110,000) was way below the home’s actual value. The hapless Trousdales had no idea they had stepped into a nasty family feud, but they fought back and sued for title to the property. When the case hit the papers Trousdale was quoted as saying “I just bought a house and found myself in the midst of a family squabble.” And he added “What I didn’t like was the insinuation that my purchase of the property had been made with the intent to defraud. We just wanted a place to live, my wife and I.” The publicity led to the case being quickly and quietly settled out of court with Durbin claiming it was “all just a misunderstanding” and with the Trousdales getting full title to the property. My notes do not have Durbin ever associated with the Saltair property again after 1945-6. She lived on Las Lomas until 1948 before buying Jimmy McHugh’s former residence @ 631 North Sierra Drive in Beverly Hills and it was there that she stayed until she departed for France with Charles Henri David.

      Now, here’s the kicker – I DO have Paul Trousdale as the original owner/builder of 666 North Saltair in 1942. So here’s my theory. The Trousdale family got their story muddled when they told you the history. Plus, their charming story is far more lovely than a nasty court battle, n’est ces pas? Maybe Trousdale admired 421 Saltair from his hillside @ 666 and when the house was put up for sale in 1945 either Durbin (or more likely her sister) told him about it and hilarity ensued in court. So there’s a definite Trousdale connection to both 421 and 666, but no Durbin connection (that I could find) to 666. So where did the Trousdales come up with that lovely story? Who says history is boring? Oy!

      • Steven Price says:

        Even MORE fascinating! That’s IMMENSELY helpful, Steve — the family member who told me that actuallly is fairly advanced in age and these things are part of the somewhat-ancient past. and who knows, what may have been told over a family dinner table years ago, or volleying on a tennis court as a brag — or a supposition — may have becomed jumbled up as Truth over time. I’m inclined to believe YOU, any day!

  3. kavic says:

    What I have read about Christmas Holiday, it was actually Durbin’s forth highest grossing film to that date. It was not a box office flop. However you are correct, her fans hated it and took out their anger on the studio. They simply could not see Durbin in the role of a good girl gone bad,.

  4. Grace says:

    I can’t tell you what a joy it was to read this entry. I’m in my early thirties now, but when I was 4 years old, my uncle (the biggest fan of old Hollywood that I’ve ever encountered) sat me down and introduced me to Deanna Durbin through her films, one by one. Such began a lifelong admiration and appreciation for her talent and her films, which – taken for what they are – are a joy to watch. It’s such a pity that she hardly known, given how important she was to Universal and how famous she was world-wide in her hay day. I remember my uncle telling me the story of her saving Universal (as you recounted so well), and I could hardly believe that hardly anyone has heard of her today. She does have a very loyal and dedicated fan club in the UK (the Deanna Durbin Society), so she certainly is not forgotten. I found this blog entry when I was scouring the internet for any photos or information about where Deanna lived when she was in Hollywood (so as to share photos I discovered with my uncle who is not very internet savvy). These photos are gems, as are the details of her subsequent residences. I wondered if you knew anything about this home (location, etc) – obviously her first, or one of her first homes, as she is so young in the photos: and Thank you again for such a wonderful post!

    • Most of these has been verified by Deanna

      relating to Deanna Durbin
      631 N Sierra Dr
      Beverly Hills, California

      DATE(S): 1940s correspondence records

      5028 Encino Ave
      Encino, California

      DATE(S): mid-1940s during marriage to Felix Jackson 1944-1949

      212 W 85th Pl
      Los Angeles, California

      DATE(S): 1920s-1930s census – 1930; childhood home (b. 1922)

      1001 N Bundy Dr
      Los Angeles, California

      DATE(S): 1940s voter reg – 1946; during 1945-1949 marriage to Felix Jackson

      1974 De Mille Dr
      Los Angeles, California

      DATE(S): 1920s-1930s census – 1930, family home; street address is 5226 Linwood Drive

      5226 Linwood Dr
      Los Angeles, California

      DATE(S): 1940s 5235 sometimes incorrectly listed in sources; also listed at 1978 DeMille Drive; Linwood Drive often listed as DeMille Drive in early address records, inside of Laughlin Park

      421 N Saltair Ave
      Los Angeles, California

      DATE(S): 1940s voter reg – 1946

      1724 Vine St
      Los Angeles, California

      DATE(S): NA [Motion Pictures] Hollywood Walk of Fame Star location

      694 Amalfi Dr
      Pacific Palisades, California

      DATE(S): 1940s historical or correspondence records

      7922 Hollywood Blvd
      West Hollywood, California

      DATE(S): 1940s with Paul; voter reg – 1944

      She also stated, never lived on Hollywood Blvd. Bundy, Encino & childhood home not verified.

  5. According to Deanna(as told to me), the house “burned to the ground” She & husband Charles sold the Neauphile farm in 1990

  6. Dale vandegriff says:

    One of the first houses Deanna Durban lived in was in the Laughlin park area of Los Feliz.

    • Its still there & looks pretty old(I don’t think there were too many changes to the exterior.
      However, several years ago, the garage was in nasty fire & needed to be replaced.
      Gated community. If you want to get in, follow the gardeners, Thats how I did it!

  7. Grace says:

    James, thank you SO much for that fantastic list of Deanna’s former residences! I’ve had a great time searching (stalking) online maps. 🙂 Glad to see most of the places she called home still stand as they were when she lived in them. Nothing as sad as seeing some of the monstrosities that have been built on the sites of some of the Hollywood great’s homes (Pickfair, the Stewart home, the Clooney/Gershwin home, to name a few). Many thanks again!

  8. Grace says:

    Hi James – Steve is right, I did mean the Jimmy Stewart home on Roxbury. That’s heartbreaking about Anita Stewart’s home (what a beauty it was in it’s day). If only i had $2.9m laying around….

  9. Steve, Do you know if the Saltair home was demolished or just horribly renovated?

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