Bar 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.