(This, the Siren's tribute to the admirable Deanna Durbin, combines, updates and elaborates on several previous pieces.)
A curly-haired teen stands on a set, surrounded by adoring middle-aged men. She clasps her hands, and the bright eyes look upward as though asking an archangel to give her the downbeat. She opens her mouth, and out comes a soprano you'd associate with a woman twice her age and size.
This is the image of Deanna Durbin, who has died at age 91: winsome, wholesome, able to hit high C without creasing a single dress ruffle. That hasn't exactly kept her name evergreen with modern critics, who react to wholesome as Frankenstein did to fire.
“She was boring, and therefore bored, in movies,” once wrote Richard Brody of Durbin, Universal’s great star for a span that lasted from Three Smart Girls in 1936 through For the Love of Mary in 1949. But really, this will not do. You can accuse her of being tricksy, of lacking truthful emotion on screen. Like many child stars she developed a highly technical mode of acting; Jean Renoir, when he walked off the Durbin vehicle The Amazing Mrs Holliday, said she “was unable to escape from the style that made her famous.” That style, however, included excellent comic timing, an ability to seem fresh no matter how contrived the plot, and striking charisma.
Boring she was not.
Today, the best-known Durbin fact concerns not her films, but her fate. Charles David, who directed her in Lady on a Train in 1945, became her third husband in 1950, after Durbin made him promise to give her what she wanted: "the life of nobody."
Like that other immortal Hollywood walkout, Greta Garbo, Durbin's motivations may have included an ability to read the handwriting on the wall. Before 1949's For the Love of Mary was released, Universal, the studio that Deanna Durbin films once saved from bankruptcy, announced they were ending her contract due to "increasing public apathy." One imagines Durbin snapping, "Likewise, buddy."
She was the highest-paid woman star in Hollywood in 1945 and 1947; she made good investments, and her retirement was comfortable. It needed to be, as it lasted 64 years. When Durbin said goodbye to the movies, it was forever.
David, having kept his promise to his wife, died in 1999. In the early 1970s it was reported that Durbin was living in France, and that she still enjoyed singing. In 1980, tired of reading rumors that she had grown enormously fat in retirement, Durbin released a picture of herself, looking trim and polished, holding up a current issue of Life. She gave an interview to film historian David Shipman in 1983. Otherwise, Durbin refused to talk publicly to the press or anyone else about her Hollywood career, although she's said to have sent pictures to fans. John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows, who calls Durbin his favorite actress along with Norma Shearer, writes that he received a "friendly" note from her dated 1/30/86. That's more than almost anybody ever got from Garbo. Durbin wasn't a hermit, it seems. She wasn't bitter. She was just through.
Three Smart Girls (Henry Koster, 1936) was Durbin’s first starring role for Universal, after MGM signed her for a brief period but failed to exploit her. (The probably apocryphal legend goes that Louis B. Mayer saw a musical short subject Durbin made with Judy Garland and told his staff, "Drop the fat one"--meaning Garland. Durbin was cut instead, and wound up at Universal.) Three Smart Girls is a good-natured precursor to The Parent Trap. It's another movie that tells children of divorce, "You can get Mommy and Daddy back together! All you gotta do is reveal Daddy's girlfriend for the gold-digging tramp she is."
Durbin is the youngest of the three daughters engaged in these shenanigans, and by far the most interesting. She is occasionally too cute, too overemphatic, but when she’s onscreen, everything else recedes. And when Durbin’s gone, and she’s offscreen more than you’d expect, you miss her, despite Ray Milland’s best efforts as the heir to an Australian banking fortune. She has only three songs, the first sung in a boat sailing on a Swiss lake, the second to her father (Charles Winninger) as she’s being tucked into bed. Her voice is lovely, but neither number is a standout.
The third is. Durbin is in a police station, trying to convince the police officer in charge that she’s a Metropolitan Opera star. (If you’re the sort who insists on knowing the plot machinations that got her into that predicament, this movie probably isn’t for you.) She sings Luigi Arditi’s “Il Bacio” to the captain and two cops, and gradually the room fills with other uniformed men, all listening. By the time a man being hauled to the drunk tank tries to stop and get a listen, too, Durbin has become more than the main reason to watch the movie. She’s a star.
She was about 15 when Three Smart Girls came out, and though she's often described as a child star, her little-girl years were already numbered. She made the transition to adult roles--admittedly dulcet, charming adult roles--without much trouble, receiving her first screen kiss from Robert Stack in First Love in 1939. Stack remembered her as "completely self-contained, courteous, private, almost aloof off-camera." On camera, her rendition of "One Fine Day" from Madame Butterfly brought both him and the crew to tears. But even in 1939, Durbin wasn't eager to stick around the studio. Stack recalled that "Deanna's penchant for leaving the set after her close-ups led to my first love scene with a blackboard."
Durbin's IMDB profile claims she was Winston Churchill's favorite actress, and that he screened One Hundred Men and a Girl after World War II victories by way of celebration. (Maybe. I have also read that Madeleine Carroll was his favorite actress, and elsewhere I was informed That Hamilton Woman was his favorite movie.) In the early 1940s, though, with or without Winston Churchill's approval, Durbin movies continued to rake it in.
The first Durbin movie the Siren ever saw was from the star's peak years: It Started With Eve. This spun-sugar, silly, irresistible 1941 comedy, directed again by Henry Koster, made the Siren a fan ever after. Charles Laughton plays Jonathan Reynolds, some sort of tycoon who's on his deathbed as the film opens. Robert Cummings, Reynolds' devoted but somewhat feckless son, wants to bring his fiancee to meet the old man, but the fiancee is out shopping and can't be found.
Since Laughton could cross the great divide at any moment, Cummings grabs a hat-check girl (Durbin) and drags her to the family mansion to pose as the absent betrothed. Well, one dose of Durbin is all the old man needed, and he recovers. The charade continues due to the fear that Laughton won't survive the shock of realizing his future daughter-in-law is really skinny Margaret Tallichet, who probably couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. Durbin, on the other hand, can sing up a storm and dreams of performing at the Met. Will she get a chance to sing for Leopold Stokowski and marry the rich son? Or is it back to the hat-check counter for her? (Take a wild guess.)
The great Laughton's scenes with Durbin are the funniest ones, and they obviously enjoyed each other. (This fan site says they stayed friends until Laughton's death in 1962.) The chief flaw is that Durbin's rapport with Laughton is much greater than with her supposed love interest. It isn't even that she and Robert Cummings lack chemistry, it's that they barely have enough screen time to get acquainted.
Still, the script was by Norman Krasna and Leo Townsend, and it has the same verve Krasna showed in Wife vs. Secretary and Bachelor Mother. When the doctor finds a forbidden cigar in Laughton's room, Durbin says "Don't look at me, I smoke a pipe." Cummings visits Durbin in her cluttered walk-up and remarks, with no conviction whatever, that it's a nice place. She responds, "Uh-huh. On a clear day you can see right across it."
It Started With Eve, and Durbin herself, always make the Siren wistful for the golden age of American middlebrow culture. Exact dates for this vanished era depend upon which old fogey you're reading, but Durbin singing a pop version of the waltz from Sleeping Beauty is a perfect example. She belonged to a time when educated people were expected to cultivate a taste for classical music, and that music permeates films from the 1930s all the way through the 1940s. Leopold Stokowski and Jascha Heifetz are name-checked in Eve, and the audience would have recognized the names, even the faces, as quickly as they'd have spotted Benny Goodman.
As that era receded, the sight of a pretty young woman singing opera's greatest hits became quaint, and so did Durbin's films. The voice, which made her a star, later made her a relic.
The restlessness set in. By the time she made Lady on a Train, in 1945, she had already tried, and failed, to alter her typecasting with Robert Siodmak’s fervidly sexed-up noir, Christmas Holiday (1944).
Nowadays this is the Durbin movie to cite approvingly, if you are a hip cinephile type, and it is easy to see why. Aside from the kind of auteurist cred that you just don't get from Henry Koster, Christmas Holiday is impeccably twisted. Siodmak and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz take every last one of the fans' expectations, and back over them with a Mack truck. Erstwhile maiden Durbin shows up about 15 minutes in, wearing a black halter gown cut from here to eternity in her role as a barely disguised prostitute. Gene Kelly plays a psychopath, "mother-fixated" which, as David Ehrenstein points out, once was code for homosexual--as if all the delicate talk of Kelly's problems and his mother's hopes that marriage will "fix" him weren't tipoff enough.
The "holiday" of the title is soldier Charlie's (Dean Harens) last leave before heading for the battlefield. Charlie is on his way home, quite possibly with plans to kill the fiancee who's married another guy. Christmas comes into play at a gleaming, moving midnight mass where Deanna breaks down into sobs at the intonation of "mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." Durbin also sings Irving Berlin's exquisitely romantic "Always" like a death march.
The narrative structure swerves around even more than Mankiewicz's screenplay for Citizen Kane. The first flashback shows the wreck of Durbin's marriage and the next shows its beginnings, then we leap back again to show the consequences. The Siren's favorite moments are the sequences on the staircase of the New Orleans mansion Durbin is sharing with Gene Kelly and dear old mom, Gale Sondergaard. As Durbin cleans house in whistle-while-you-work style, chirping up and down the stairs and peering in the window, she gradually realizes that Sondergaard is concealing a murder for Kelly.
It's a real poisoned candy-cane of a movie, and therefore wonderful, but the Siren eventually began to wonder if the whole thing was a deliberate attempt to alienate everyone, it is that perverse. It's never been on video and--go figure--it never became a holiday TV staple alongside The Littlest Angel and Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, to name two that bring the Siren to what Ehrenstein calls the true holiday spirit of "suicidal despair."
Durbin must have had some despair herself. Against all expectations, audiences dug the new her. Christmas Holiday made money. Ticket buyers were fine with a slutty-but-repentant Durbin; critics, not so much. ("Imagine a sweet school girl performing the role of Sadie Thompson in Rain!" protested Bosley Crowther.) Sometimes Hollywood's adherence to the tried and true defies not only logic, but its own box-office results. Universal scurried back to the old formulas. By most accounts, it was at this point that Durbin lost whatever interest she'd had in "that asshole business."
Despite Durbin's increasing distaste for her persona and her career, Lady on a Train is delightful. Usually described as a whodunit, it’s more of a farce, the presence of Edward Everett Horton being a huge tipoff. Durbin plays Nikki Collins, a San Francisco heiress who witnesses a murder as her train pulls into Grand Central. With the kind of logic common to Durbin plots, Nikki drafts her favorite mystery author (David Bruce) to help her track down the killer. This is a movie where a single conk on the head can knock a man out cold, only to have him revive minutes later, perfectly able to say something funny. Dan Duryea gets to be menacing and Ralph Bellamy shows up to fail at getting the girl. (Bellamy also has a line toward the end that’s as clear an incest implication as I’ve heard in any movie from that era, and that was, I must say, unexpected.)
Charles David’s direction is able, at times even surprising. The best visual moments include a noirish take on Durbin’s singing of "Night and Day," where’s she shot through a net, and an equally noir-looking scene where Duryea chases Durbin through a shipyard’s storage area, the hills of grain looking even more dangerous than Duryea.
Also interesting, and deeply strange, is the scene where Durbin sings “Silent Night” on the telephone (this is another Christmas-set movie). She lays down on the bed, her hair fanning out on the covers, and sings into the telephone, her expression and the lighting and framing no less romantic than Alice Faye singing “You’ll Never Know” on the phone in Hello, Frisco, Hello. The weird part isn't that the character is crooning a hymn; it’s that her father's on the other end of the line.
Elsewhere Durbin plays with wit and spontaneity, whether she’s shushing a pair of mastiffs, posing as a nightclub singer or handing Horton a ice bucket for a black eye he got while trying to keep her in line. She never looked prettier, either; her future husband shoots her like a man who knew what kind of a jackpot he'd hit.
Deanna Durbin once said her screen persona "never had any similarity to me, not even coincidentally." Perhaps. Post-retirement, no writer ever got close enough to her to find out. The Shipman interview does suggest that the serene self-confidence of Durbin’s characters was consistent with her personality off-screen. The Siren would love to believe that the poised, vivacious woman in Lady on a Train was some part of Durbin herself, the part that decided life away from Hollywood would, after all, be a happier ending.
(The pictures of Durbin in pajamas with future husband Charles David, on the set of Christmas Holiday with Robert See-odd-mack and the final shot are all from Deanna Durbin Devotees. There are many who will always love her.)