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Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin on the cover of
Yank Magazine, January 1945.
Born Edna Mae Durbin
December 4, 1921 (1921-12-04) (age 88)
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Years active 19361948
Spouse(s) Vaughn Paul (1941–1943)
Felix Jackson (1945–1949)
Charles David (1950–1999)

Deanna Durbin (born December 4, 1921) is a Canadian singer and actress, who appeared in a number of musical films in 1930s and 1940s singing standards as well as operatic arias.

Durbin made her first film appearance in 1936 with Judy Garland in Every Sunday, and subsequently signed a contract with Universal Studios. Her success in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936) was credited[1] with saving the studio from bankruptcy and in 1938, Durbin was awarded the Academy Juvenile Award.

By the mid 1940s, Durbin had grown dissatisfied with the adolescent roles assigned to her, and attempted to portray a more mature and sophisticated style, but the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944) and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945) were not as successful as her musical films. Her dissatisfaction with Hollywood led to her early departure from the limelight and retirement from acting in 1948.

Durbin married film director Charles David in 1950 and following her marriage moved to a farmhouse in the outskirts of Paris. Since then she has withdrawn from public life.


Early life

Born Edna Mae Durbin at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, she adopted the professional name Deanna at the beginning of her career. Her parents, James and Ada Durbin, were immigrants from Lancashire, England. She had an older sister named Edith, who recognized Deanna's musical talents at an early age and helped Deanna to take singing lessons at Ralph Thomas Academy. This led to her discovery by MGM in 1935. In late 1936, Cesar Sturani, who was the General Music Secretary of the Metropolitan Opera, offered Deanna Durbin an audition. Durbin turned down his request because she felt she needed more singing lessons. Andrés de Segurola, who was the vocal coach working with Universal Studios (and himself a former Metropolitan Opera singer), believed that Deanna Durbin had an excellent opportunity to become an opera star. Andrés de Segurola had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to watch her progress carefully and keep them advised. Durbin started collaboration with Eddie Cantor's radio show in 1935. This collaboration lasted until 1938 when her heavy workload for Universal Studios made it imperative for Durbin to discontinue her weekly appearances on Eddie Cantor's radio show. [2]


Durbin signed a contract with MGM in 1935 and made her first film appearance in a short subject, Every Sunday (1936), with another contractee, Judy Garland. The film was to serve as an extended screen test for the pair as studio executives were questioning the wisdom of having two female singers on the roster. Ultimately Louis B. Mayer decreed that both girls would be kept, but by the time that decision was made Durbin's contract option had elapsed.[3]

Durbin was quickly signed to a contract with Universal Studios and made her first feature-length film Three Smart Girls in 1936. The huge success of her films was reported to have saved the studio from bankruptcy.[4] In 1938 she received a special Academy Juvenile Award, along with Mickey Rooney. Such was Durbin's international fame and popularity that diarist Anne Frank pasted her 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, and was pointed out by Frank's friend Hannah Pick-Goslar in the documentary film Anne Frank Remembered.

Joe Pasternak who produced many of the early Deanna Durbin movies said about her:

"Deanna's genius had to be unfolded, but it was hers and hers alone, always has been, always will be, and no one can take credit for discovering her. You can't hide that kind of light under a bushel. You just can't, no matter how hard you try!"

In 1936, Durbin auditioned to provide the vocals for Snow White in Disney's animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but was ultimately rejected by Walt Disney, who declared the 15 year old Durbin's voice "too old" for the part.[5]

Durbin is perhaps best known for her singing voice—a voice described variously as light but full, sweet, unaffected and artless. With the technical skill and vocal range of a legitimate lyric soprano, she performed everything from popular standards to operatic arias. Dame Sister Mary Leo in New Zealand was so taken with Durbin's technique that she trained all her students to sing in this way. Sister Mary Leo produced a large number of famous sopranos including Dames Malvina Major and Kiri Te Kanawa, all of whom were said to sound like her.

The Russian cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich in a late 1980s interview cited Deanna as one of his most important musical influences, stating: "She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try and recreate, to approach her purity." [6]

Durbin was the heroine of two 1941 novels, Deanna Durbin and the Adventure of Blue Valley and Deanna Durbin and the Feather of Flame, both written by Kathryn Heisenfelt and published by Whitman Publishing Company. "The heroine has the same name and appearance as the famous actress but has no connection ... it is as though the famous actress has stepped into an alternate reality in which she is an ordinary person." The stories were probably written for a young teenage audience and are reminiscent of the adventures of Nancy Drew. They are part of a series known as "Whitman Authorized Editions", 16 books published between 1941-1947 that featured a film actress as heroine.[7]

The star-making five-year association of Deanna Durbin, producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster ended following the film "It Started With Eve" in 1941. After Pasternak moved from Universal to MGM, Durbin went on suspension between October 16, 1941 and early February 1942 for refusing to appear in "They Lived Alone," planned to be directed by Koster. Ultimately, the project was canceled when Durbin and Universal settled their differences. In the agreement, Universal conceded to Durbin the approval of her directors, stories and songs. [8]

Durbin married an assistant director, Vaughn Paul, in 1941 and they were divorced in 1943. Her second marriage, to film writer-producer-actor Felix Jackson in 1945, produced a daughter, Jessica Louise Jackson, and ended in divorce in 1949.

In private life, Durbin continued to use her given name; salary figures printed annually by the Hollywood trade publications listed the actress as "Edna Mae Durbin, player." Her studio continued to cast her in musicals, and filmed two sequels to her original success, Three Smart Girls. The second sequel was a wartime story called Three Smart Girls Join Up, but Durbin issued a press release announcing that she was no longer inclined to participate in these team efforts and was now performing as a solo artist. The Three Smart Girls Join Up title was changed to Hers to Hold.

Joseph Cotten, who played alongside Deanna Durbin in wartime drama "Hers to Hold", praised her integrity and character in his autobiography. [9]

She made her only film in Technicolor in 1944, Can't Help Singing, featuring some of the last songs written by Jerome Kern. A musical comedy in a Western setting, this production was filmed mostly on location in southern Utah. Her co-star was Robert Paige, who is better known for his work in television dramas in the 1950s.[10]

Durbin then tried to assume a more sophisticated film persona in such films as the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944) and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945), but the public preferred her in light musicals. In 1946, her employers merged with two other companies to create Universal-International, and the new regime discontinued much of Universal's familiar product and scheduled only a few musicals. Durbin stayed on for another four pictures: two released in 1947 and two more in 1948. Her new bosses sued her for wages they had paid in advance, but Durbin settled the suit amicably by agreeing to make three more pictures, including one to be filmed on location in Paris.

Personal life

On December 21, 1950, in Paris, she married Charles David, who had directed her in Lady on a Train. Durbin and David raised two children: Jessica (from her second marriage to Felix Jackson) and Peter (from her union with David). Over the years, Durbin resisted numerous offers to perform again, including two film proposals by MGM in 1953 -- to star in the screen version of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate (1953), and to costar with Mario Lanza in The Student Prince (1954). She granted only one interview in 1983, to film historian David Shipman, steadfastly asserting her right to privacy. She maintains that privacy today, declining to be profiled on Internet websites.[11]

However, she made it known that she did not like the Hollywood studio system and decided to retire. Durbin has emphasized that she does not and never did identify herself with the persona that the media created around her. She speaks of the Deanna persona in third person and considers the movie character Deanna Durbin as a by-product of her youth and not her true self. [12] Her husband, director Charles David, died in Paris on March 1, 1999.


Deanna Durbin has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1722 Vine Street.

Frank Tashlin's 1937 Warner Bros. cartoon The Woods are Full of Cuckoos contains an avian caricature of Deanna Durbin called "Deanna Terrapin".

Durbin's name found its way into the introduction to a song written by satirical writer Tom Lehrer in 1965. Prior to singing "Whatever Became of Hubert?", Lehrer said that Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been relegated to "those where-are-they-now columns: Whatever became of Deanna Durbin, and Hubert Humphrey, and so on."

Pop Culture

Deanna Durbin is mentioned in the film, The Return of Captain Invincible, in a novelty song sung by Christopher Lee.


Year Film Role Other notes
1936 Every Sunday Edna short subject (opposite Judy Garland)
Three Smart Girls Penelope "Penny" Craig Academy Juvenile Award
1937 One Hundred Men and a Girl Patricia Cardwell
1938 Mad About Music Gloria Harkinson
That Certain Age Alice Fullerton
1939 Three Smart Girls Grow Up Penny Craig
For Auld Lang Syne: No. 4 Herself short subject
First Love Constance "Connie" Harding
1940 It's a Date Pamela Drake (a short subject, Gems of Song, was excerpted from this feature in 1949)
Spring Parade Ilonka Tolnay
1941 Nice Girl? Jane "Pinky" Dana
A Friend Indeed Herself short subject for the American Red Cross
It Started with Eve Anne Terry
1943 The Amazing Mrs. Holliday Ruth Kirke Holliday
Show Business at War Herself short subject
Hers to Hold Penny Craig
His Butler's Sister Ann Carter
1944 Road to Victory Herself short subject
Christmas Holiday Jackie Lamont/Abigail Martin
Can't Help Singing Caroline Frost her only film in Technicolor
1945 Lady on a Train Nikki Collins/Margo Martin
1946 Because of Him Kim Walker
1947 I'll Be Yours Louise Ginglebusher
Something in the Wind Mary Collins
1948 Up in Central Park Rosie Moore
For the Love of Mary Mary Peppertree


  1. ^ Clarke, Gerald (2001). Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. New York: Random House. ISBN 0375503781.
  2. ^ Interview with David Shipman, 1983
  3. ^ Clarke, Gerald (2001). Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. New York: Random House. ISBN 0375503781.  
  4. ^ Clarke 76
  5. ^ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, (1937), Walt Disney, Walt Disney Studios, (2008).
  6. ^ "The Song of Slava", The Washington Post, 1983
  7. ^ Whitman Authorized Editions for Girls, accessed September 10, 2009
  8. ^ "Some Hollywood Highlights" by Thomas F. Brady, The New York Times, February 8, 1942
  9. ^ Cotten, Joseph: Vanity Will Get You Somewhere: An Autobiography by Joseph Cotten (Avon Books (Mm) (July 1988), ISBN 0380705346 ISBN 978-0380705344
  10. ^ Bob Dorian on American Movie Classics
  11. ^ San Francisco Chronicle profile
  12. ^ Private letter to the film historian and critic William Everson in the late 1970s

External links

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