Deanna Durbin

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Deanna Durbin
Deanna Durbin.jpg
Durbin in 1944 (publicity photo for Can't Help Singing )
Edna Mae Durbin

(1921-12-04)December 4, 1921
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
DiedApril 17, 2013(2013-04-17) (aged 91)
Paris, France
OccupationActress, Singer
Years active1936–1948

Edna Mae Durbin (December 4, 1921 – April 17, 2013), [1] known professionally as Deanna Durbin, was a Canadian-born actress and singer, who moved to the USA with her family in infancy. She appeared in musical films in the 1930s and 1940s. With the technical skill and vocal range of a legitimate lyric soprano, she performed many styles from popular standards to operatic arias.


Durbin was a child actress who made her first film appearance with Judy Garland in Every Sunday (1936), and subsequently signed a contract with Universal Studios. She achieved success as the ideal teenaged daughter in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936), One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), and It Started with Eve (1941). Her work was credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy, [2] and led to Durbin being awarded the Academy Juvenile Award in 1938.

As she matured, Durbin grew dissatisfied with the girl-next-door roles assigned to her and attempted to move into sophisticated non-musical roles with film noir Christmas Holiday (1944) and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945). These films, produced by frequent collaborator and second husband Felix Jackson, were not as successful; she continued in musical roles until her retirement. Upon her retirement and divorce from Jackson in 1949, Durbin married producer-director Charles Henri David and moved to a farmhouse near Paris. She withdrew from public life, granting only one interview on her career in 1983.

Early life

Edna Mae Durbin was born on December 4, 1921, at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, the younger daughter of James Allen Durbin and his wife Ada (née Read) Durbin, who were originally from Chester, England. She had one older sister, Edith (later Mrs. Heckman, born in England, died in California).[ citation needed ] When she was an infant, her family moved from Winnipeg to Southern California, and the family became United States citizens in 1923. [3] At the age of one, Edna Mae was singing children's songs.[ citation needed ] By the time she was 10, her parents recognized that she had definite talent and enrolled her in voice lessons at the Ralph Thomas Academy. [4] Durbin soon became Thomas's prize pupil, and he showcased her talent at various local clubs and churches. [4]

Career and life

1935–1941: Early career

In early 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was planning a biographical film on the life of opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink and was having difficulty finding an actress to play the young opera singer. MGM casting director Rufus LeMaire heard about a talented young soloist performing with the Ralph Thomas Academy and called her in for an audition. Durbin sang "Il Bacio" for the studio's vocal coach, who was stunned by her "mature soprano" voice. She sang the number again for Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a six-month contract. [4] She made her first film appearance in the short Every Sunday (1936) with Judy Garland, another teenage singer-actress whose career would rival Durbin's. The film was intended as a demonstration of their talent as performers as studio executives had questioned the wisdom of casting two female singers together. Louis B. Mayer decided to sign both, but by then, Durbin's contract option had lapsed. [2]

Universal Pictures producer Joe Pasternak wished to borrow Garland from MGM, but she was unavailable. When Pasternak learned that Durbin was no longer with MGM, he instead cast her in the film. At 14 years old, Durbin signed with Universal, giving her the professional name Deanna. Her first feature-length film, Three Smart Girls (1936), was a success and established Durbin as a young star. With Pasternak producing for Universal, Durbin starred in a succession of successful musical films, including One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), [5] Mad About Music (1938), That Certain Age (1938), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), and First Love (1939)—most of which were directed by Henry Koster. [6]

Durbin also continued to pursue singing projects. In 1936, she auditioned to provide the vocals for Snow White in Disney's animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , but was rejected by Walt Disney, who said the 15-year-old Durbin's voice was "too old" for the part. [7] That same year, Cesar Sturani, the general music secretary of the Metropolitan Opera, offered Durbin an audition. She turned down his offer because she felt she needed more singing lessons. Andrés de Segurola, who was the vocal coach working with Universal Studios—himself a former Metropolitan Opera singer—believed that Durbin was a potential opera star. De Segurola was commissioned to advise the Metropolitan Opera on her progress. Also in 1936, Durbin began a radio collaboration with Eddie Cantor which lasted until 1938, when her heavy workload for Universal forced her to quit her weekly appearances. [8]

The success of Durbin's films was reported to have saved Universal from bankruptcy. [2] In 1938, she received an Academy Juvenile Award with Mickey Rooney. Producer Joe Pasternak said:

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!

Durbin continued her success with It's a Date (1940), Spring Parade (1940), and Nice Girl? (1941).

1941–1945: Attempts to expand

Durbin on the cover of Yank (1945) Deanna Durbin in Yank Magazine.jpg
Durbin on the cover of Yank (1945)

In 1941, Durbin starred in It Started with Eve (1941), her last film with Pasternak and director Henry Koster. Pasternak moved from Universal to MGM. Universal announced Durbin was to star in They Lived Alone, scheduled to be directed by Koster. However, Durbin was unhappy by the role, and that Universal had not given support to the career of her first husband assistant director Vaughn Paul, whom she had married in April 1941. Durbin turned down the role, and was suspended by the studio from October 16, 1941, to early February 1942. [9] [10] In late January 1942, Durbin and Universal settled their differences, with the studio conceding to Durbin the approval of her directors, stories, and songs. [11]

Wishing to move into more sophisticated material, They Lived Alone was retooled into The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), the World War II story of refugee children from China. The film was initially conceived without musical numbers, but Durbin finally relented to Universal's demand to include some. Durbin was also able to retool her second sequel to Three Smart Girls from Three Smart Girls Join Up to Hers to Hold (1943), revolving solely around her character. Her co-star Joseph Cotten would later speak highly of her integrity and character. [12] Durbin also dabbled in other genres, such as the romantic comedy His Butler's Sister (1943) and the musical Western Can't Help Singing (1944), her only Technicolor film, which was produced on location in southern Utah and co-starred Robert Paige. [13] The film featured some of the last melodies written by Jerome Kern.

Durbin continued her push to establish herself as a more dramatic actress with the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak and co-starring Gene Kelly. Siodmark praised Durbin's acting skills, but later recalled she was difficult as "she wanted to play a new part but flinched from looking like a tramp: she always wanted to look like nice wholesome Deanna Durbin pretending to be a tramp." [14] Although the film received mixed reviews, Durbin later called it her "only really good film". [15] The whodunit Lady on a Train (1945) also received mixed critical reviews. Most of these films had been produced by Felix Jackson, whom she married in August 1945; they welcomed their daughter, Jessica Louise, in February 1946.

1946–1949: Decline and retirement

Durbin and cinematographer William H. Daniels on set of For the Love of Mary (1948) For the Love of Mary (1948) 1.jpg
Durbin and cinematographer William H. Daniels on set of For the Love of Mary (1948)

In 1946, Durbin was the second-highest-paid woman in the United States, just behind Bette Davis,; [6] her fan club ranked as the world's largest during her active years. [16] However, while her adult dramatic roles may have been more satisfying for Durbin, it was clear her fans preferred her in light musical confections.

In 1946, Universal merged with two other companies to create Universal-International. The new regime discontinued much of Universal's familiar product and scheduled only a few musicals. Jackson left Universal in November 1946; [17] he also left Durbin in January 1947, although their separation was not announced until the following year. [18] [19] [20]

Durbin's final four pictures — I'll Be Yours (1947), Something in the Wind (1947), Up in Central Park (1948), and For the Love of Mary (1948) — all reverted to her previous musical-comedy structure. On August 22, 1948, Universal-International announced a lawsuit which sought to collect wages the studio had paid Durbin in advance. [21] Durbin settled the complaint by agreeing to star in three more pictures, including one in Paris; this did not materialize before Durbin's contract expired. She received a $200,000 ($2,300,000 in 2021) [22] severance payment, [23]

1949–2013: Retirement

Unsatisfied by her career options, Durbin chose to retire and move to Paris. When her former producer Joe Pasternak tried to dissuade her, she told him, "I can't run around being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song—the highest-paid star with the poorest material." [24] In September 1949, Durbin filed for divorce from Jackson, which was finalized in November. [19] [20]

On December 21, 1950, Durbin married French director-producer Charles Henri David, who had previously directed her in Lady on a Train. Durbin and David raised a son, Peter David (born in June 1951), as well as Durbin's daughter Jessica, on a farm outside of Paris. Durbin turned down several offers for a comeback, including a Broadway role as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady ; she later said, "I had my ticket for Paris in my pocket." [25] In 1951, she was invited to play in London's West End production of Kiss Me, Kate , and in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film version of the same in 1953, and Sigmund Romberg's operetta The Student Prince in 1954.[ citation needed ]

In 1983, film historian David Shipman was granted a rare interview by Durbin. Durbin acknowledged her dislike of the Hollywood studio system, emphasizing that she never identified herself with the public image that the media created around her. She spoke of the Deanna "persona" in the third person, and considered the film character "Deanna Durbin" to be a byproduct of her youth and not her true identity. [26] In private life, Durbin had continued to use her given name, Edna; salary figures printed annually by the Hollywood trade publications listed the actress as "Edna Mae Durbin, player". Also in the interview, she steadfastly asserted her right to privacy, something she maintained until the end of her life, declining to be profiled on websites. [27]

Durbin's husband of almost 50 years, Charles David, died in Paris on March 1, 1999. On April 30, 2013, a newsletter published by the Deanna Durbin Society reported that Durbin had died "in the past few days", quoting her son, Peter H. David, who thanked her admirers for respecting her privacy. No other details were given. [6] According to the Social Security Death Index (under the name Edna M. David), she died on April 17, 2013 [1] [28] in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. [29]


Deanna Durbin has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1722 Vine Street. She left her hand and footprints in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre on February 7, 1938. Durbin was well known in Winnipeg, Manitoba (her place of birth), as "Winnipeg's Golden Girl" (a reference to one of the city's most famous landmarks, the statue Golden Boy atop the Manitoba Legislative Building).

Frank Tashlin's Warner Bros. cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (1937) contains a turtle caricature of Deanna Durbin called "Deanna Terrapin". An unnamed caricature of Durbin also appeared in the Warner Brother's cartoon "Malibu Beach Party" (1940).

Durbin figures prominently in the 1963 Ray Bradbury short story "The Anthem Sprinters" (collected in The Machineries of Joy ). Durbin's singing is featured in Alistair MacLean's 1955 novel HMS Ulysses , being broadcast over the wartime ship's internal communication system. She was also referenced in Richard Brautigan's novel Trout Fishing in America (1967), when the narrator claims to have seen one of her movies seven times, but cannot recall which one. [30]

In song, 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." She is also referenced in the Glenn Miller WWII novelty song "Peggy the Pin-up Girl". Interestingly, the lyrics pair her name with her first co-star Judy Garland: "Even a voice that's so disturbin' / Like Judy Garland or Miss Durbin / Can't compare to my pin-up queen". In Philippe Mora's film The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), Christopher Lee sings a song called "Name Your Poison", written by Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley, which has the line, "Think of young Deanna Durbin / And how she sang on rum and bourbon."

Anne Frank was a fan of Durbin, and pasted two photos of her on the wall in the family's hideout; the photos are still on the wall today. Winston Churchill was also a fan of Durbin, screening her films "on celebratory wartime occasions". [31] Russian cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich cites Durbin in the mid-1980s 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 to recreate, to approach her purity." [32] Indian-Bengali film director Satyajit Ray, in his acceptance speech for an Oscar (Honorary – Lifetime Achievement) in 1992, mentioned Deanna Durbin as the only one of the three cinema personalities he recalled writing to when young who had acknowledged his fan letter with a reply. (The other two were Ginger Rogers and Billy Wilder.)


Short subjects
1936 Every Sunday EdnaCo-starring Judy Garland
1939For Auld Lang Syne: No. 4Herself
1941A Friend IndeedHerselfFor the American Red Cross
1943 Show Business at War Herself
1944Road to VictoryHerselfA promotional film to support war bonds; also known as The Shining Future
Feature films
1936 Three Smart Girls Penelope "Penny" CraigProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1937 One Hundred Men and a Girl Patricia "Patsy" CardwellProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1938 Mad About Music Gloria HarkinsonProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Norman Taurog
That Certain Age Alice FullertonProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Edward Ludwig
1939 Three Smart Girls Grow Up Penelope "Penny" CraigProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
First Love Constance "Connie" HardingProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1940 It's a Date Pamela DrakeProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by William A. Seiter
A short subject, Gems of Song, was excerpted from this feature in 1949.
Spring Parade Ilonka TolnayProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1941 Nice Girl? Jane "Pinky" DanaProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by William A. Seiter
It Started with Eve Anne TerryProduced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1943 The Amazing Mrs. Holliday Ruth Kirke HollidayProduced and directed by Bruce Manning (replacing Jean Renoir)
Hers to Hold Penelope "Penny" CraigProduced by Felix Jackson, directed by Frank Ryan
His Butler's Sister Ann CarterProduced by Felix Jackson, directed by Frank Borzage
1944 Christmas Holiday Jackie Lamont / Abigail MartinProduced by Felix Jackson, directed by Robert Siodmak
Can't Help Singing Caroline FrostProduced by Felix Jackson, directed by Frank Ryan
Durbin's only film in Technicolor
1945 Lady on a Train Nikki Collins / Margo MartinProduced by Felix Jackson, directed by Charles David
1946 Because of Him Kim WalkerProduced by Felix Jackson, directed by Richard Wallace
1947 I'll Be Yours Louise GinglebusherProduced by Felix Jackson, directed by William A Seiter
Something in the Wind Mary CollinsProduced by Joseph Sistrom, directed by Irving Pichel
1948 Up in Central Park Rosie MooreProduced by Karl Tunberg, directed by William A. Seiter
For the Love of Mary Mary Peppertree(final film role) Produced by Robert Arthur directed by Frederick de Cordova

Box office ranking


Between December 15, 1936, and July 22, 1947, Deanna Durbin recorded 50 tunes for Decca Records. While often re-creating her movie songs for commercial release, Durbin also covered independent standards, like "Kiss Me Again", "My Hero", "Annie Laurie", "Poor Butterfly", "Love's Old Sweet Song" and "God Bless America".

Radio appearances

1943Screen Guild TheatreShadow Of A DoubtRef.
1938 Lux Radio Theatre Mad About Music [33]
1943 The Jack Benny Program
1948 Screen Guild Players Up in Central Park [34]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Three Smart Girls</i> 1936 film by Henry Koster

Three Smart Girls is a 1936 American musical comedy film directed by Henry Koster and starring Barbara Read, Nan Grey, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Milland. The film's screenplay was written by Adele Comandini and Austin Parker, and is about three sisters who travel to New York City to prevent their father from remarrying. The three plot to bring their divorced parents back together again.

<i>One Hundred Men and a Girl</i> 1937 film by Henry Koster

One Hundred Men and a Girl is a 1937 American musical comedy film directed by Henry Koster and starring Deanna Durbin and the maestro Leopold Stokowski. Written by Charles Kenyon, Bruce Manning, and James Mulhauser from a story by Hanns Kräly, the film is about the daughter of a struggling musician who forms a symphony orchestra consisting of his unemployed friends. Through persistence, charm, and a few misunderstandings, they are able to get famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to lead them in a concert, which leads to a radio contract. One Hundred Men and a Girl was the first of two motion pictures featuring Leopold Stokowski, and is also one of the films for which Durbin is best remembered as an actress and a singer.

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<i>Cant Help Singing</i> 1944 film by Lewis R. Foster, Frank Ryan

Can't Help Singing is a 1944 American musical Western film directed by Frank Ryan and starring Deanna Durbin, Robert Paige, and Akim Tamiroff. Based on a story by John D. Klorer and Leo Townsend, the film is about a senator's daughter who follows her boyfriend West in the days of the California gold rush. Durbin's only Technicolor film, Can't Help Singing was produced by Felix Jackson and scored by Jerome Kern with lyrics by E. Y. Harburg.

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<i>Mad About Music</i> 1938 film by Norman Taurog, Bruce Manning, Joe Pasternak

Mad About Music is a 1938 American musical film directed by Norman Taurog and starring Deanna Durbin, Herbert Marshall, and Gail Patrick. Based on a story by Marcella Burke and Frederick Kohner, the film is about a girl at an exclusive boarding school who invents an exciting father. When her schoolmates doubt his existence, she has to produce him. Mad About Music received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Music, and Best Original Story.

<i>It Started with Eve</i> 1941 film by Norman Krasna, Henry Koster, Joe Pasternak

It Started with Eve is a 1941 American musical romantic comedy film directed by Henry Koster and starring Deanna Durbin, Robert Cummings, and Charles Laughton. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Music Score. The film is considered by some critics to be Durbin's best film, and the last in which she worked with the producer and director who groomed her for stardom. It Started with Eve was remade in 1964 as I'd Rather Be Rich.

<i>Ill Be Yours</i> 1947 film by William A. Seiter

I'll Be Yours is a 1947 American musical comedy film directed by William A. Seiter and starring Deanna Durbin. Based on the play A jó tündér by Ferenc Molnár, the film is about a small-town girl who tells a fib to a wealthy businessman, which then creates complications. The play had earlier been adapted for the 1935 film The Good Fairy by Preston Sturges.

<i>First Love</i> (1939 film) 1939 American musical film by Henry Koster

First Love is a 1939 American musical film directed by Henry Koster and starring Deanna Durbin. Based on the fairy tale Cinderella, the film is about an orphan who is sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle after graduating from boarding school. Her life is made difficult by her snobby cousin who arranges that she stay home while the rest of the family attends a major social ball. With the help of her uncle, she makes it to the ball, where she meets and falls in love with her cousin's boyfriend. The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Music.

<i>Its a Date</i> 1940 film by William A. Seiter

It's a Date is a 1940 American musical film directed by William A. Seiter and starring Deanna Durbin, Kay Francis, and Walter Pidgeon. Based on a story by Jane Hall, Frederick Kohner, and Ralph Block, the film is about an aspiring actress who is offered the lead in a major new play, but discovers that her mother, a more experienced actress, was hoping to get the same part. Their lives are complicated further when they both get involved with the same man. Distributed by Universal Pictures, It's a Date was remade in 1950 as Nancy Goes to Rio.

<i>Nice Girl?</i> 1941 film

Nice Girl? is a 1941 American musical film directed by William A. Seiter, and starring Deanna Durbin, Franchot Tone, Walter Brennan, Robert Stack, and Robert Benchley. Based on the play Nice Girl? by Phyllis Duganne, the film is about a young girl who finds herself attracted to one of her father's business partners who comes to town to give her father a scholarship for his dietary studies.

<i>The Amazing Mrs. Holliday</i> 1943 film by Jean Renoir, Bruce Manning

The Amazing Mrs. Holliday is a 1943 American comedy drama film produced and directed by Bruce Manning and starring Deanna Durbin, Edmond O'Brien, and Barry Fitzgerald.

<i>Something in the Wind</i> 1947 film by Irving Pichel

Something in the Wind is a 1947 American musical comedy film directed by Irving Pichel and starring Deanna Durbin, Donald O'Connor, and John Dall.

<i>For the Love of Mary</i> 1948 film by Frederick de Cordova

For the Love of Mary is a 1948 American romantic comedy film directed by Frederick de Cordova and starring Deanna Durbin, Edmond O'Brien, Don Taylor, and Jeffrey Lynn. Written by Oscar Brodney, the film is about a young woman who takes a job at the White House as a switchboard operator and soon receives help with her love life from Supreme Court justices and the President of the United States. For the Love of Mary was the last film by Deanna Durbin, who withdrew from the entertainment business the following year to live a private life in France.

Felix Jackson was a German-born American screenwriter and film producer.

<i>Hers to Hold</i> 1943 film by Frank Ryan

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