Happy 88th birthday to Deanna Durbin! As a teenage singing star in the thirties she saved Universal studios from bankruptcy with her charming screen debut in Three Smart Girls (1936). Over the next twelve years, she starred in twenty more movies, most of them as enormously successful. She even won a special juvenile Academy Award in 1938.
However, disillusionment with the studio system and frustration over typecasting drove Durbin to walk away from it all at age twenty-seven. She married director Charles David (her third husband) on the condition that he would whisk her away to an anonymous life. He kept his promise, and she has lived quietly in rural France since her retirement from the screen in the late forties (David passed in 1999).
Durbin’s clear, warm and artless vocal style not only pleased her adoring fans, but was also influential to fellow artists, including several celebrated opera stars. In addition to her astonishing voice, she also had solid acting skills and a flair for comedy.
I found it so hard to pick my favorite Durbin movies for this tribute—so I may be back with a second part very soon. I’ll just throw out a few favorites for now. Here are some great movies, starring an amazing woman:
First Love (1939)
In this fast-moving, modern Cinderella story, Durbin is an orphan who charms her “wicked” cousin’s boyfriend. Far from being a place holder between songs, the script for this musical romance is sharp and funny. I particularly liked the catty banter between two socialites in a stable scene early in the movie. The fairy-tale moments also add to the fun. There’s a nice effect at a ball where all the dancers seem to disappear, demonstrating beautifully how a pair of lovers only have eyes for each other. Here’s Durbin singing her best number from First Love, the famous aria from Madame Butterfly (translated as One Fine Day). It’s hard to believe she was only seventeen here:
Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)
Though I found Durbin charming in Three Smart Girls (1936), her first big role, I enjoyed this lively sequel even more. The action movies at a pleasantly zippy pace and the performers, including Durbin, approach their lines with great comic timing. I was willing, and maybe even eager to accept the silly boyfriend-swapping plot because everyone looked like they were having so much fun.
It Started With Eve (1941)
After watching a dozen Deanna Durbin movies, the only leading man I can remember is Charles Laughton. While he was never Durbin's lover in the two movies they made together, she never had better chemistry with or showed more affection for another man onscreen. In this particular movie I was actually surprised when she confessed she had fallen in love with Laughton’s son. I knew the plot was going that way, but it didn’t make sense! They hardly seemed to have a chance to get to know each other, while she and Laughton had established a deep bond demonstrated by scenes like this one, where they tear up the dance floor in a nightclub:
Lady on a Train (1945)
In this murder mystery/comedy/musical near the end of her career, Durbin hoped to move away from her perky Ms. Fixit persona. Audiences weren’t thrilled by the change, though they did make the movie a success. There actually isn’t too much different about her here, and she still plays Ms. Fixit--just in a darker story. However, while Durbin still has the wholesome aura about her, she does crank up the sex appeal. There are a few good songs tucked into all the intrigue, and her goofy romance with a mystery novelist is one of the few that stuck in my memory after the last scene.
You may have noticed that I didn’t write much about Durbin’s singing in these movies. Well, I had a heck of a time even trying to describe how her amazing voice elevates the often forgettable tunes she sings. I’ve never been particularly fond of opera-style singing or sopranos, but since I’ve seen her movies, she is my favorite movie singer—no contest. If you haven’t seen a Deanna Durbin movie, give one a try, you are in for a treat.
Update: Take a look at Millie's wonderfully personal Deanna Durbin tribute at Classics Forever.