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Deanna Durbin
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December 4, 1921

Early life

Born Edna Mae Durbin at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, she was given the professional name Deanna at the beginning of her association with Universal Studios in 1936, when she was still 14 years old. Her parents, James and Ada Durbin, were immigrants from Lancashire, England who would become U.S. citizens after moving their family from Winnipeg to Southern California in 1923. Durbin 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 1936. 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.

Career

Durbin signed a contract with MGM in 1935 and made her first film appearance in a short subject, Every Sunday (1936), with another young contract player, 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.

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. 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.

Durbin is perhaps best known for her singing voice, variously described as being 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.

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."

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.

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".

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, scheduled 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.

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 Hers to Hold, praised her integrity and character in his autobiography.

She made her only Technicolor film in 1944, Can't Help Singing, featuring some of the last melodies written by Jerome Kern plus lyrics by E. Y. Harburg. 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.

Durbin tried to assume a more sophisticated movie persona in such vehicles as the World War II story of refugee children from China, The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), directed in part by Jean Renoir, who left the project before its completion; the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945), but her substantial fan base preferred her in light musical confections.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's groundbreaking Broadway production of Oklahoma! in 1943 might have showcased Deanna Durbin as original Laurie, but Universal refused to accept the proposal.

In 1945 and 1947, Deanna Durbin was the top-salaried woman in the United States. Her fan club ranked as the world's largest during her active years.

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, but her two releases of 1948, Up in Central Park, a film adaptation of the 1945 Broadway musical, and then what became her last feature, For the Love of Mary, saw her international box-office clout diminish. On August 22, 1948, two months after the latter film was finished, Universal-International announced a lawsuit which sought to collect from Durbin $87,083 in wages the studio had paid her in advance. Durbin settled the complaint amicably by agreeing to star in three more pictures, including one to be shot on location in Paris. Ultimately, the studio would allow Deanna's contract to expire on August 31, 1949, so the three films were not produced. Durbin, who obtained a $200,000 severance payment, chose at this point to retire from movie making, already having turned down Bing Crosby's request for her to appear in his 1949 attractions for Paramount Pictures: Top o' the Morning and/or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Personal life

In Paris on December 21, 1950, Deanna Durbin, shortly after turning 29 years old, married Charles David, the producer-director of both French and American pictures who had guided her through Lady on a Train (1945). 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 choice proposals by MGM, asking her to take the female lead in the screen version of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate (1953), and to costar with Mario Lanza in Sigmund Romberg's operetta, The Student Prince (1954). As for stage shows, Durbin had been invited to play Kiss Me Kate 's Lilli Vanessi in London's 1951-52 West End production, and reportedly, Alan Jay Lerner first had Deanna in mind to portray Eliza Doolittle in the 1956 Broadway cast of My Fair Lady. Suggestions that Durbin vocalize at the major Las Vegas casinos went unfulfilled.

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.

However, Durbin has made it known that she did not like the Hollywood studio system. She has emphasized that she never identified herself with the public image that the media created around her. She speaks of the Deanna "persona" in the third person and considers the film character Deanna Durbin a by-product of her youth and not her true self.

Durbin's husband of over 48 years, Charles David, died in Paris on March 1, 1999.

Legacy

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."

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