Yesterday, December 4th, marked the 90th birthday of Deanna Durbin, the beloved teen soprano who reigned at Universal Studios from 1936-1948 and has been retired for 63 years. She married French producer-director Charles David in 1950 and has lived in France for six decades. (David passed away in 1999.) Though she left the screen at age 27, Durbin continues to be fondly remembered by lovers of musical comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, even though she didn’t star in any films that have since become established classics. (There’s no Wizard of Oz in her filmography.) She received a 1938 juvenile Oscar, while Judy Garland, Durbin’s co-star in the 1936 MGM short Every Sunday, took a bit longer to achieve (and then surpass) a Durbin-sized kind of stardom.
My favorite Durbin movie is It Started with Eve (1941), a film I like so much that I included it as one of the five films in my chapter “Vintage Comedies” in my book Screen Savers. More a comedy with songs than an actual musical, it features a more adult Deanna (age 19) alongside Robert Cummings, an able light-comedy partner. The film also afforded Durbin the opportunity to act with the great Charles Laughton (as Cummings’ father), with whom she proved to have a delightful and unexpected chemistry. Eve is a cleverly scripted, buoyant mistaken-identity comedy, with Laughton soon pulling strings to bring Durbin and Cummings together. Funny, genuinely warm and satisfying, it’s what is known as a real sleeper.
By the time Eve came along, Durbin had been a major star for five years, as well as the biggest box-office attraction at Universal, the studio whose prime asset had been Boris Karloff until Durbin came along. In her debut picture, Three Smart Girls (1936), Durbin, guided by producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster, became the breakout star of an ensemble cast. (After all, the opening credits do announce: “And Universal’s New Discovery Deanna Durbin.”) Her singing voice was mature and clear rather than girlish or shrill, plus she had a girl-next-door prettiness and a nonchalant flair for comedy. It’s one of those Little Miss Fix-It pictures, with Durbin the youngest of the titular trio (the others are Nan Grey and Barbara Read). She successfully connives to reunite her divorced parents, Charles Winninger and Nella Walker. Agreeable, sentimental, and wildly overrated in its day, Three Smart Girls is helped by Koster’s brisk, light touch and the bitchy fun provided by a fortune-hunting Binnie Barnes (whose sights are set on Winninger). Then there’s the refreshing sight of young Deanna, claiming her stardom with enviable ease.
Next up was One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), another winner for the Durbin-Koster-Pasternak formula. Cheerful and corny, with plucky Deanna again fixing the lives of the adults around her, this movie, in true Pasternak fashion, combines lowbrow comic sentiment with highbrow musical selections, something the producer continued in his days at MGM with Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell, both of whom were molded according to the Durbin prototype. Adolphe Menjou plays Durbin’s unemployed trombonist father, but don’t worry because Deanna will organize an orchestra of out-of-work musicians and soon have Stokowski himself conducting! The film offers the incidental treat of Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady, so recently wonderful together in My Man Godfrey (1936), again (and almost identically) playing a rich married couple. Like Three Smart Girls, it’s all pleasant enough, and Durbin’s appeal remains unforced, but it’s now hard to believe that both of Durbin’s first two movies were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. We can accept their Depression-era popularity and their lighthearted escapism, but not their acclaim as exceptional movies.
Koster and Pasternak were also the forces behind It Started with Eve, their sixth and final collaboration with Durbin. Her popularity started to wane after World War II, not helped by Universal’s attempts to overglamorize Durbin and put her into some inappropriate vehicles, such as Lady on a Train (1945). But nothing dims the freshness, grace, modesty, and natural confidence of the young Deanna. And, boy, could that girl sing!