Edna Mae Durbin (December 4, 1921 – April 17, 2013), known professionally as Deanna Durbin, was a Canadian-born actress and singer, later settled in France, who 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 made her first film appearance with Judy Garland in Every Sunday (1936), and subsequently signed a contract with Universal Studios. Her success as the ideal teenaged daughter in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936) was credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy. In 1938, at the age of 17, Durbin was awarded the Academy Juvenile Award.
As she matured, Durbin grew dissatisfied with the girl-next-door roles assigned to her, and attempted to portray a more womanly and sophisticated style. The film noir Christmas Holiday (1944) and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945) were, however, not as well received as her musical comedies and romances had been. Durbin retired from acting and singing in 1949, and withdrew from public life, granting no interviews for the remainder of her life, except for one in 1983. She married film producer-director Charles Henri David in 1950, and the couple moved to a farmhouse near Paris.
Deanna Durbin on the cover of Yank, in January 1945
Edna Mae Durbin
December 4, 1921
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
|Died||April 17, 2013 (aged 91)|
|Spouse(s)||Vaughn Paul (m. 1941; div. 1943)|
Felix Jackson (m. 1945; div. 1949)
Charles Henri David (m. 1950; d. 1999)
Edna Mae Durbin was born on December 4, 1921, at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the younger daughter of James Allen Durbin (1885–1976) and his wife Ada (née Read) Durbin (1885–1972), who were originally from Chester, England. When she was an infant, her family moved from Winnipeg to Southern California, and her parents became United States citizens in 1923, which would have conferred United States citizenship via Jus sanguinis to her and her elder sister, Edith, later Mrs. Heckman (born 1909, England – died 2010), although it is unclear if she or her sister ever elected to claim U.S. citizenship. At the age of one, Edna Mae was singing children's songs. 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. Durbin soon became Thomas's prize pupil, and he showcased her talent at various local clubs and churches.
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.
Durbin made her first film appearance in the short Every Sunday (1936) with a young Judy Garland. The film would highlight the pairs' talent, as studio executives had questioned the wisdom of casting two female singers together. Louis B. Mayer decided to keep both girls, but by the time that decision was made, Durbin's contract option had lapsed.
Durbin signed a contract with Universal Studios, where she was given the professional name Deanna. She was 14 years old when she made her first feature-length film, Three Smart Girls (1936). When producer Joe Pasternak cast the film, he wanted to borrow Garland from MGM, but Garland was not available at the time. When Pasternak learned that Durbin was no longer with MGM, he cast her in the film instead. Three Smart Girls was a success and established Durbin as a star. With Pasternak producing for Universal, Durbin went on to star in a string of successful musical films, including One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), 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.
During the 1930s, Durbin 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.
In late 1936, Cesar Sturani, the general music secretary of the Metropolitan Opera, offered Durbin an audition. She turned down his request 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 started a radio collaboration with Eddie Cantor which lasted until 1938, when her heavy workload for Universal forced her to quit her weekly appearances.
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 the early 1940s, Durbin continued her success with It's a Date (1940), Spring Parade (1940), Nice Girl? (1941), and It Started with Eve (1941), her last film with Pasternak and director Henry Koster. After Pasternak moved from Universal to MGM, Durbin was suspended between October 16, 1941 and early February 1942 for refusing to appear in They Lived Alone, which was scheduled to be directed by Koster. 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.
Following the two sequels to her first film Three Smart Girls, 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 (1943). Joseph Cotten, who played alongside Durbin in the film, praised her integrity and character in his autobiography.
In 1943, Durbin took on a more sophisticated role in the World War II story of refugee children from China, The Amazing Mrs. Holliday. Additional adult roles followed, including the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945).
While these adult dramatic roles may have been more satisfying for Durbin, her fans preferred her in light musical confections such as Can't Help Singing (1944), her only Technicolor film, which featured 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 and co-starred Robert Paige.
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. She stayed on for another four pictures: I'll Be Yours (1947), Something in the Wind (1947), Up in Central Park (1948), and For the Love of Mary (1948).
In 1946, Durbin was the second-highest paid woman in the United States, just behind Bette Davis, and in 1947, she was the top-salaried woman in the United States. Her fan club ranked as the world's largest during her active years.
By 1948, however, her box-office clout began to diminish. In private life, Durbin continued to use her given name, Edna; salary figures printed annually by the Hollywood trade publications listed the actress as "Edna Mae Durbin, player". On August 22, 1948, two months after completing her final film, 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 by agreeing to star in three more pictures, including one in Paris. The studio allowed Deanna's contract to expire on August 31, 1949, so the three films were never made.
Durbin, who obtained a $200,000 ($2,100,000 in 2018), severance payment chose to retire from movies. Her former producer Joe Pasternak tried to dissuade her, but 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."
Durbin married an assistant director, Vaughn Paul, in 1941; the couple divorced in 1943. Her second marriage, to film writer-producer-actor Felix Jackson in 1945, produced a daughter, Jessica Louise Jackson, but a divorce followed in 1949.
In Paris on December 21, 1950, shortly after her 29th birthday, Durbin married Charles David, the producer-director of both French and American pictures who had guided her through Lady on a Train. Durbin and David raised two children: Jessica (from her second marriage to Jackson) and Peter (from her union with David).
Over the years, Durbin resisted numerous offers to perform again. 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.
In 1983, film historian David Shipman was granted a rare interview by Durbin. In the interview, she steadfastly asserted her right to privacy and maintained it until the end of her life, declining to be profiled on websites.
Durbin made it known that she did not like the Hollywood studio system. She emphasized 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.
Durbin's husband of almost half a century, 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. According to the Social Security Death Index (under the name Edna M. David), she died on April 17, 2013 in Neauphle-le-Château, France.
|1936||Every Sunday||Edna||Co-starring Judy Garland|
|1939||For Auld Lang Syne: No. 4||Herself|
|1941||A Friend Indeed||Herself||For the American Red Cross|
|1943||Show Business at War||Herself|
|1944||Road to Victory||Herself||A promotional film to support war bonds; also known as The Shining Future|
|1936||Three Smart Girls||Penelope "Penny" Craig|
|1937||One Hundred Men and a Girl||Patricia "Patsy" Cardwell|
|1938||Mad About Music||Gloria Harkinson|
|That Certain Age||Alice Fullerton|
|1939||Three Smart Girls Grow Up||Penelope "Penny" Craig|
|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|
|It Started with Eve||Anne Terry|
|1943||The Amazing Mrs. Holliday||Ruth Kirke Holliday|
|Hers to Hold||Penelope "Penny" Craig|
|His Butler's Sister||Ann Carter|
|1944||Christmas Holiday||Jackie Lamont / Abigail Martin|
|Can't Help Singing||Caroline Frost||Durbin's 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|
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".
|1943||Screen Guild Theatre||Shadow Of A Doubt||Ref.|
|1938||Lux Radio Theatre||Mad About Music|||
|1943||The Jack Benny Program|
|1948||Screen Guild Players||Up in Central Park|||
Because of Him is a 1946 American romantic comedy film starring Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone.Can't Help Singing
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.The movie was one of the most expensive in Universal's history.Christmas Holiday
Christmas Holiday is a 1944 film noir crime film directed by Robert Siodmak starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. Based on the 1939 novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, the film is about a woman who marries a Southern aristocrat who inherited his family's streak of violence and instability and soon drags the woman into a life of misery. After he is arrested, the woman runs away from her husband's family, changes her name, and finds work as a singer in a New Orleans dive. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Score for Hans J. Salter.Every Sunday
Every Sunday (sometimes incorrectly listed as Every Sunday Afternoon or Opera vs. Jazz) is a 1936 American short musical film. It tells the story of two adolescent girls and their efforts to save a public concert series, which was being threatened by poor attendance.
Directed by Felix E. Feist, the film served as a screen test for, and is the first significant screen appearance of, two young actresses who later became major stars, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin. Although only lightly reviewed at the time of its release, the film has garnered a generally positive reputation among Garland biographers.First Love (1939 film)
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.For the Love of Mary
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.Hers to Hold
Hers to Hold is a 1943 American romantic musical comedy film and is the third film in the unofficial Three Smart Girls trilogy. Deanna Durbin reprises her role as Penny Craig, who is the only sister remaining at home.His Butler's Sister
His Butler's Sister is a 1943 American romantic comedy film directed by Frank Borzage and starring Deanna Durbin. The supporting cast includes Franchot Tone, Pat O'Brien, Akim Tamiroff, Evelyn Ankers and Hans Conried. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Sound Recording (Bernard B. Brown).I'll Be Yours
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.It's a Date
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.It Started with Eve
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 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Music Score (Charles Previn and Hans J. Salter). The film is considered by some critics to be Durbin's best film, and the last in which she worked with the producer (Joe Pasternak) and director (Henry Koster) that groomed her for stardom. It Started with Eve was remade in 1964 as I'd Rather Be Rich.Mad About Music
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.Nice Girl?
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.One Hundred Men and a Girl
One Hundred Men and a Girl is a 1937 American musical comedy film directed by Henry Koster and starring Deanna Durbin. 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.Something in the Wind
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. Based on a story by Fritz Rotter and Charles O'Neal, the film is about the grandson of a recently deceased millionaire who mistakes a beautiful female disc jockey for her aunt, who once dated his grandfather. It was O'Connor's first film after he returned from military service in World War II. The film includes the famous "I Love a Mystery" number performed by O'Connor.Spring Parade
Spring Parade is a 1940 American musical comedy film directed by Henry Koster and starring Deanna Durbin. It is a remake of the 1934 film Spring Parade. Producer Joe Pasternak and screenwriter Ernst Marischka worked on both films.That Certain Age
That Certain Age is a 1938 American musical film directed by Edward Ludwig and starring Deanna Durbin and Melvyn Douglas. Based on a story by F. Hugh Herbert, the film is about a dashing reporter who returns from covering the Spanish Civil War and is invited to spend time at his publisher's home, where his adolescent daughter develops a crush on him. The family does their best to sway the young girl's feelings away from the reporter, but it is a challenge, as she is at "that certain age". Distributed by Universal Pictures, the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Music and Best Sound Recording.Three Smart Girls
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, Durbin's feature film debut, had a screenplay 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.
It began an eight-year era of successful Deanna Durbin musicals and spawned two sequels, Three Smart Girls Grow Up and Hers to Hold.Three Smart Girls Grow Up
Three Smart Girls Grow Up is a 1939 American musical comedy film directed by Henry Koster, written by Felix Jackson and Bruce Manning, and starring Deanna Durbin, Nan Grey, and Helen Parrish. Durbin and Grey reprise their roles from Three Smart Girls, and Parrish replaces Barbara Read in the role of the middle sister. Durbin would reprise her role once more in Hers to Hold.