By Dawn Cranfield
Deanna Durbin “Winnipeg’s Sweetheart” Dead at 91
Actress and singer Deanna Durbin who enchanted filmgoers with her soprano voice and classic good looks has died at the age of 91. Durbin, who starred in less than 20 films over her 10-year career, was once the highest paid female star in the world; by the time she was 18, the actress was earning $250,000 a year. According to the Deanna Durbin Society, Durbin died “a few days ago”. (nytimes.com)
Known mostly for her singing voice that was often described as “natural and beautiful”, Durbin studied singing in Southern California after moving there from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. At age 13, she was signed by MGM after a casting directing was searching Los Angeles area singing schools for someone to star in a movie about Ernestine Schumann-Heink, playing the part of the opera star as a child.
Schumann-Heink was to play herself in the film while Durbin would play the star as a child. However, when the 75 year-old opera singer died in 1936 of leukemia, MGM did not pick up Durbin’s option and she moved on to Universal.
Durbin competed with Judy Garland in a short entitled “Every Sunday” where the public judged the two and determined which star
they preferred. While audiences approved of her, Louis B Mayer, MGM studio boss, preferred Garland.
The young actress had her first big box-office hit with the musical Three Smart Girls in 1936. The Academy Award winning movie was gold for Universal and made Durbin a household name, well on her way to becoming a star. She followed it up with other successful hits such as Mad About Music (1938) and That Certain Age (1938).
When Durbin was only 17 in 1938, she and fellow actor, Mickey Rooney, were honored with a special Oscar “for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth and, as juvenile players, setting a high standard of ability and achievement”. (guardian.co.uk)
By 1946, Durbin had slipped to become the second-highest paid woman in America, just $5,000 behind Bette Davis, around $323,000 per year. She had outgrown the child-like roles and girl-next door she had been playing in Hollywood and was becoming disenchanted with the California life.
Moviegoers and cinema critics had not responded favorably to her most recent pictures as she tried to break out of the roles she was used to as a teen and young woman. When she was featured in Christmas Holiday (1944) as a prostitute in love with a killer and in Lady on a Train (1945) in a more mature role in a murder plot, she began to have difficulties.
Durbin was awarded a star on the famed Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
“When my first marriage failed, everyone said that I could never divorce. It would ruin the ‘image,’ ” she told Robert Shipman in Films and Filming magazine in 1983. “How could anybody really think that I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I found I didn’t love, just for the sake of an ‘image’?” (nytimes.com)
Durbin “had remained determinedly out of public view since 1949, when she retired to a village in France with her third husband.” (nytimes.com)
Preferring a life with her husband and children to that of Hollywood and movie stars, Durbin kept to her home in the village of Neauphle-le-Château, outside of Paris. She lived there with her husband, Charles David, Peter (Durbin’s son from marriage to David), and daughter Jessica from her second marriage.
Durbin’s husband, Charles David, preceded her in death in 1999, a few months prior to their 50th wedding anniversary.