Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Deanna Durbin

She appears at approximately the 1:37 mark in this clip from the M-G-M short subject Every Sunday. At around 2:47 she takes her place alongside Judy Garland for the film's climactic sing-off. That's the historical context: Durbin, whose death was announced yesterday, was Garland's peer and rival, both of them teenage singers looking for the big break in 1930s Hollywood. Allan Fisch uploaded this clip to YouTube.

Thanks to the harvesting of archives of film for the DVD market, Durbin was probably less forgotten at the time of her death than she was a generation ago, when her films were rarely shown on TV. The story of her life you can read today is that she was one of the rare movie stars who made a clean break at an early age, quitting Hollywood for married life at the age of 28. Her silence wasn't absolute but may as well have been; somehow her work ceased to matter once work ceased to matter for her. It was as if, once you decided not to be a star anymore, you really never were one. So you want to be forgotten? So be it. A loyal cohort of fans kept their candles lit all along, of course, but there was no longer a market for her. We should presume that this prospect didn't bother her; otherwise, why quit?

The real story, as far as film history is concerned, is that Durbin remained Garland's rival for her entire career. Their paths diverged after Every Sunday, Garland remaining at Metro, Durbin going to Universal. She was credited with single-handedly rescuing a studio that was in bad shape after the departure of the founding Laemmle family. Her musicals gave Universal a boost before the monster revival and the arrival of Abbott and Costello. As she grew older she tired of the formulaic mediocrity of her assignments, but fell in love with one of her directors. And that was that.

The film historian Jeanine Basinger relates a telling anecdote

Judy Garland said she had once run into Durbin in Paris, and that she was obviously happy. Garland, on the other hand, had confessed her woes to her former colleague. Laughing, Garland said Durbin told her, 'Why don't you get out of that business, you dumbbell?'

Garland's senior by approximately six months, Durbin lived nearly twice as long.

I can't call myself a Durbin fan. In fact, I've only seen one of her movies, and it's probably her most atypical vehicle: Robert Siodmak's film noir musical Christmas Holiday, extra noteworthy for its casting of Gene Kelly as her murderous husband. I can't say honestly that Durbin made a lasting impression on me, but the film as a whole is memorably dark; don't judge this book by its festive cover. Otherwise, Durbin's films aren't the sort I'd normally seek out. But given her place in Hollywood history -- not just her stardom but the unmatched discrepancy, at least during the sound era, between the peak of her fame and the trough of her chosen obscurity, her passing is worth noting here.

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