Deanna Durbin (4 December 1921, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada – 20th April 2013, Neauphle-le-Château, Yvelines, France) was born Edna Mae Durbin to British parents. They moved to California whilst she was still quite young, and her singing voice soon caught the interest of the talent scouts.
In 1936 at the age of 14, she signed a contract with MGM which resulted in her appearance in Every Sunday (1936), a short film that also starred Judy Garland. Deanna was dropped by MGM but was immediately picked up by Universal Pictures, which cast her in the role of Penny Craig in Three Smart Girls (1936).
While preparing for the role she was coached intensely by director Henry Koster; it’s doubtful she would have been the star she was had it not been for Koster. The profits from this film and its follow-up, One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), rescued Universal from bankruptcy.
The studio quickly capitalized on these hits, casting Deanna in two successive and highly acclaimed films, That Certain Age (1938) and Mad About Music(1938). With these films Deanna became Hollywood’s darling. She reprised her role of Penny Craig in Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939). Deanna was such a hit that she shared the Academy Award’s 1939 Juvenile Award with Mickey Rooney “for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players, setting high standards of ability and achievement”.
Deanna’s singing and acting ability had the world talking. There was no doubt she was the most popular performer of her day. She was, however, by nature a very private individual, never comfortable with the glitz, glamour and publicity that came with stardom. Despite her uneasiness, she continued to churn out hits and kept the public enthralled.
In 1943 she played Penny Craig again, for the third time, in Hers to Hold (1943). Deanna’s final film was For the Love of Mary (1948), whereupon, at the age of 27, she simply walked away. For a star of her stature, that took a tremendous amount of courage. All she wanted was to be anonymous.
Deanna lived out her final years in France, just outside Paris, with her third husband, French director Charles David, whom she wed in 1950. She had numerous offers to return to the screen and had turned them all down. She had granted only one interview since 1949, film historian David Shipman interviewed her in 1983.
Durbin’s husband of more than 48 years, 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 a family friend, Durbin died on or about April 20 in Neauphle-le-Château, France.
Listen to Deanna Durbin sing - One Night of Love
Deanna Durbin Trivia
- She was an option to perform as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but the role ultimately went to Judy Garland.
- By twenty-one, she was the highest-paid woman in the United States and highest-paid female film star in the World.
- Deanna Durbin dolls existed along with many other types of merchandising in the 1940s.
- Universal Pictures top star in the 1940s where she was paid $400,000 per film. She is reported as the star who saved the company.
Tried for the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney’s Hófehérke és a hét törpe (1937) but Disney himself rejected her, claiming she sounded “too mature.” She was 14 at the time.
- Daughter of James Allen Durbin and his wife Ada Read, who were originally from Manchester, England. Has an older sister, Edith, a teacher.
Daughter, Jessica Louise Jackson, born on February 7, 1946. Son, Peter David born on June 20, 1951.
- In 1980, she submitted a recent photo of herself to Life Magazine in order to silence rumors she was overweight
- She was sought for the female leads of the original Broadway productions of both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Oklahoma!” (1943) and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” (1956). Universal refused to loan her for Oklahoma! and she turned down the lead in My Fair Lady (after Lerner personally came to her home to audition the songs for her) because, as she said later, “I had my ticket for Paris in my pocket.”
- She was the number one female box office star in Britain for the years 1939- 1942 inclusive. She was so popular that in 1942 a seven day “Deanna Durbin Festival” was held during which her films were screened exclusively on the Odeon Theatre Circuit throughout Britain, a feat that has never been duplicated for any other star. According to reports from the BBC over the past three decades, it receives more requests from the public for Durbin’s films and recordings, than for those of any other star of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
- She was Holocaust victim Anne Frank’s favorite movie star. There are two pictures of Durbin on Anne’s “Movie Wall” in the secret annex in Amsterdam where Frank and her family hid from the Nazis.
- In 1941, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini published an open letter to Durbin in his official newspaper, “Il Popolo”, asking her to intercede with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on behalf of American youth to dissuade him from becoming involved in Word War II. She didn’t.
- She was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s favorite movie star. He reportedly insisted that he be permitted to screen her films privately before they were released to the public in Britain, and would often screen her film One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) to celebrate British victories during World War II. He considered her “a formidable talent.”
- In Italy, all her films were dubbed by either Rosetta Calavetta or Lydia Simoneschi.
- Salary for 1939, $195,000 (about £1.3 million or $1.7 million USD)