Obituary: Deanna Durbin

1940s singing sensation who got tired of playing the ‘girl next door’

Deanna Durbin  in May 1939 with her first husband Vaughn Paul in the clubhouse of Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. Photograph: AP

Deanna Durbin in May 1939 with her first husband Vaughn Paul in the clubhouse of Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. Photograph: AP

Sat, May 4, 2013, 06:00

When a teenage Deanna Durbin appeared on screen in the 1930s, in a decorous white dress, singing with a bell-like purity, audiences sighed contentedly. And so did film and music executives.

In the days when child stars were wholesome, Durbin was everyone’s idea of the perfect girl next door, and she was a huge money-spinner.

Audiences flocked to see her musical comedies and, after she had trilled numbers such as It’s Raining Sunbeams (in the film One Hundred Men and a Girl , 1937), Home Sweet Home (in First Love , 1939) and Waltzing in the Clouds (in Spring Parade , 1940), her fans queued to buy the latest record bearing her name.

Durbin, who has died aged 91, was the antithesis of the Hollywood glamour girl. Her films were tailored to fit her vivacious personality and her extraordinary singing voice.

In 1939, Durbin, aged 17, and fellow child star Mickey Rooney were awarded special Oscars “for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth . . .”. Ten years and fewer than 20 films later, she announced her retirement from show business.

She was born Edna Mae Durbin in Winnipeg, Canada, moving to California when she was a baby. From the age of eight she took voice lessons and at 14 she was recommended to the MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer.

In those days, there was a way into movies that is no longer available: the studio put her into what was called a “short subject”, and allowed the public to judge. In 1936, audiences saw her in the short Every Sunday and approved; Mayer saw it and did not.

Mayer let her go, but Universal cast Durbin in a film called Three Smart Girls (1936), about a trio of plucky sisters determined to reunite their estranged parents. Its box-office success is held to have been responsible for saving the studio from bankruptcy.

In the late 1930s and through much of the 1940s, Durbin was a top box-office attraction. When she had her first screen kiss – with Robert Stack in First Love , a riff on the Cinderella plot – it filled columns in the American newspapers for weeks.

Eventually, the inevitable happened: Durbin tried hard to shake off her girl-next-door image with films noir such as Christmas Holiday (1944), in which she played a nightclub hostess, and Lady on a Train (1945). But Universal did not think changing her personality represented good business.

The conflict led to an unhappiness, compounded by Durbin’s divorce, in 1943, after two years of marriage to film executive Vaughn Paul. Her second marriage, to producer Felix Jackson, also ended in divorce, in 1949. She and Jackson had a daughter, Jessica.

Swansong
The light comedy For the Love of Mary (1948) was her swansong. Producer Joe Pasternak tried to change her mind, but Durbin 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.”

In 1950, she married the producer and director Charles David, with whom she had a son, Peter. She then withdrew from show business and lived in France, closely guarding her privacy for decades.

Charles David died in 1999. On April 30th, via the Deanna Durbin Society, Peter announced that she had died “several days ago”.