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Screen legend Deanna Durbin dies

Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin, the screen legend, who wowed Depression- and World War II-era movie goers with her “sweet, soprano voice,” has passed away. She was 91 years old and has been away from the limelight for almost 65 years now.

The exact date of Ms. Durbin’s death is actually unknown. She died a few days ago and it was not until Deanna Durbin Society quoted Durbin’s son, Peter H. David of the actress’ passing. David thanked her mother’s fans for supporting him and respecting his family’s privacy.

Born Edna Mae Durbin on December 4, 1921, Deanna was one of the last surviving actresses of Hollywood’s golden era. She was born to British-born parents in Manitoba Canada and started acting in 1936 after MGM signed her up for the short subject Every Sunday, opposite Judy Garland. When her contract option expired, Universal hurriedly grabbed the talent and cast her in the feature-length film Three Smart Girls (1936). The film was a smash hit and Durbin was single-handedly credited for saving Universal from bankruptcy. The film was followed by a sequel, Hers to Hold, in 1943.

In 1938, after starring in four films, Durbin, together with Mickey Rooney, was honored with a Juvenile performer Academy Award for her “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth …”

Durbin’s popularity eventually solidified. The New York Times writes of Durbin as “everyone’s intrepid kid sister or spunky daughter, a wholesome, radiant, can-do girl who in a series of wildly popular films was always fixing the problems of unhappy adults.”

From the late 30s and through the war years (1941-45), Durbin was a top star. Her popularity also equated to a fat paycheck. In 1939, she earned a stunning $195,000. In 1941, she paid $400,000 to star in It Started with Eve. Deanna Durbin dolls existed along with many other types of merchandising, too.

The Hollywood Reporter writes that “Durbin was named the favorite of more than 300 different groups of servicemen.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill even fell for the young movie star. In fact, her films were shown first to Mr. Churchill before they were allowed to premiere to the general public in Great Britain.

Assessing her popularity, Durbin said matter-of-factly: “I represented the ideal daughter millions of fathers and mothers wished they had.”

While Durbin tried to lend her talent in dramatic vehicles, such as The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943) and Christmas Holiday (1944), her fans however preferred her in light musicals. Such was Durbin's international appeal that diarist Anne Frank posted her picture in her bedroom wall in the Achterhuis where the Frank and her family hid during World War II. The picture can still be seen there today.

In 1946, she earned $323,477, making her the second highest-paid woman in America. Betty Davis’ earnings were only $5,000 more than the young actress’.

At the end of World War II, Durbin’s popularity was on a decline, partly because Universal changed management, which affected Durbin’s appearances as fewer musicals were produced. Her last two movies, Something in the Wind (1947) and Up in Central Park (1948), were financial disappointments.

When Deana’s contract expired, she collected a severance fee worth $200,000, quit the movie business and retired in France, where she lived in a farmhouse, away from the prying eyes of fans and the press.

Deanna Durbin married three times. Her first husband was Vaughn Paul, an assistant director. She was 19 when she married him. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1943. In 1945, she married 43-year-old Felix Jackson, who produced some of her films. The marriage, too, ended in divorce in 1949, shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Jessica. In 1951, Durbin finally found true love, perhaps, after she married Charles David, her director in Lady on a Train (1945). They had one son, Peter. 


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