Mrs. Edna Mae David passed away at her home in France sometime last week, and the 21st century lost another one of its last few links to the Golden Age of Hollywood. I knew I had just the picture to run with this post on Edna Mae, so I pulled it out of my files. When my six-year-old great-niece, who has never seen or heard of Edna Mae, saw this portrait, she said, “She looks like Jessica Rabbit.” I’d never thought about it before but y’know, it’s true; in this publicity shot she does look like Jessica Rabbit. And that’s just about the last thing you’d ever expect anyone to say about Deanna Durbin.
She might not have cared for that “angel” business. In her last interview, with historian David Shipman in 1983, she recalled a photo shoot with Life Magazine’s Philippe Halsman during the 1940s: Halsman said he was going to photograph her “looking like an angel”, and she said that that was the one way she did not want to be photographed. “…I wanted to look glamourous. I couldn’t wait to wear low-cut dresses and look sultry.” She’d probably have loved being compared to Jessica Rabbit.
Still, “like an angel” is the only way to describe her voice, a clear warm soprano that could raise gooseflesh on an iron lawn jockey. Walt Disney heard it when she auditioned for the voice of Snow White, but he didn’t hire her because she sounded too grown up (she was 14). The boys at MGM heard it, too, and they signed her to a short-term contract. She made only one picture there, in early 1936, an 11-minute short called Every Sunday, in which she was teamed with another of Metro’s prodigies, Judy Garland, as two pals whose singing saves Deanna’s grandfather’s weekly band concerts.
There’s a persistent legend that when Louis B. Mayer saw the finished product he ordered underlings to “dump the fat one”; problem was (or so the story goes), both girls were still a little baby-fat plump, and the boys weren’t sure which one he meant — and they guessed wrong. The story may be true (Deanna certainly believed it), but I’m dubious. MGM staff arranger Roger Edens had already pegged Judy as potential dynamite, and I suspect he’d have done anything short of murder to keep her on the payroll. In any case, Deanna was out — but not for long. Universal Pictures, scrabbling desperately to avoid bankruptcy, gratefully snapped her up. There were weekly appearances on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and at the end of ’36 Universal “introduced” her in Three Smart Girls. She had just turned 15. (Trivia answer: the Other Two Smart Girls were Nan Gray and Barbara Read.)
The other persistent legend about Deanna Durbin’s career is that she single-handedly saved Universal from going belly-up, and this one’s probably true; at the very least, she kept the studio afloat until Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields came along. She was a sensation in Three Smart Girls, and Universal scurried to cast her in picture after picture playing, as she later disdainfully put it “Little Miss Fixit who bursts into song.”
The sorry truth is, when all is said and done, she did more for Universal than they ever did for her. After one of her best pictures, It Started with Eve (1941), they let the team of producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster, who had nurtured her in hit after hit, be lured away to MGM while holding fast to Deanna herself. They never bought any Broadway musicals for her; they never hired Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin or George or Ira Gershwin to write songs for her.
To be fair, Universal did commission Jerome Kern and E.Y. Harburg to write the score for 1944’s Can’t Help Singing. This was a sort of Oklahoma! meets It Happened One Night, with Deanna as a senator’s rebellious daughter running away to Gold Rush California to marry her sweetheart (wispy David Bruce) but falling for another man (bland Robert Paige) en route.
The result was another box-office hit, though it lacks…well, sparkle, I guess. Not that Deanna doesn’t hold up her end — here she is enjoying a reprise of the title song during an open-air bubble bath before hitting the dusty trail for California. Maybe the problem was the director, a graceless hack named Frank Ryan (he directed one other Durbin picture, Hers to Hold [’43], the second sequel to Three Smart Girls). Or the script, which frittered away precious minutes on labored comic relief from Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey. Robert Paige was part of the problem, for sure. Anyhow, there was more than a grain of truth in James Agee’s assessment: “It seems to me this could have been a beautiful and gay picture; unfortunately it is made without much feeling for either beauty or gaiety.” That was the problem with many of her pictures, especially after she lost the guidance of Pasternak and Koster: too often, the only one on the set with any feeling for beauty and gaiety was Deanna herself. She always delivered — but it could get pretty lonely at her branch of the post office. She didn’t even get help from Technicolor but this once. Universal lavished Technicolor on a string of backlot campfests with Jon Hall and Maria Montez, even used it for a 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera, but before and after Can’t Help Singing their biggest star had to make do with black and white.
It was probably only careless, shortsighted stupidity on Universal’s part, but at times it almost looked as if they were trying to sabotage her. Christmas Holiday (’44) is a perfect example. It’s a gritty, downbeat noirish thriller directed by Robert Siodmak and written by Herman J. Mankiewicz from a Somerset Maugham novel. Deanna plays a nightclub entertainer (removed just far enough from a prostitute to clear the Hays Office) married to a murderous, mother-obsessed louse (Gene Kelly). Yes, Deanna sings — giving an aching rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always”, and introducing the Frank Loesser standard “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” — but it’s a drama, not a musical, and Deanna’s very good in it. But, come on, a picture with Deanna and Gene Kelly (early in his career, at that point known chiefly for For Me and My Gal, Dubarry Was a Lady and Cover Girl) that turns out to be a melodramatic downer? Called Christmas Holiday??
This was the same year that Dick Powell created a whole new screen persona for himself playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet over at RKO. That studio played their hand well, changing Raymond Chandler’s title from Farewell, My Lovely so audiences wouldn’t think they’d be seeing a tearful romance. Likewise, at 20th Century Fox, the title of Betty Grable’s first dramatic picture was changed from Hot Spot to I Wake Up Screaming, and Betty had another hit. Deanna might have done the same if Universal had changed Maugham’s title so audiences wouldn’t feel bait-and-switched at the box office. What was the studio thinking?
They were thinking (I think) that they didn’t want her to grow up. Too late; she already had. Pasternak and Koster might have finessed the transition for her career — they had already made a good start with It Started with Eve — but the boneheads they left behind couldn’t manage it. By 1947 Deanna was the highest-paid woman in America (which probably means the highest-paid in the world, barring royalty), but she still had no say in the scripts, directors, or co-stars she worked with. (Pipe down, little girl, and do as you’re told.) When her first marriage (to second-unit director Vaughn Paul) fell apart in 1943, Universal even tried to talk her out of getting a divorce. Bad for her image. “How could anyone really think I was going to spend the rest of my life
with a man I didn’t love,” she asked David Shipman, “just for the sake of an ‘image’?!”
By the way, don’t believe those who say Deanna just didn’t have the chops to handle anything more substantial than those perky Little Miss Fix-It roles. I don’t know why they say that, denying the evidence of their eyes and ears. Oh wait, I think I do know why: Judy Garland. They set up some imaginary rivalry that Judy and Deanna themselves never felt. I think there may be a little jealousy there too: At the height of her stardom, or after any of her comebacks, Judy was never as big a star as Deanna. But it’s not necessary to tear down Deanna Durbin to build up Judy Garland; Judy was as good as it got.
And so was Deanna. She had every bit the talent — the pipes, the looks, the poise, the charm, the spirit — that Judy had. What she didn’t have — at least not after she lost Joe Pasternak and Henry Koster — was Arthur Freed and Roger Edens and Charles Walters and Vincente Minnelli. And Mickey Rooney. And (yes) Busby Berkeley. And Georgie Stoll and the MGM Orchestra. Universal figured they had a 20-carat diamond; why waste gold on the setting?
Another thing Deanna didn’t have was the eager, even desperate drive to perform. Deanna loved performing, but she didn’t feel incomplete without it. “Right from the start Judy had an immense talent,” Deanna remembered. “She was a professional
and had been on the stage since she was two. Her later story is tragic,
but I’m certain she could never have given up. She needed an audience as
she needed to breathe. I understood Judy, though. I did some vaudeville with Eddie Cantor when I
was beginning in pictures and between our weekly radio shows. Eight
shows a day! It was very exciting. Contact with a live audience is heady
One last thought before we leave the subject of Deanna “vs.” Judy: Here’s a publicity still taken of them on the set of Every Sunday. Which one is supposed to be “the fat one” again?
Deanna loved performing, but she didn’t need it. When she got tired of Universal forcing her to haul the studio’s junk around — and, frankly, when she didn’t need the money anymore — she quit. Like Judy, she married one of her directors (Charles David, the French-born director of Lady on a Train in ’45) and settled down with him on their estate outside Paris. Unlike Judy and Vincente Minnelli, this one went the distance, ending only with David’s death in 1999.
There were offers and trial balloons over the years. Whenever Joe Pasternak was in Paris, he’d call. “Are you still happy?” When she said yes, he’d sigh: “Damn. All right, I’ll try again next time.” There were more concrete offers too: MGM tried to lure her back to film Kiss Me, Kate (what a triumphant return that would have been!), but the only time she was seriously tempted was when Lerner and Loewe auditioned some of the early songs they had written for what would become My Fair Lady. “I loved them,” she told David Shipman, “but I had my ticket to Paris in my pocket…” Robert Wise wanted her to play the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, too, but she knew she’d only be upstaging Julie Andrews in all the press releases. So she stayed where she was, living out the last 65 years of her life away from what she called the “goldfish bowl” of stardom, outliving all of her co-workers — and, indeed, most of her original fans.
Two things before I close. First, the Blogosphere has been buzzing the last couple of days with tributes and retrospectives (at least one, I won’t say which, struck me as rather snide and churlish: “Was Deanna Durbin still alive?”). A good starting place to link to some of the best ones is this page at Java’s Journeys
And second, how can I not post some of Deanna’s singing? First, from Mad About Music (’38), a sample of what most people picture when they remember Deanna Durbin, the sort of thing Universal tried to keep going long after the star (if not her fans) had tired of it.
But here’s my own favorite Deanna moment. It’s from Lady on a Train, which I understand was her favorite among her own pictures — perhaps because it’s a nifty little murder mystery, perhaps because it’s where she met Charles David. Deanna is older, sexier, at once cooler and hotter, giving a hint of what might have been if Universal had given her the support system she deserved. The song is that 1926 chestnut “Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya Huh?”:
So long, Edna Mae, and thanks for the memories. The Heavenly Choir, I expect, is sounding a lot better these days.