BY DAVID SHIPMAN
PARIS. No exclamation point. I’ve had Paris. I lived there for five years and what I disliked about the city - the traffic and the prices-can only have increased. Still, I had never seen the Centre Pompidou nor the lady I had come to meet, despite a correspondence that goes back several years. She was once one of the most famous women in the world, which didn’t exactly fit in with her conception of the life she wanted to lead. She was Deanna Durbin and she is now Deanna Durbin David: but recent showings of her films on British and American television and reissues of six LP records have persuaded her to become Deanna Durbin again-for just one evening. The British season came about when a BBC radio programme devoted to the public’s comments on the corporation’s output, established that it received overwhelmingly more requests for her films and records than for those of any other star.
She became famous overnight in Three Smart Girls, a run-of-the-mill feature whose budget was doubled after studio executives had screened the result of her first few days work. The studio was Universal, threatened with closure for some years, but re-established as a major studio because of her popularity. That popularity was due to her “fetching naturalness”, as the News Chronicle put it. There was also the mature soprano voice. She sang operatic arias and songs such as “Beneath the Lights of Home” and “It’s Foolish But It’s Fun”, which became Hit Parade records. Her first screen kiss received more press coverage than any of Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages, and the transition to adult roles was so successful that, as she left her teens, British cinema managers voted her the biggest draw for three years running.-indeed in 1942 the Odeon Circuit throughout the country offered a Durbin Festival, a different film on each of the week’s seven days, and that has been done for no other star.
However, the poor quality of her later films caused her to retire. She had made just twenty-one films in all, and her career had lasted just thirteen years. Like Garbo, she turned her back on Hollywood: both of them were still young women and both of them refused to even consider further offers. Living since then in a beautiful old farmhouse, just outside Paris with her French husband, she has, during these thirty odd years, refused to see the press-and Monsieur David, champion of guardians, has been the intermediary, patiently explaining that she really isn’t interested in show business, and certainly not publicity. She is finally breaking her silence because she is deeply touched by the reaction of old…and new fans. I doubt whether any other star of her generation has held the love of her fans quite so surely: so many people, hearing that I was about to visit, became emotional and all-too-serous as they made me promise to mention their affection.
“I knew that sooner or later I would give an interview and decided that I would do it with you. I liked your two books on the stars and such statements you made as, “the system was firmly rigged against the individual in favor of the machine”. I admire you as one admires a scientist who, with a few bones, manages to reconstruct an entire dinosaur. So I am curious to see what you’ll make with the bits and pieces I offer you today…”Why did I give up my career? For one thing, just take a look at my last four films and you’ll appreciate that the stories I had to defend were mediocre, near impossible. Whenever I complained or asked for story or director approval, the studio refused. I was the highest paid star with the poorest material-today I consider my salary as damages for having to cope with such complete lack of quality.”
“I did not hate show business. I loved to sing. I was happy on the set. I liked the people with whom I worked and after the nervousness of the first day, I felt completely at ease in front of the camera. I also enjoyed the company of my fellow actors, the leading men who were so much older, like Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas, Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon, Joseph Cotten, Vincent Price and Robert Cummings. I did two films with my special friend, Charles Laughton. Working with these talented men helped me so very much and I grew up much faster than the average teenager. What I did find difficult was that this acquired maturity had to be hidden under the childlike personality my films and publicity projected on me.”
I thought it ungentlemanly to ask about money, but asked whether it was true that her father had handled her investments. “Yes, he did before my first marriage, but he was not a broker or a businessman as the publicity department always made him out to be. My father-Lancashire born and raised-had taken his family to Winnipeg, where he worked as a blacksmith for the Canadian Pacific railway. As the cold Canadian winters ate up all the summer savings, he took us all to California where he worked as a welder and held a variety of manual jobs. His clever hands, combined with my mother’s intelligent housekeeping got us all through the Depression. But my father started having trouble with his health. I remember when he came to pick up mother and me from the studio where I had gone for an audition. Dad looked pale and sick. He had fainted twice and the doctor had told him that he had to stop working for quite a while. He was desperate. “Would it help Dad, I asked, if I brought home a hundred dollars a week? The studio wants you to come back tomorrow and sign a contract for me. I’ll never forget the look on his face, the happy tears in his eyes.”
“I had been singing since the age of goodness-knows. Some neighbors knew an agent, not one of the important ones, and he got a try out for me at the Disney studios for the voice of Snow White, which I didn’t get for they said I didn’t sing like a child. Then he took me to MGM and I sang for one executive who went out and got another executive and I sang again, and I sang again. Each time I sang there was a lot of whispered consultation and someone else was sent for. I must have sung about ten times in all.”
MGM put her into a short with Judy Garland, Every Sunday, and this particular Hollywood legend is true, that when Louis B. Mayer said “drop the fat one” he meant Garland, not Durbin.
“For me this was the end. My dog Tippy and I went for a long walk. I was crying bitterly and decided that I’d kill myself-I couldn’t go back to school a failure. Not many months later, returning from my first publicity trip for Three Smart Girls in New York, I saw huge posters of me all over Hollywood. I had become a star. I was tired, but happy and alive!”
“Judy soon entered her own period of triumph. Right from the start Judy had an immense talent. 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.”
There is no need to comment on the difference between their two fates since Deanna exudes happiness. She goes on, “I understood Judy, though. I did some vaudeville with Eddie Cantor when I was beginning in pictures and between our weekly radio show. Eight shows a day! It was very exciting. Contact with a live audience is heady stuff, like the evening I walked in to sing at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City when the entire audience rose to its feet. She laughs. I should have done more live shows”. I point out she did sing extensively for the troops during the War, but that, she says, was a very different emotional experience, remembering one evening when she was lifted on the back of a truck and sang without accompaniment to soldiers about to embark for overseas.
“I hated being in a goldfish bowl. If I went to New York, I had to stay in my hotel room or go everywhere under guard, whisked away in a big black limousine, terrified that the fans running alongside would get hurt in the traffic. My mother and I were once mobbed in Texas: the police lost control of the crowd and my mother suffered two broken ribs from people trying to reach me. I have never been so frightened. They put me in the town jail for safety and to avoid the mob still waiting at the station, they flagged the train down in the middle of nowhere, where I got on safely.”
Realizing that at fifteen Deanna had the world at her feet, I wondered about her upbringing. “…very ‘proper’. It was drummed into me that I must never have sex with a man before I was married, and then the next day I was off to the studio where a very different set of rules prevailed.-I must admit that it was lovely to be asked and even lovelier to be able to say no…or yes, - Part of the fun of being asked meant that I wasn’t a little girl anymore…and that is why I wanted to look glamourous. I couldn’t wait to wear low cut dresses and look sultry. I remember the day when Philippe Halsman from LIFE magazine came to my home. He said he was going to photograph me ‘looking like an angel’. I answered that I may not know how I did want to be photographed, but if there was one way I certainly did not want to be photographed it was looking like an angel! He laughed and the picture he took more than satisfied me. I'll admit that for some of my public all of this must have been hard to understand.”
“My two broken marriages were not an asset either. When my first marriage failed everyone said that I could never divorce. It would ruin the ‘image’. How could anyone really think I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I didn’t love, just for the sake ‘of an image’?!”
“The second divorce was traumatic, for there was a child involved. Being the child of a movie star can mean a life even more unreal than that of the parent, and at that point I knew that I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in Hollywood.”
“Donald O’Connor once said that I was a professional, which, coming from him, pleased me, but that at the time we worked together I was unapproachable…’in a funk’ as he put it. With my second marriage breaking up at that time, I’m sure he was right.”
In 1950 she left for France where she married Charles David who had directed her in LADY ON A TRAIN. Since then she has resisted some tempting scripts: “I would have had to go through all the paraphernalia…the pre-recording of songs, wardrobe fittings, publicity and so on, not to mention the time this would have taken me away from my family.”
Joe Pasternak, who produced her early movies, used to telephone whenever he was in Paris. “Are you still happy?,” he would ask, and when she answered “yes”, he would say, “damn, well I’ll try again next time” and hang up.
“Just once was I seriously tempted, by the prospect of My Fair Lady on Broadway. It was still in an embryonic state just a few songs completed when Alan Jay Lerner came to my home to play them for me. I loved them…but I had my ticket to Paris in my pocket and anyway, Julie Andrews was great and so was Audrey Hepburn in the film.”
So she brought up her children: Jessica returned to America to marry while Peter, her son by Charles David, is working there in medical research. I sense rather than see her pride in them and the reason I don’t see it is because her radiance is absolutely undimmed by the years. She speaks with the directness and vitality of the young Deanna, but again I sense an extra enthusiasm when she says that bringing up the children and seeing them happy represents no sacrifice. Now she and her husband indulge their passions for music and travel, combining both with regular visits to the United States, Salzburg, Florence, Prague, Vienna, Glyndebourne and London. They speak enthusiastically about certain of their favorite singers such as Victoria de Los Angeles, Kiri Te Kanawa, Gundula Janowitz, Frederica von Stade and Teresa Stratas…
Deanna herself still sings. She is grateful to her second film, One Hundred Men and a Girl, for introducing her to Mozart. At the age of fifteen she sang Mozart’s Alleluia with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting.- It is impossible not to say that I would like to hear her sing, which receives a crisp “thank you”. She did not want to continue making films when she left films because the required publicity would have destroyed the privacy she longed for. I wonder, without asking her, whether she might be tempted now. She does turn down all requests to appear on TV shows and does not want a biography done. I did not suggest that any other form of comeback could be considered, even with the children grown up, for I could not imagine her ever being more contented than she now is – and we were talking, one or the other of us, for more than five hours. The waste of her talent is in the past, even if, at a cheerfully admitted sixty-one she looks a mere thirty-five, slim and so attractive that it is a relief when she puts on glasses and looks maybe forty. Because of this youthful appearance, and because I doubt whether she has even glimpsed a beautician since she left Hollywood – she is not only like the young Deanna but uncannily like: candid, sensible, completely without affectation, concerned and captivating company. Like all great stars, and despite her particular qualities, she is mysterious. She is Deanna Durbin – one of the best-loved of all stars. It is to return that love that she has given her first interview in so many years.
I assure her that many people who asked me to convey messages of affection were not even born when she quit movies. She smiles, too much of a realist to be surprised. And when you’ve been smiled at by Deanna Durbin you stay smiled at, even when the car won’t start, even when another car has gone into its rear on the Avenue de La Chapelle, even on the rainy drive to Boulogne and find the Hovercraft isn’t running...
|Deanna in 1981|