Deanna Durbin, 1930s Child Star, Dies at 91

Deanna Durbin Obit - P 2013
Hulton Archive

When she retired at 29, the actress was the highest-paid woman in Hollywood -- and the world.

Deanna Durbin, who attained worldwide popularity as a child star in the 1930s while starring in a series of musicals, has died. She was 91.

The actress' son, Peter H. David, was quoted in a Deanna Durbin Society newsletter saying his mother had died several days ago. He did not provide additional details and thanked her fans for respecting her privacy.

Nurtured and promoted by producer Joe Pasternak, the blue-eyed, brown-haired Durbin had been discovered in junior high school in Los Angeles and cast in a series of warm musical comedies. By age 17, she was one of Hollywood's hottest stars.

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In 1939, Durbin and fellow teen star Mickey Rooney were presented miniature Academy Awards for their “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth …” At the time of her presentation, Durbin had appeared in only four films, such was her star power.

By the end of the 1930, Durbin had become one of the biggest box-office stars of the period. Accounts circulated that she saved Universal from bankruptcy, although that was not wholly accurate; however, it was estimated that her films' earnings accounted for 17 percent of the studio's revenue during a period late in the decade.

During World War II, Durbin was named the favorite of more than 300 different groups of servicemen. Reportedly, she was Winston Churchill's favorite movie star, and the British Prime Minister was granted the opportunity to see her films before they were released to the general public in Great Britain. Following crucial military victories, Churchill would celebrate by screening her 1937 film One Hundred Men and a Girl, accompanied by brandy and a cigar.

The radiant Durbin assessed her popularity, especially among older men, in matter-of-fact terms: “I represented the ideal daughter millions of fathers and mothers wished they had.”

In 1949, at the height of her worldwide fame, Durbin quit the movie business and moved to France. The following year, she left the public eye. She lived outside of Paris with her third husband, French director/film executive Charles David, who had directed her in Lady on a Train (1945).

At the time of her retirement at age 29, Durbin was the highest-paid female screen star in Hollywood and, accordingly, the highest-paid woman in the world. She reportedly earned more than $320,000 from Universal in 1946.

While rarely seen since her retirement, Durbin answered queries about her departure from stardom and celebrity with good cheer; she once signed letters as “The Globetrotting Recluse.”

In 1982, MCA Records released a disc of her songs. While not appearing on screen since her retirement, Durbin sang as the Snowqueen on a three-minute, German short titled Love Is All in 1999.

Edna Mae Durbin was born Dec. 4, 1921, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He parents were English. When she was two years old, the family moved to Los Angeles because of her father's health. She was discovered while at Bret Harte Junior High.

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In 1935, MGM had planned a movie to star the diva, Mme Schumann-Heink. They needed a child to play the opera singer when she was younger. An agent, who had heard her sing, suggested her, and she was signed after an audition. However, the film was canceled when Schumann-Heink died and MGM dropped her after she appeared in the 1936 short, Every Sunday, which also starred 13-year-old Judy Garland.

Universal signed her and changed her name from Edna May to Deanna.

At age 15, the wholesome Durbin made her feature film debut in Three Smart Girls, starring as one of three sisters trying to prevent their father from marrying a gold digger. With her singing ability and charisma, she became an immediate star.

Durbin's second film, 100 Men and a Girl, which received an Oscar nomination for best picture, was considered by many to be her best. She starred as an aspiring singer who inveigles a conductor (Leopold Stokowski) to hire her musician father and his cohorts for the orchestra. The film's score won composer Charles Previn an Academy Award for best score.

Durbin again showed her singing talent in her next two films, both released in 1938: That Certain Age and Mad About Music, where in the latter the soprano delighted audiences with a stunning version of “Ave Maria.”

By 1941, Universal took note of her growing maturity and cast her in her first “grown-up” role. In Nice Girl?, Durbin starred as a character nicknamed Jane who falls for an older man (Franchot Tone). She also sang five songs, with Robert Stack co-starring as her younger boyfriend.

That same year, she starred in It Started With Eve opposite Charles Laughton and Robert Cummings.

Subsequent significant movies included Christmas Holiday (1944), in which she starred as a New Orleans nightclub singer and sang Frank Loesser's "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” She later toplined the Jerome Kern musical Can't Help Singing (1944), which was filmed in color.

During those years, she was a popular regular on Eddie Cantor's weekly radio show. In 1938, she had her prints cemented in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Although movies were not wagged by the marketing tail at the time, Deanna Durbin dolls and other merchandise was hawked during the 1940s.

Roughly 12 years after making her first movie, Durbin retired from the screen in 1948, following completion of Up in Central Park and For the Love of Mary.

In 1951, she had married Frenchman Charles David, who had directed her on Lady on a Train in 1945. Previously, she had been wed to Vaughn Paul and Felix Jackson, with both marriages ending in divorce.

In addition to her son Peter, she had a daughter, Jessica Jackson, born in 1946.