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Deanna Durbin: The Spirit and Personification of Youth

Deanna Durbin in the 1930s, at the height of her fame.

Deanna Durbin in the 1930s, at the height of her fame.

In June of 1993, a month before my first book, The Peter Pan Chronicles, was published, I wrote a letter to Mrs. Deanna  Durbin David regarding a biography I wanted to write about her life. I was much more interested in the idea that she gave up show business for a “normal life” than her life as an actress at Universal which had pretty much been chronicled by then. Miss Durbin wrote a very lovely letter back explaining, “You were right when you mentioned the many offers which have been refused and I’m afraid that is the problem. You see, I loved my career and did not find it easy to give it up but I longed for a more “normal” life and that desire won out. It has been a long time since I decided to make the big switch and it has often been difficult to turn down the people and their ideas offered in the writing of a book about me. However, I felt the necessity of sticking fast to complete retirement if I expected it to work. No films, no TV, no concerts, no interviews…no books. To make any exceptions would not be fair, especially as everyone has been so understanding. This said, you and your letter interested me very much and I should like to hear more about the future of The Peter Pan Chronicles and yours.”

A month or so later, I sent Miss Durbin  a copy of my just then  published book and received a thank you letter in which she wrote:

Dear Bruce,

“Peter Pan” arrived safely and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I shall, no doubt, read it again as this is the time here for constant visits from family and friends and I would like to have a bit more peace the next time.

It is an astounding example of research and, as you say, love…I can understand your interest in having the young of today know more about Peter Pan. In the past year I have been receiving a lot of mail from youngsters who have discovered me via the “new” TV channel over there and I am enjoying answering them as they are looking at me in a whole new way. I find it fascinating.

Thank you, Bruce, for sending me your book. I am really pleased to have it.

Let me wish you luck and happiness in your new adventures and please give my regards to Donna [my former wife] and Drew [my son].

Sincerely,

Deanna

Christmas Holiday

Christmas Holiday

Deanna Durbin is responsible for the affinity I have towards music of the 1930s through the 1950s. When I was 13 years old, my next door neighbor, a cousin in New Dorp, Staten Island, placed a huge pile of 78 rpm records at his curbside to be collected by the sanitation department. I took the entire lot in the house and the first record I played was by one Deanna Durbin. I can’t remember which record that is anymore, but a few weeks later I picked up another 78 rpm record, “One Fine Day” (the other side is “Spring In My Heart”), at a movie ephemera store in Manhattan, Cinemabilia, on 14th Street, near the old Quad Cimema.  Within a year I owned several long-playing Durbin  albums on such foreign labels as Ace of Hearts and Coral Records.  It appeared that in England, she was quite popular with record buyers while in the states Decca Records could not be bothered reissuing her recordings. (In the mid to late 1970s, Decca, now called MCA Records, finally released a couple of albums of her recordings. They have yet to release her material from primary sources on CD. However, Sepia Records has released two wonderful CDs of soundtracks from her films including Up in Central Park; a bad film with a beautiful soundtrack.) My favorite of all of her recordings: “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” by Frank Loesser from the film, Christmas Holiday. This picture was quite a departure for the 19-year-old actress. Based on a story by W. Somerset Maughan, Durbin played a prostitute opposite Gene Kelly as a murderer. This film noir also featured Irving Berlin’s “Always.” My favorite Durbin film remains Lady on a Train, a very funny murder mystery, although for sheer beauty and a chance to hear her thrilling voice in one song after another, one must check out her only color film, Can’t Help Singing, with a delicious Jerome Kern score.

Mrs. Deanna Durbin David, Happy in France

Mrs. Deanna Durbin David, Happy in France

For most of the world who appreciated her talents, the image of Deanna Durbin will forever remain that for which she received a miniature Academy Award in 1938: her “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth …” Her voice was what one would expect from an angel, her screen image sparkling with freshness and exuberance. An international celebrity, Anne Frank posted a magazine photo of Durbin on her wall in the Secret Annex and Winston Churchill said she was his favorite star. There was no one like her before, and, despite the attempts of producer Joe Pasternak to duplicate her success with other sopranos (Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell), there will never be another. The world is not as innocent or sweet as it once was. And because of her premature exit from films, Deanna Durbin will always be remembered for her youth, beauty, charm, and one of the loveliest voices in cinema history. But, unlike Peter Pan, Deanna Durbin’s story ends with “and she lived happily ever after”.

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Discussion

One thought on “Deanna Durbin: The Spirit and Personification of Youth

  1. Lovely story. Thanks for sharing, Bruce.

    Posted by Christine | May 4, 2013, 9:26 AM

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