Deanna Durbin was born Edna Mae Durbin on December 4, 1921, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her British-born parents moved to California while she was still young, and her singing voice soon had talent scouts knocking at her door.
She signed a contract with MGM in 1936, at the age of 14, which resulted in her appearance in “Every Sunday” (1936), a short that also starred Judy Garland. Deanna was dropped by MGM but was immediately picked up by Universal Pictures, which cast her in the role of Penny Craig in “Three Smart Girls” (1936).
While preparing for the role she was coached intensely by director Henry Koster; it’s doubtful she would have been the star she was had it not been for Koster. The profits from this film and its follow-up, “One Hundred Men and a Girl” (1937), rescued Universal from bankruptcy. The studio quickly capitalized on these hits, casting Deanna in two successive and highly acclaimed films, “That Certain Age” (1938) and “Mad About Music” (1938). With these films Deanna became Hollywood’s darling. She reprised her role of Penny Craig in “Three Smart Girls Grow Up” (1939).
Deanna was such a hit that she shared the Academy Award’s 1939 Juvenile Award with Mickey Rooney “for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players, setting high standards of ability and achievement”. Deanna’s singing and acting ability had the world talking. There was no doubt she was the most popular performer of her day.
She was, however, by nature a very private individual, never comfortable with the glitz, glamor and publicity that came with stardom. Despite her uneasiness, she continued to churn out hits and kept the public enthralled. In 1943 she played Penny Craig again, for the third time, in “Hers to Hold” (1943). Deanna’s final film was “For the Love of Mary” (1948), whereupon, at the age of 27, she simply walked away. For a star of her stature, that took a tremendous amount of courage. All she wanted was to be anonymous.
Today Deanna lives in France, just outside Paris, with her third husband, French director Charles David, whom she wed in 1950. She has had numerous offers to return to the screen and has turned them all down. She has not even been interviewed since 1949. Such is her appeal, however, even after all these years, that she still gets fan mail and requests for autographs. Henry Koster did, indeed, create a legend.
Was an option to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
By twenty-one, she was the highest-paid woman in the United States and highest-paid female film star in the World.
Deanna Durbin dolls existed along with many other types of merchandising in the 1940s.
Universal Pictures top star in the 1940s where she was paid $400,000 per film. She is reported as the star who saved the company.
Tried for the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) but Disney himself rejected her, claiming she sounded “too mature.” She was 14 at the time.
She was sought for the female leads of the original Broadway productions of both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Oklahoma!” (1943) and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” (1956). Universal refused to loan her for Oklahoma! and she turned down the lead in My Fair Lady (after Lerner personally came to her home to audition the songs for her) because, as she said later, “I had my ticket for Paris in my pocket.”
She was the number one female box office star in Britain for the years 1939- 1942 inclusive. She was so popular that in 1942 a seven day “Deanna Durbin Festival” was held during which her films were screened exclusively on the Odeon Theatre Circuit throughout Britain, a feat that has never been duplicated for any other star. According to reports from the BBC over the past three decades, it receives more requests from the public for Durbin’s films and recordings, than for those of any other star of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
She was Holocaust victim Anne Frank’s favorite movie star. There are two pictures of Durbin on Anne’s “Movie Wall” in the secret annex in Amsterdam where Frank and her family hid from the Nazis.
In 1941, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini published an open letter to Durbin in his official newspaper, “Il Popolo”, asking her to intercede with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on behalf of American youth to dissuade him from becoming involved in Word War II. She didn’t.
She was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s favorite movie star. He reportedly insisted that he be permitted to screen her films privately before they were released to the public in Britain, and would often screen her film One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) to celebrate British victories during World War II. He considered her “a formidable talent.”
“I couldn’t go on forever being Little Miss Fixit who burst into song.”
“Just as Hollywood pin-up represents sex to dissatisfied erotics, so I represented the ideal daughter millions of fathers and mothers wished they had.” – 1959