Like many others, my view of Deanna Durbin was of a long-ago young star with a big voice, something like an early version of one of Lawrence Welk's interchangeable Barbi doll singers. After watching the six movies in the Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack - a title, incidentally, that does her reputation no good service, -- I've radically revised my estimation of her.
In fact, if she'd ever been wooed out of retirement in the Sixties to play the determined, funny, poignant and sad force of nature named Momma Rose in Gypsy, I think Durbin could easily have wrestled Merman to a draw and would have thoroughly erased any thought of Rosalind Russell. She's that good.
Durbin as Little Miss Fix-t? Durbin as the charming child next door? Durbin as the good-looking tomboy willing to step into a mud puddle? Durbin as the lovely young woman who can trill an aria? Yes to all of these, starting when she was 15 in her first movie and finishing when she was 27 in her last. Audiences loved her voice, her natural manner and her flair for comedy. But spend some time with her in these six movies and your estimation of her unique talent might undergo a transformation. While she was constrained by the formulas that sold tens of thousands of tickets for her movies, she still was the only young Hollywood star in the Thirties who was able to move into adulthood with her popularity, her star clout and her poise in tact. She had an unusually warm soprano and the technique and skill, even at 15, to sing just about anything. In these six movies she handles everything from Puccini's Un Bel Di to the down and dirty "Don'cha Daddy?' In between she vamps a Cole Porter song as easily as she skips through a Viennese waltz. What is surprising is that if all these songs were cut from these movies, all of the movies except Can't Help Singing would hold up as smart screwball comedies or effective light romances. Since these are her movies alone, the reason is her talent and personality (and some good directors, of course). Where these movies seem weak now, is with her leading men. Universal evidently didn't see the need to invest in effective male leads to play off her. Without exception, her love interests are handsome, interchangeable young men, all of them much more at home in B movies.
Deanna Durbin was a remarkably talented and poised woman who, given a chance, I think could play fast-paced screw-ball comedy just about as well as Carol Lombard. Heresy perhaps, but watch her in some of these movies. And if you watch carefully, you'll also see that glint of determination, that willingness to take on all comers, that in middle age would have made her a great Momma Rose.
Instead, of course, a year and a half after her last movie she married, packed her bags and went to live in France, just outside Paris. It was 1950. Her husband of 49 years has died, but she still lives on. From the minute she left Hollywood she never gave another interview, turned down all deals to make more movies and only once even permitted a photograph of herself to be released. She didn't become a recluse. She just wanted to reclaim her life.
The six movies take us from 1935 to 1947. All provide solid entertainment. First Love, a retelling of the Cinderella story and cursed with a quease-inducing title, is extremely good. Three Smart Girls, her first movie, is excellent comedy. It Started With Eve has her up against that skilled and funny ham, Charles Laughton. She handles him with ease. All six, fitted on two DVD discs, look very good.
Deanna Durbin, then 14 and just under contract to MGM, made a short feature in 1936 which paired her with Judy Garland, a year younger, in the first film for both of them. Louis B. Mayer then decided he didn't need two competing young singers, placed his bet on Garland and let Durbin go. Universal immediately signed Durbin, rushed her into Three Smart Girls and rewrote the screenplay to pump up her part. She's billed last, but with the typographic equivalent of neon lights around her name. Universal was convinced Durbin would be a smash, and they were right. Three Smart Girls is less a musical and more a screwball comedy, and Durbin, 15 when the movie was released, carries it with aplomb. She's Penny Craig, and she and her older sisters, Joan and Kay, are determined to save their father, who had divorced their mother, from the clutches of an elegant gold digger with a fierce mother. They talk their way from Switzerland, where they live, to New York City, where their father lives. They plan not just to break up their father's wedding but to reunite their father with their mother, who after ten years apart still loves the guy. Is there any doubt that Durbin will sing a song or two in her warm, luscious soprano? Nope. Is there any doubt the girls will succeed...with Kay and Joan finding love and matrimonial material along the way? Nope, again. Years later Durbin was quoted as saying that she couldn't keep playing little Miss Fixit forever. She was right, of course, but in Three Smart Girls, her first feature movie, she has little Miss Fixit down pat. Durbin is funny, determined, resourceful, energetic and, of all things, natural. Her personality is so genuine that it makes this comedy -- a mix of farce, confusion, good intentions and cheerful avarice -- downright endearing.
Durbin carries the movie with ease. It's a lot of fun watching her hold her own against the likes of Binnie Barnes as Donna Lyon, the woman with her hooks in Penny's rich father, played by Charles Winninger, who was no slouch at stealing scenes, either. Alice Brady, who played the dithering matron in My Man Godfrey, plays Donna Lyons' mother, who is even more of a gold digger than her daughter. The last of the accomplished farceurs is Ray Milland as Lord Michael Stuart, who through a contrived and amusing mixup is mistaken for Mischa Auer.
Three Smart Girls holds up well as a light-weight and amusing comedy of manners and mix-ups. So does Deanna Durbin as a brand-new star, who with her huge success saved Universal's bacon.