Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/9/2015 (634 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Deanna Durbin’s film career took her to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom in the 1930s and ’40s, with a string of box-office blockbusters, an Academy Award and a salary that made her Hollywood’s highest-paid actor. It was a far cry from her family’s humble beginnings in Winnipeg’s Weston neighbourhood.
Her parents grew up in industrial communities around Manchester, England. Her father, James, apprenticed as an ironworker in the railway town of Newton Heath, and her mother, Ada, was one of 12 siblings who grew up in the textile hub of Oldham.
In 1909, the Durbins — which now included daughter Edith — came to Canada, initially settling in Peterborough, Ont. In 1912, it was on to Winnipeg and a small home on Gallagher Avenue just across the street from Canadian Pacific Railway’s Weston Shops, where James found work as a blacksmith. Now known as the Weston neighbourhood, back then it was nicknamed "CPR Town," brimming with new immigrants who came to work in the rail yards. Coal-fired locomotives, an on-site steel foundry and other industrial infrastructure of the day made it a noisy, dirty place to live.
On Dec. 4, 1921, the Durbins welcomed their second child, Edna Mae. The future Deanna was born at the old Grace Hospital, located at Arlington Street and Prescott Avenue in Wolseley.
Despite living here for a decade, James Durbin could not get used to Winnipeg’s cold winters. Suffering from ill health for much of his life, it was thought a warmer climate would suit him better. In May 1923, the family packed up their car and headed for Los Angeles.
Despite leaving, the family remained bullish about Winnipeg. In 1925, they convinced Sophia Read, Ada’s widowed mother, and four of Ada’s siblings to move to Winnipeg. The Reads settled on Berrydale Avenue in St. Vital, and her brothers worked as machinists with the Canadian National Railway shops in Transcona.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Edna Mae showed an aptitude and a love for singing, something she inherited from her father. When Edith Durbin graduated from teacher’s college and began her first job, she enrolled her 11-year-old sister at the Ralph Thomas Voice Academy in Los Angeles. Soon, she was performing at local recitals and events.
Movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in the market for young female talent at the time, and Jack Sheppard, who would go on to become her manager, heard Edna Mae sing and arranged for an audition. She wowed executives with operatic arias, her soprano voice much older than her 13 years. In January 1936, they signed her to a six-month contract.
Edna Mae attended school at the MGM studio lot with another newcomer to the movie industry named Frances Gumm. Before long, the MGM publicity department renamed the pair Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland. They also tweaked Deanna’s biography. Instead of promoting her humble beginnings, her blacksmith and labourer father became a real estate broker, and her birthplace the Winnipeg suburb of St. Vital.
MGM had room for just one teenage singer, so the two girls were cast in a short film — essentially a glorified screen test — called Every Sunday. It was an opera-versus-jazz showdown, allowing each to show off their very different singing styles. It became so popular it was later re-cut and released as a movie short that can be found on YouTube.
An often-told Hollywood story, repeated in numerous Garland biographies and by Durbin herself in a 1983 interview, was that after seeing the footage, fellow Canadian and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer instructed his staff to "Get rid of the fat one," (some versions claim he said the "flat one," referring to a couple of missed notes), then left the room. His intention was to cut Garland, but his staff misinterpreted, and it was Deanna who was let go.
Deanna’s setback was only temporary. She soon had a development offer from the Metropolitan Opera of New York that would have allowed her to pursue her first love, singing. Weeks later, though, Universal Studios came calling with the offer of a seven-year contract for up to three films a year. Her salary was rumoured to be between US$1,500 and US$2,000 per week.
While she waited for her first film to be released, Universal put her on the radio circuit. The charming, funny and talented teen became a crowd favourite on Eddie Cantor’s touring radio show in 1936. Winnipeggers could tune in on CKY radio.
By the time her first film, Three Smart Girls, hit theatres later that year, Deanna was already known in entertainment circles. Variety magazine wrote: "Durbin stands out not only as a ‘darling child’ personality, but as a winsome little dramatic actress whose talents do not end with an ability to hit the high registers." Deanna and the film became a smash hit for Universal.
Deanna returned to Winnipeg at least three times in the 1930s to visit family, including her grandmother, with whom she stayed in close contact throughout her life. Her most famous visit, though, lasted little more than 24 hours.
Still basking in the success of Three Smart Girls, Deanna had just finished shooting her second film, 100 Men and a Girl, and wrapped up a U.S. concert tour when she was given some time off. She arrived in Winnipeg with her mother and manager in the early morning of April 2, 1937. Hundreds of people jammed the rotunda of the CPR depot on Higgins Street to catch a glimpse of "Winnipeg’s Sweetheart." The Free Press noted, "Deanna stepped from the train to face the most extraordinary demonstration that Winnipeg has seen for many a day."
After waving to the crowd, she was whisked through the tunnel, with fans in tow, to the Royal Alexandra Hotel and up to the vice-regal suite for breakfast with the mayor and other prominent Winnipeggers. She then prepared some notes for an address to the city on the Richardson family’s CJRC radio station, also located in the hotel. She thanked Winnipeggers for their support and apologized for the short stay because she could not spend more time with her fans.
It was then off to city hall to sign the guest book and, after a wave to the crowd, Deanna was off to St. Vital, where she spent the rest of the day with her relatives. The next morning, she was on a train back to California.
Deanna’s next three movies were also hits, the storylines only a slight variation on the same theme as her first two: a saccharine-sweet teenager helps solve the trials and tribulations of the adults around her, with a few songs tossed into the mix.
By the end of 1939, Deanna was 18 and had reached the height of her success. She was making more than any other Hollywood star. By 1943, the Internal Revenue Service ranked her as the 10th-highest-paid person in the U.S. At the 11th Academy Awards ceremony, she and another young star, Mickey Rooney, received honorary Oscars for their work, and the cash flow from her films was credited with saving Universal Studios from bankruptcy.
Universal felt the key to their success was to continue portraying her onscreen and off-screen as a sweet 14-year-old. This image took a beating when, in 1940, she announced her engagement to Vaughn Paul, an up-and-coming producer. Behind the scenes, Durbin rebelled against the studio’s wishes and demanded more mature roles. Relations became so strained that in October 1941, she was suspended for a few months after refusing to show up for work.
In 1944, Durbin made the local news on a couple of fronts. She participated in the Deanna Durbin Model Home raffle, a fundraiser for the Kinsmen’s Second World War Milk for Britain program. The RM of St. Vital donated the lot on Kingston Row, and Durbin is said to have had the final approval on the design. Her mother attended the sod-turning, and Durbin did a number of related pre-recorded radio messages and photo ops from Hollywood. When it came time to choose the winning ticket in August, though, Durbin could not attend because of her filming schedule.
In December 1944, her strongest tie to the city ended when her grandmother, Sophia Read, died. It does not appear she attended the funeral.
From 1944 to 1948, Durbin made eight more films for Universal, which garnered mixed reviews. She blamed the studio for not transitioning her into age-appropriate roles and later insinuated they intentionally gave her bad scripts as punishment for her attitude. She staged another walkout after the filming of 1948’s For the Love of Mary.
By this time, the fairy-tale life promoted by the studio was anything but. Her second marriage, which produced daughter Jessica, failed, and she had sued her sister and brother-in-law for mismanaging a land deal using her funds. Likely also weighing on her mind was Judy Garland, the former companion and childhood star to whom she was often compared, had already spiralled into a life of booze and drug addiction, suffering her first breakdown in 1947.
Durbin and Universal went to court to settle the final couple of years of her contract. An agreement was struck that saw Universal pay her for the remaining two years without having to complete any more films. For her part, Durbin agreed not make a film for another studio during that time.
Many felt Durbin would finally pursue her singing career, but she was done with stardom. Soon after the court case was settled, 28-year-old Durbin and her daughter left for a life of seclusion in France. In December 1950, she married French director Charles Henri David, and they had a son, Peter.
Despite retaining legions of fans and receiving numerous offers for singing and acting roles, she declined them all. Durbin shunned the media, with the exception of a 1983 sit-down interview with film journalist David Shipman. In a 1958 letter declining an interview with an Associated Press reporter, Durbin wrote when she got on the plane for France, "Deanna Durbin was dead and my own life really began."
Danna Durbin died on April 20, 2013 at Neauphle-le-Château, France at the age of 91.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.