The name Deanna Durbin doesn’t stir the same memories as other Hollywood legends, but this Canadian singer/actress was one of the top box office draws in the 1930s and 40s, single-handedly saved a studio and was a close challenger to that other teen songstress…Judy Garland.
Born Edna Mae Durbin in Winnipeg, Manitoba on December 4, 1921, her parents moved the family to Southern California in 1923. Her natural singing talents became obvious, so her parents enrolled her in vocal lessons. She was soon signed, at the age of 14, to a contract at MGM.
Durbin made her debut in a short film with Judy Garland, also an accomplished singer despite her young age. MGM decided on the more comtemporary sound of Garland, while the more operatic talents of Durbin were signed to Universal Studios.
Changing her first name to Deanna, Durbin quickly became Universal’s biggest star. Three Smart Girls (1936) was a huge hit, followed by two sequels. More films, including Mad About Music (1938) and First Love (1939), resonated with Depression-era audiences who flocked to see the little girl with a big voice. She even had one of filmdom’s largest fanclubs. The success of her films is credited with saving Universal from bankruptcy.
By the 1940s, a maturing Durbin sought to broaden her acting talents beyond the romance-musical genre. Ultimately, a new studio regime, changing public taste, and her own lack of interest in Hollywood led For the Love of Mary (1949) to be her last film. She retired at the age of 29, married (for the third time) and raised two children.
Although, Deanna Durbin’s legacy as dimished though the passage of time, many still remember the little girl with a big voice who became one of Hollywood’s top box office draws.
Many of her most popular films films have been released on DVD and are available through TSCPL’s Interlibrary Loan service.