Deanna Durbin, Hollywood’s 20-carat voice, used to play Miss Fixit, but now she’s in worldly roles ... It may not be art, but, man, how it pays
NO ADMITTANCE—With or Without a Pass!” This means you. And the people who put up that sign aren’t fooling. This is the set upon which Miss Deanna Durbin is shooting a motion picture. It takes top honors, as far as Universal Studio is concerned, and demands a hushed privacy, which affects not only the casual visitor but even the executives of the company and their minions.
Ordinarily, Hollywood’s citizens chortle gaily when they see such a sign. The press, the other actors, the technicians—even the waitresses in the studio commissaries—regard it as a mere whim on the part of a director or star and barge smiling through the door, sure of a warm welcome. Not so on a Durbin set. If you want to see'Miss Durbin you apply to the one publicity man who is permitted to come into her
august presence. He in turn presents your case during a conference which is anything but lighthearted, and if you are. given the royal nod you are escorted to the designatèd spot with a blaring of trumpets, conscious that you have been raised above the common herd.
The answer to all this, of course, is that Miss Durbin has carolled her company, Universal, from nearbankruptcy to a condition which makes the Treasury Department leap high into the air with glee. It is estimated that in 10 years she has drawn into the coffers the laudable sum of $30 millions, and even in Hollywood that is not hay. She gets between $200,000 and $375,000 yearly, herself, according to the number of pictures she makes. Consequently the moguls on her lot view her with some of the religious awe that the Siamese show toward their sacred white elephants.
Miss Durbin has never intimated whether she enjoys this attitude on the part of her bosses. It is conceivable that she takes it for granted, believing that every other screen luminary is treated in the same manner. For, outside of one brief epic in her extreme youth, she has never made a picture at any studio but Universal, never been loaned out, never free-lanced.
Besides, it is difficult for her to remember when she was not on a sound stage, when she did anything but make movies. At the age of 24 (her birthday was Dec. 4) she has been a star almost as long as anyone in Hollywood. She long ago learned that visits from the press, portraits in the still gallery, and publicity stunts were vital elements of her profession. Thus she approaches these things in a businesslike manner, channelling them all through one man instead of a whole department, making appointments for them at her convenience, and calmly demanding that the studio leave the sign on the door and her in peace the rest of the time. Her publicity men agree that she is not temperamental in the slightest, even in those nerve-racking moments when she blows a line. She claims she has never had a serious argument with anyone she has worked with. From my own observation I would say her only possible trouble is an absorption in her work so intense as to make her seem chilly; but her colleagues definitely prefer this to the emotional storms of many another actress.
Face to Face
SHE is taller than you expect. She carries herself well, wears her clothes superbly, moves easily. Her face still retains theroundness it had in childhood, and her smile is exactly as you see it on the screen. Her hair is dark brown, dyed again to its natural shade after the blondness she affected for “Lady on a Train.” Her eyes are the most unusual of her features, being a pale, pure grey, which you would imagine would not photograph. And her voice is so clear that it’s almost metallic.
She answers every question graciously, instantly and definitely. There is no fumbling around for the right word, no hesitating. She knows what you want, if you are from the press, and she tries to give it to you. What’s more, she remembers that you, too, have work to do, that you can’t wait all day, and dashes across to you between shots in a scene instead of receiving you at her leisure in her lush trailer dressing room, which is worthy of attention from Robert Ripley. She is very charming, very friendly, very intelligent—and you wonder if she realizes all the kowtowing that goes on outside when her name is mentioned.
She has recently amazed Hollywood and the rest of the world by doing a complete about-face in her professional life. A couple of years ago she forsook the bright, impossible musicals she had always been seen in and blossomed out as a somewhat tawdry wench in “Christmas Holiday,” followed by a screwball female in “Lady on a Train.” These, her studio would have you know, are manifestations of “the new Durbin.”
Miss Durbin told me that the switch has been brewing for some time. About four years ago it suddenly dawned on her that the studio was not even according her the courtesy of telling her in advance what her next picture would be or who would be in it with her. She had to read such things in the local columns. This, to a girl who had lifted the company by its financial bootstraps, was annoying. She decided that it arose from the conception held by the front office that she was still a child, that she would have nothing mature to say if she was consulted beforehand. The upshot was that she refused to make the next production they handed her, was promptly suspended, and spent a very happy year doing nothing. On her return they put her into “The Amazing Mrs. Holliday,” a title which haunted me for six months (see by-line).
“I didn’t know the picture was that famous,” Deanna said. “It was but awful!”
It was at that point that Universal secured the services of Felix Jackson,
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a German, who had been writing at MGM. He, incidentally, had been brought to this country in 1938 by Joe Pasternack, the man who guided Deanna with a fatherly hand during her childhood. He had worked for Pasternack previously in Europe, not dreaming that one day he would marry Joe’s most famous protégée.
Jackson bowled Miss Durbin over completely by treating her as an adult. The day they met he began asking her about the sort of story she wanted to play, how many songs she thought she should sing, what clothes she should wear. The result was that under his aegis she made “Hers to Hold” and “His Brother’s Sister”— both of which rang merrily the bells at the box office —and later decided to shoot the works on stark drama and comedy. A further result was that she became his wife last summer, and their first child will be born in March.
No Puppy Love for Durbin
Before we continue with “the new Durbin” business, let me say that there was a great deal of whooping and hollering when Deanna and Felix were spliced. For Hollywood, though she has been married and divorced before, still considers her an adolescent. The fact that Jackson was nearly 20 years older was viewed as being somehow indecent.
Deanna herself has other ideas.
“I’ve never been with anyone but older people since I was 13,” she told me. “I am actually older than my chronological age. After all, I’ve been in pictures for 10 years. Young men simply do not interest me.”
“But you married one before— Vaughn Paul,” 1 put in.
“Yes. And that was the main reason why it didn’t work out,” she answered unhesitatingly. “That was one of those dream t hings—all gaiety and no sense— that’s frightening to remember.”
Vaughn Paul was the son of Val Paul, a producer at Universal. When she first met him he was an assistant director at the studio, a young, attractive boy whose life up to that time had been as devoid of emotional entanglements as hers. It was first love for them both, characterized by little notes left in special places around the lot, by music which they considered only as belonging to them, by a fairy tale marriage, with dozens of bridesmaids and all the trimmings. It lasted a couple of years—years which were divided between sheer bliss and utter confusion—and ended when Vaughn went into the Navy and Deanna secured a divorce.
Felix Jackson, on the other hand, isa mature man, who has had a career both in Europe and in Hollywood. Before he came to this country he was a newspaperman, a stage manager, and a playwright in Germany. His six German stage hits led to his entering the picture business, where he wrote with such success that he was called to Hollywood and MGM. He is a quiet man with a voice so low you can scarcely hear it, a warm smile, and
immense personal charm. His professional attitude toward Deanna is that she is as grown up as Irene Dunne or Joan Fontaine, or any other star, and should be treated as such. Their relationship in business, therefore, consists of calm discussions of every detail involved in the making of a picture, talks which sometimes carry over into their home, but which they usually leave at the studio gates. And, since they have found that they almost always have the same ideas on things, they work together with a harmony noteworthy in any profession. Also noteworthy is the fact that no one has ever called Felix “Mr. Durbin.”
It was Jackson who first conceived of Deanna’s playing the wife of the murderer in “Christmas Holiday,” a picture which showed how truly she had divorced herself from the “Miss Fixit” roles she had previously played, and in which she confesses she had the time of her life chewing up the scenery. This production brings up another facet of the “new Durbin,” which at present they are both trying to rise above and ignore.
“Christmas Holiday made more money than any production in the history of Universal. It cost $2 millions to produce and netted a clear million. But the critics decided it was one of the worst—if not the worst—they had ever seen. From one end of the country to the other they threw mud, brickbats, and rotten eggs. Yet the public still showered down its nickels and dimes; and the men at Universal rubbed their hands in ecstasy.
“Lady on A Train” has had the same history. To give you just one instance of the critical blackballing it has received, let me quote you the writings of a reviewer in Pittsburgh, who headlined her column with: “Maybe Deanna Should Stick to Singing,” and went on to state that the picture was “quite a mystery—the mystery being why any press agent should call it Deanna’s ‘brightest film success.’ ” This was echoed by nearly every columnist in the country, yet, again, the public has romped to the theatres and “Lady” is being held over in nearly every town in which it plays.
Miss Durbin said that she does not mind what the critics say, that she is used to their block busters. She therefore turns the other cheek where her own work is mentioned, but undergoes a rise in temperature when they lambaste someone or something else in the piece which she believes unworthy of such treatment.
Mr. Jackson maintains, somewhat mysteriously, “If you shoot for an Academy Award you never get it,” and lets it go at that. And the brass hats who run the studio merely shrug their shoulders, pointing the while at the balance sheets. As long as Deanna continues to bring in the mazuma, which has marked her career from the beginning, anybody can say anything and they won't care.
Durbin Success Story
Deanna’s fabulous success started in 1935, when MGM planned a film starring the late Schumann-Heink and needed someone to play the diva as a child. An agent had heard Durbin
give out with “Il Bacio” (ofj course) at a church social, got heran audition, and she was signed for the role. When the production was cancelled due to the illness of Schumann-Heink, Deanna made one short with Judy Garland, and MGM decided they had no further use for her. They have been kicking themselves ever since, naturally. For she was immediately snapped up by Universal, her name was changed from “Edna Mae” to “Deanna” and she proceeded to wow ’em in “Three Smart Girls.”
Previous to all this Deanna had led a life so normal as to seem dull. She was born in Winnipeg, of English parents, and, with her older sister, father and mother, moved from that city when she was eight months old. The family set out for Los Angeles, believing that the much-heralded climate would benefit Mr. Durbin’s health. There he became a real-estate man of some prominence, and Deanna and her sister attended school, got into trouble, behaved on occasion like angels, and in every other way pursued the usual paths of childhood.
Deanna oegan to sing almost as soon as she could talk, and it was her sister who insisted she should have lessons She was so convinced of Deanna’s future that she paid for the training in scales and arpeggios herself. Her faith was justified when the small fry copped the honors in her first feature film at Universal, was signed by Eddie Cantor to appear regularly on his radio show, and became one of the greatest money-makers in Hollywood history.
Although Deanna has always been associated with Canada, she left it before she knew what it was and has only returned twice in her life. Much has been written about her visits to her grandmother in Winnipeg, but she told me she saw the old lady only briefly when she was 10 and again when she was 15. She agreed that these were milestones, however, as the oldster was a rather forbidding character who wore her hair drawn tightly into a topknot, and carried a cane with which she banged on the wall if Deanna made too much noise in the adjoining room.
Miss Durbin’s favorite memories of the north country are: a visit to a lake at Laclu, near Winnipeg, where some friends of her family had a cabin in the woods; and a train trip she took through the Canadian Rockies. The latter coincided with the first run of the largest engine the CPR had ever produced, and she was induced to run through a blinding snowstorm, climb up into the sooty cab, and have her picture snapped at the throttle. The trainman also wanted her to take it for a short hop by herself, but at 15 that prospect was too fearful to contemplate and she declined, jumping down, filthy, into the snow before she could be persuaded.
Deanna would like to visit some of the historic places of Canada and the eastern cities, like Montreal and Toronto, she said. But Universal has a schedule for her 'when she returns to the screen after her baby is born which will prevent her from leaving Hollywood for some time. Right now she is hastily finishing “Because of Him,” another
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Cinderella piece, in whichshe playsactor Charles Laughton against producer Franchot Tone. She hopes her expanding middle will not be noticeable in your neighborhood theatre. When it is done she will set about getting the necessary tiny garments and completing the redecoration of her husband’s house, two projects which will keep her busy until she goes to the delivery room.
No Hollywood Social Butterfly
It will be the first vacation she has had in several years. Deanna welcomes the fact that she will have time to visit with her sister and her best friend, Anne Shirley, in addition to working in her garden, studying new music, and living the quiet Ufe which she enjoys. For she is not and has never been the Hollywood social kid. She has seldom gone to night clubs, seldom been photographed at anything but musical first nights, seldom given a party large enough to hit the papers. Her home is an informal English farmhouse, featuring a swimming pool, in which she actually swims, and a carefully tended collection of English china miniatures, which are her only hobby.
She has an enormous collection of recordings, of course, and a huge piano
and record player; and she further demonstrates her fidelity to the talent which brought her fame by taking a singing lesson every day of lier life, whether she is working on a picture or not. She would like some day to sing in opera, and she told me she and Jackson discussed doing screen versions of such works as “La Boheme” or “Carmen,” providing they could overcome the technical difficulties. She would also like to do a play in New York, but maintained that she would not appear without at least two years of intensive dramatic training, lest her performance be judged solely on the fact that she is a movie star. She says, too, that she will retire as soon as she herself feels she is beginning to slip, that she does not intend to be tottering around a sound stage at the age of 95, and that to her there is nothing more dismal than a former big name playing a bit part just to keep body and soul together.
These statements are unusual in Hollywood. And they effectively disrupt the “sacred cow” conception of her held by Universal. They prove that she is sane and sensible. If she is slightly remote it Ls because she has never had a chance to live as other people, because she has been wrapped in gilt-edged cotton since she was a child. And you can’t blame the studio for that. Would you sniff at $30 millions?