Francis P. DeStefano
Deanna Durbin: America’s Sweetheart
Deanna Durbin’s beautiful singing voice catapulted her to stardom during Hollywood’s Golden Age. From her film debut in 1936 at the age of 15 to her retirement in 1949, her charming personality and singing voice made her America’s sweetheart, as well as one of the highest-paid actresses in the movies, and one of the highest-paid women in the world.
Born in Canada, her parents moved to Los Angeles when she was little more than a toddler. By the age of ten she became the star pupil of one of Hollywood’s top vocal instructors. Her beautiful soprano led to a screen test, and she was signed to a movie contract in 1936 at the age of 15.
Her first full-length film, “Three Smart Girls,” was so popular that many more light-hearted romantic teen musicals followed as quickly as possible. All of them featured at least two or three Durbin solos ranging from pop to operatic areas. It is said that the success of these light comedies saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy.
As she matured, she tired of the frothy comedies that had made her famous and wanted better material. She got one chance in 1944 when she played the lead in “Christmas Holiday,” a film adaptation of a novel of the same name by famed British author Somerset Maugham.
The novel has very little to do with Christmas. Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a young Englishman from a respectable middle-class family who has completed his schooling and is about to enter the family business. Before he does, his father treats him to a holiday in Paris over the Christmas holidays. It is to be a typical middle-class excursion where he will see all the sites, visit the art museums, and attend various concerts including a Midnight Mass celebration, a major Parisian event.
On arrival in Paris, he meets up with an old friend, now a typical ’30s radical, who takes him to a high-class bordello where he meets a Russian émigré prostitute. When she discovers that he plans to attend Midnight Mass, she begs him to let her join him. During the service in a packed cathedral, she breaks down in hysterical sobbing. Over the next few days, she tells him her tragic story, and introduces him to a side of life that he has never experienced or even imagined. In Maugham’s words, the bottom falls out of his life.
The Hollywood production code required major changes in the film adaptation. Even without the code, Deanna Durbin’s persona would never have allowed her to play a prostitute on screen. She plays a singer in a dance hall dive that is a thinly disguised bordello. The young Englishman is transformed into a newly commissioned, young American army officer whose fiancée has jilted him for another man. The locale has been shifted to New Orleans, where the officer’s flight home has been forced to land during a storm. The free-thinking friend is now a sleazy newspaper reporter who doubles as a pimp for the New Orleans dive where Durbin’s character works.
Most of the film story is told in flashbacks, a typical film noir device. We are introduced to the prostitute’s no-good husband played, by Gene Kelly in a non-dancing role, and his over-bearing mother, played by Gale Sondergaard.
Despite the many changes, the film is remarkably true to Maugham’s novel with its emphasis on tragic love, sin, suffering, and redemption. “Christmas Holiday” is a dark film superbly directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the great masters of what would later become known as film noir. The writer, Herman Mankiewicz of “Citizen Kane” fame, produced a brilliant script full of rare depth and meaning. The screenplay is supported by a musical score created by Austrian Hans Salter. It ranges from Durbin’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s ballad, “Always,” to a magnificent orchestral version of Wagner’s “Liebestod” performed in a packed concert hall, and again at the film’s finale.
Speaking of the finale, the film’s creators dramatically changed what I consider to be Maugham’s very weak and ambiguous ending. The ending is still somewhat ambiguous but, like the rest of the film, the direction, the acting, the writing, and the musical score transcend the novel on which it is based.
Deanna Durbin regarded “Christmas Holiday” as her best performance. She certainly demonstrated that the child singer had become a fine mature actress. In my opinion, most of her other films, despite their great popularity, are hard to watch today. One exception is “It Started with Eve,” a charming 1941 romantic comedy in which she stars along with Charles Laughton and Robert Cummings.
In this “screwball” comedy, her youthful charm and vivacity, as well as her singing, revive a dying old man, played superbly by Laughton. When she accompanies herself on the piano with a spirited version of “When I Sing,” set to the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz,” you can see how she revived American audiences during the great depression and the war years.
Deanna Durbin’s fame did not last like that of Judy Garland’s — another teenage singer who also became a huge star. Despite her box office success, Durbin never appeared in any immortal film musicals like the “Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Easter Parade,” or “A Star is Born.” Perhaps even more important was the fact that she decided to quit show business in 1949 at the age of 28. After two failed marriages, she married a Frenchman who had directed one of her last films. They decided to quit Hollywood and move to a farm in France, where she spent the rest of her life until her death at the age of 91 in 2013. When one considers the tragic life of Judy Garland, who can say that Durbin made the wrong decision?
Remember the Night.
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are the stars of “Remember the Night,” a little known 1940 romantic comedy set in the holiday season. Stanwyck plays a woman on trial for shoplifting an expensive bracelet from a New York jewelry store. MacMurray plays the prosecuting attorney determined to send her to jail. However, the trial is adjourned until after the holidays.
Inevitably, circumstances lead them to embark on a road trip back to their respective homes in Indiana. The film is a “road” movie like the Frank Capra 1934 classic, “It Happened One Night.” Two strangers from two different worlds embark on a journey during which they will inevitably fall in love, although it takes most of the movie for them to realize it.
For him, the trip is an annual return to the family farm where live his loving, widowed mother, maiden aunt, and good-natured farmhand. For her, it is a shot in the dark. She has not seen or heard from her mother since she ran away from home as a teenager.
When Stanwyck’s character is repulsed by her unforgiving and bitter mother, MacMurray’s character offers to bring her home to his family for the holidays. There, they receive the warmest of welcomes. He has obviously had a different childhood, but his folks also suspect that there is something going on between him and the beautiful young woman.
Even after he tells them that she is a thief and that he intends to convict her when they return to the big city, they still treat her with real kindness and affection. Over the ensuing Christmas and New Year celebrations, a remarkable transformation occurs. In the words of screenwriter Preston Sturges, the thief becomes converted and the prosecutor becomes corrupted. They have fallen in love, and by the time they leave for New York, he is determined to do all he can to help her escape the clutches of the law, while she is equally determined to do the right thing and face the music.
The acting is really fine in this film. Barbara Stanwyck, who some consider to be the greatest film actress of all time, was at her best. She was helped considerably by her recent collaboration with famed costume designer Edith Head. According to Hollywood lore, most designers declined to work with Stanwyck, whom they regarded as a plain Jane. Edith Head jumped at the opportunity and proceeded to glamorize Stanwyck. After this film, Stanwyck insisted that Head design all of her costumes.
Fred MacMurray, a former bandleader, was rising to stardom and had great chemistry with Stanwyck in this film, something that carried over into their appearance four years later in the completely different “Double Indemnity,” a classic, groundbreaking film noir.
It was a pleasure to watch the rest of the cast. Beulah Bondi, who would become famous six years later as George Bailey’s mother in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” played the mother as only she could. Her woman-to-woman scene with Stanwyck as they discuss the man they both love is believable and touching. Elizabeth Patterson was more than fine as the maiden aunt, especially when she helps Stanwyck fit into a dress with a very small waistline in the same manner as Hattie McDaniel corseted Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind.” Stanley Holloway’s rendition of the song, “A Perfect Day,” was one of the film’s many high points.
As mentioned above, Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay. He complained when director Mitchell Leisen cut some of his scenes, and decided that thereafter he would direct his own films. He went on to great success as a director, but I do not believe that any of his later films equaled this one. Every writer needs an editor, and Leisner did Sturges a great favor. Even though writer and director fought, they produced a fine film. It reminds me of the advice that Dr. Samuel Johnson gave to an aspiring young writer: “When you think you have written something particularly fine, strike it out!” *