Deanna Durbin, bright star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, dies at 91

May 2, 2013

Deanna Durbin, a star whose songs and smile made her one of the biggest box-office draws of Hollywood’s Golden Age, died about April 20 in a village outside Paris. She was 91.

A family friend, Bob Koster of Los Angeles, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. The exact date of her death was not known, and Koster did not know the cause. Koster’s father, Henry Koster, directed six of Miss Durbin’s films.

Miss Durbin had lived out of public view in France since 1949.

Miss Durbin made her first feature film, “Three Smart Girls,” at 14. At the height of her abbreviated career, she was among Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses.

Her admirers included Winston Churchill, who said she was his favorite star, according to biographer William Manchester. Anne Frank had Miss Durbin’s photo pasted on the wall in the quarters where she and her family hid in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

In 1938, Miss Durbin received an honorary Academy Award for her “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.”

Her hair, makeup and on-screen outfits set fashion trends worldwide and were emulated by millions. In the 1941 hit “Nice Girl?,” Miss Durbin, then 20, wore a spangled white organdy dress, ruffled and modestly cut, that became the rage at proms and country club dances across the United States.

“She was one of the last really legitimate movie stars from the 1930s who was still with us,” film historian Alan K. Rode told the Los Angeles Times. “She was a huge box-office star for a short period of time.”

Miss Durbin retired from the movies at age 28, and she never looked back, despite appeals from directors, studios and fans.

Deanna Durbin was born Edna Mae Durbin on Dec. 4, 1921, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her father moved the family to Los Angeles, where Miss Durbin was discovered by a talent scout who heard her singing at a school recital.

In 1936, she co-starred with Judy Garland in the musical short “Every Sunday.” The same year, the struggling Universal studio hired Miss Durbin to star in “Three Smart Girls,” her first full-length feature. Her strong screen presence made the film a huge success. “One Hundred Men and a Girl” followed a year later, saving Universal from bankruptcy and bestowing on Miss Durbin the nickname “the mortgage lifter.”

Rode said Miss Durbin, along with Abbott and Costello, “saved the studio from going down the tubes.”

By 1939, child roles were becoming increasingly out of reach for Miss Durbin, who was passed over for the part of Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” in favor of Garland. Her first on-screen kiss — with Robert Stack — bumped war headlines off newspapers in 1939.

Miss Durbin married cinematographer Vaughn Paul in 1941 and was divorced two years later.

She made her only Technicolor film, “Can’t Help Singing,” in 1944. Her other films were in black-and-white because studio executives said it was too expensive to have Miss Durbin and color film in the same movie.

She married playwright Felix Jackson, 20 years her senior, in 1944. They had one daughter and divorced in 1949.

In 1945, Miss Durbin made “Lady on a Train” — directed by Charles David, whom she married five years later. The couple moved to France and had a son. David died in 1999.

Survivors include her daughter, Jessica Jackson, and her son, Peter H. David.

After her early retirement, Miss Durbin repeatedly dismissed speculation that she might return to the screen. Responding to a request for an interview from the Associated Press in 1958, she wrote that she was reveling in the anonymity she found living in the French countryside.

“I’ve gained weight, I do my own shopping, bring up my two children and sing an hour every day,” she wrote.

— Associated Press

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