Deanna Durbin – Femme Fatal: An interview with film historian, Dale Kuntz

by Sean Martinfield | See: All, By Sean, Sean's Reviews and Interviews

Film historian and collector Dale Kuntz is a long-established and much-loved figure in Milwaukee’s cinematic circles. I met him over 40 years ago in Hollywood at an elaborate convention celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Jeanette MacDonald International Fan Club. Her fans poured in from all over the world for the week-long event. Along with special screenings of her films at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, the “clan clave” had its share of partying and exchanging of memorabilia on Miss MacDonald, much of that material including her screen partner in eight musical films, baritone Nelson Eddy. Along the way, Dale and I discovered our mutual passion for M.G.M.’s “Queen of the Lot”, Norma Shearer. We’ve been carrying-on ever since. Where we didn’t quite connect was with Universal Studios young superstar of the late ’30s and ’40s, Deanna Durbin. Not that I didn’t know about her, but Dale had the advantage of being a boy when her films were first released and has been her #1 Champion ever since. I was familiar with a few of Deanna’s recordings (and registered a few opinions about her vocals, especially in relationship to Jeanette singing the same material), but had never seen any of her films. None of them had appeared on TV. There was no way to “grow up” with her as generations have with such annual broadcasts as The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. How did this happen? After all, in 1938 she and Mickey Rooney shared a Special Academy Award “for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.” Though many of her films were eventually released on VHS and a number are available in (sometimes iffy) DVD format – nothing can compare to a full-fledged double bill of Deanna Durbin at the majestic Castro Theatre. And under the control of the dashing Eddie Muller, the evening promises to be one of those rare and sublime “Only in San Francisco” type experiences. It was the perfect opportunity to talk to Dale about his life-long relationship to this almost-forgotten but legendary star.

Sean: It’s hard to believe that throughout the many years of our relationship I have not had the opportunities to see Deanna Durbin’s films and then jump on the bandwagon beside you.

Dale: You may be the only one I haven’t been able to convert. One of the interesting things is that – being one of the most popular stars of the 1930s – she is one that most people don’t remember and one of the few that is still alive. December 4th, Deanna Durbin turns 90. She made her first film in 1936 and retired in 1948.

Sean: Have you ever tried to contact her?

Dale: I have. I was working on a book, The Films of Deanna Durbin, and she was not happy about that at all. I told her it would not be a biography, but the typical “Films of” variety. I promised I would send her the manuscript before it was published. But I couldn’t get it published! At that time, Citadel Press did not want to bother with her. They thought she wasn’t that well known anymore and it would not be a good seller. I went to University of Wisconsin Press – they wouldn’t handle it. They all thought there was no market for Deanna Durbin. That’s interesting because there is still a Deanna Durbin fan club in England.

Sean: What about today? Would resurrecting your book project be more feasible?

Dale: No. The “Films of” books are a thing of the past. All they want are scandalous biographies. If it’s about Marilyn Monroe, then you can write anything. Every year there’s something published about her. But even with James Dean and Elvis Presley, there’s hardly anything new on them.

Sean: Where I generally see the latest and best quality publications on film history is in the upstairs lobby of the Castro Theatre during the annual Silent Film Festival. There is always an amazing group of books directly related to the scheduled films and to the era of Classic Hollywood. So, why not for Deanna Durbin? Given her list of credits and success, why is she so easily dismissed?

Dale: Part of the problem is that her films were seldom shown on television. In 1941, she signed a new contract with Universal. She became the highest paid woman in Hollywood. According to the contract, she was to get a percentage of all her films, including any future showings in any media. That means – when the films were sold to television – they had to give Deanna a percentage of that. I think Universal was very lax to release her films because they weren’t going to make that much money on them. They had to pay her first.

Sean: That explains it then. I was a little boy when all the M.G.M. Classics began appearing on local television. I immediately latched onto our two favorites-in-common, Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald. Since then, there has never been a year when their films were not available on TV, and especially now through Turner Movie Classics. I don’t remember seeing anything with Deanna Durbin.

Dale: When Universal merged with International Pictures, Deanna was the highest paid woman at Universal. When William Goetz took over, he was advised to try to break the Durbin contract as soon as he could. Her films weren’t making the money they had earlier and the studio was tied to this enormous contract. That’s why in 1948, when her Universal contract expired, she waited for two years to see if someone would pick up her option. Nobody did. She decided she’d had enough of Hollywood and moved to France with her husband, Charles David. I’m often surprised that Joe Pasternak did not get her at M.G.M. Once he got there, he always wanted her there. His dream was to make a picture with her and Jeanette MacDonald. His idea was for them to do Two Sisters from Boston.

Sean: This is the same project released in 1946 that starred Kathryn Grayson and June Allyson?

Dale: Yes, it would have been a really charming movie for Deanna and Jeanette.

Sean: And considerably different.

Dale: Right. I don’t know if Deanna didn’t want to do it or Universal wouldn’t let her out of her contract, but it fell through. Then he wanted her so badly for The Student Prince. He did everything to get her to come back. And it wasn’t her weight problem! People thought she’d gained a little weight. But Deanna could lose weight faster than any star in Hollywood.

Sean: But then there are all those stories around the M.G.M. lot about how they lost that weight.

Dale: Yes, but there was never any of that about Deanna. She said she didn’t want to come back because she didn’t like all the hoopla in Hollywood. She loved making the films, all the singing, but hated all the publicity and all the fashion things. There are so many fashion layouts with Deanna as she is growing up. “Deanna Durbin uses Lux Flakes!” I have an ad from Gimbel’s here in Milwaukee advertising the kind of chenille bath robes worn by Deanna in Three Smart Girls Grow Up. All that kind of publicity – it just wasn’t her, she said.

Dale: Deanna was fifteen in 1936 when she and Judy Garland signed a six month option with M.G.M. They put them together in Every Sunday. At the time their options came up, Louis B. Mayer was in England and told the powers-that-be at M.G.M. to “get rid of the fat one”. They mistakenly let Deanna go. Universal snapped her up immediately. They put her in Three Smart Girls because she had been appearing on The Eddie Cantor Radio Show. The daily rushes were so fantastic that they added more songs for her and built-up her part. The movie was a tremendous success. When Mayer returned and found out that Judy was still at the studio and that Deanna was gone – he got very-very upset. That’s one of the reasons Mayer was never overly fond of Judy Garland. Deanna single-handedly saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy. To this day, Deanna Durbin is the only actress in motion picture history to have ten hits in a row. The first ten were both artistic and financial successes. All of that money rolling into Universal certainly bothered Louis B. Mayer.

Sean: Given the steady popularity of The Wizard of Oz over the years, it’s understandable that most people are surprised to learn of Louis B. Mayer’s not-so-enthusiastic feelings about Judy Garland.

Dale: I think it’s become a minor point. Judy certainly became a major star for M.G.M. and brought in a lot of money. The biggest problem was that Louis B. Mayer treated his stars like family and Judy was always causing trouble. He didn’t have those problems with the others. Even Mickey Rooney was not a problem! Mickey was there, he knew what to do, and a lot of times covered-up for Judy. She cost M.G.M. a lot more money with production costs going way overboard. That more than anything is what put him against her.

Sean: What is your first experience seeing Deanna Durbin? Did you have that same sense of connection with her that we’ve had with Jeanette MacDonald and Norma Shearer?

Dale: My first recollection of her is the 1940 film Spring Parade. It’s a very charming film. I was only eight years old, but I just fell in love with her. It still is my favorite film with her. And with my Austrian background – because it’s a tale set in Old Vienna, with Strauss waltzes, and the Emperor Franz Joseph – of course I’m going to like it! In my family, we were raised on Strauss Waltzes and whipped cream.

Sean: Were promotional products available from Spring Parade? Were her songs released in a set of 78 rpm recordings?

Dale: At the time – I don’t remember if we had a phonograph or not – I wasn’t buying records. Her recordings were available right from the start, of course. There were two sets of paper dolls and two sets of coloring books. I got both of those because, as a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was coloring.

Sean: Do you still have them?

Dale: I don’t have my originals, but I do have the coloring books and both sets of paper dolls. I also have her 78s, the “Deanna Durbin Souvenir Albums”. Almost all of her films featured just four songs. There were two complete soundtrack albums, Can’t Help Singing and Something In The Wind. The one from Can’t Help Singing is really neat because it has one 12″ record and two 10″ records. I know that there are soundtrack recordings of songs that were not included in her movies. One of them is “Close As Pages In A Book” from Up In Central Park which was cut from the film.

Sean: But that was the best song in the Broadway production!

Dale: And the most popular! Deanna’s last two films weren’t exactly bombs, but they didn’t make much money. Universal made For the Love of Mary, but held it up because they were going to do a big thing with Up In Central Park. It was going to be done in Technicolor and directed by Fred Astaire, but then they pulled the budget on it. When it was released, it got the worst reviews of any of Deanna’s films. So, they cut and edited it, put it out in circulation, and quickly released For the Love of Mary to cash-in on whatever they could. It was the last of her films to be released, but made before Up In Central Park.

Dale: I think the most interesting thing about Christmas Holiday is how it came about. M.G.M. was doing Dragon Seed, a big production with Katharine Hepburn, Gene Kelly was to play her husband. But when they saw him in the Oriental make-up, everybody attending the rushes were laughing like mad because it was so ridiculous. So, they approached Universal to get Turhan Bey – who is Turkish and Viennese – but could play an Oriental. In order to get him, M.G.M. loaned Gene Kelly over to Universal. I think they were already planning Christmas Holiday for Deanna, but once they got Gene Kelly, the production went ahead. The reviews were bad, the box office receipts were bad. Universal had planned another drama for her with Charles Boyer. But they canceled that and instead went to work putting Deanna in her only Technicolor film, Can’t Help Singing, with a big score by Jerome Kern and filmed out in Utah.

Sean: I’m certain that the vast majority of people coming to the Castro Theater for this special double bill will be seeing her for the first time. Some may have an overall acquaintance with Deanna as I do, including her early films and recordings as a lighthearted juvenile – but probably not as the girl grown up. For most of the viewers, it will be about meeting Deanna Durbin for the first time, as a sexually attractive adult woman. In that respect, do you think the film might have a greater impact today?

Dale: I think Christmas Holiday may still cause people to be taken aback by Gene Kelly, not by Deanna Durbin so much. It’s his Singin’ In the Rain image versus his role as a psychopathic killer. That musical scene plays all the time – even at my local grocery store! Every time they spray the produce, they play his recording of “Singin’ In The Rain”.

Dale: Universal was very careful in letting her grow up, giving her roles that were sophisticated for an older girl and then as a young woman. The Amazing Mrs. Holliday is really her first grown-up role. The studio had a tendency for her to have older leading men such as Franchot Tone. She made three movies with him. Her fan base was full of fathers and mature men. Her fan mail was loaded with men who said she was the “ideal girl”. But she did play opposite young leading men. Robert Stack made his film debut opposite her in First Love. The film’s original title was Cinderella, 1939, and that’s exactly what it is – a “Cinderella” story. Robert Stack gives Deanna her first screen kiss. That kiss made every newspaper in the country, sometimes pushing World War II off to the side.

Sean: What is it about her that keeps you so interested after all these years? What fires the passion and makes you hold out for a resurgence or new discovery of her?

Dale:Number one, it’s said that she had the best voice Hollywood ever discovered. As much as I love Jeanette MacDonald, Deanna Durbin has a better voice.

Sean:Well, Jeanette was much older at the time. M.G.M. kept pushing her into these sort-of ingenue roles and – as much as we are charmed by her beauty and her gorgeous voice – we can’t ignore the fact that she was in her middle thirties and not her twenties like Deanna Durbin. Also, Jeanette’s voice and manner leans more to the Classical side, which pushes the envelope for some folks.

Dale: The only way I can describe it, is to say that Deanna’s voice was a little warmer than Jeanette’s. In First Love, they translated “Un bel di” (Madama Butterfly) into English for Deanna – the first time that had ever happened. In His Butler’s Sister, she sings the tenor aria, “Nessun Dorma” (Turandot), also translated into English.

Sean:How did she do? In what context does she sing this?

Dale: It’s really very good. She’s the guest singer at a ball. So many of her movies ended with a big party.

Dale: In For The Love Of Mary, which takes place in Washington, she sing’s “Figaro’s Aria” from The Barber of Seville. Universal spent so much money on her films. They say that One Hundred Men And A Girl with Leopold Stokowski and his orchestra – Deanna sings Mozart’s “Alleluia” – is the movie that brought more Classical music to the American public than anything since.

Sean: What can we look forward to in Christmas Holiday and Lady On A Train that is going to hook the audience? I believe I’m safe in saying that the vast majority of people who will be attending don’t know Deanna Durbin and will be seeing her for the first time. What are some of those key points that are going to make us clamor to see another of her films at the Castro Theater?

Dale: In Christmas Holiday she’s playing a prostitute and she just doesn’t seem to care anymore. She sings, “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year”, which was written for her. Notice when she sings it, that it’s almost a dirge. But for the commercial recording she made, you would say, “This is the real Deanna Durbin.” Then, later on in the film, there’s a flashback where she sings “Always” to Gene Kelly. That’s where you get her true voice and the way she could handle a song. I think that contrast shows how hard she was working to make the character believable. Once again, her character is so likable – you really relate to her and feel sorry for her. You know she doesn’t believe her husband is a murderer because he’s so good to her. Gale Sondergaard plays his mother. When things come to a head, the mother turns on her and you feel compelled to come to her defense. Lady On A Train is a such a fun movie and she sparkles throughout the whole thing. Part of the plot is that she goes to this nightclub and, of course, there’s a singer. Deanna arrives in a really fabulous outfit – big hat, her hair is pulled back into two buns, and she’s carrying a big muff. Very smart. The singer gets locked-up and Deanna has to go on – and, yes, she fits perfectly into her dress. When she comes out, she has an entirely different hair-do. She spends the entire night at the club and in each of her following songs she wears a different dress and has a different hair-do.

Sean: That’s what’s known as “Star Treatment”. What do you most treasure in your Deanna Durbin collection? What would be the last thing you’d want to part with? You realize, of course, you can take it with you! I’m taking my two-page letter from Norma Shearer with me to the tomb.

Dale: That’s an interesting question. It would probably be my personal autographs from her.

Sean: How did you acquire those?

Dale: When I was planning the book, I wrote her quite frequently.

Sean: I think you should resurrect your manuscript – now that there’s another buzz in the air. I know that “Noir City Xmas” is going to be very successful, for lots of reasons. But for you and I, it’s about – “Deanna Durbin Plays the Castro Theatre!” I’m sure that must be very refreshing to you.

Dale: It is! I haven’t seen Christmas Holiday on the big screen since it came out. It was never re-issued because it was not a big hit.

Sean: Is there any film that you wish she would have done?

Dale: Certainly The Student Prince – I wish she would have come back to do that. Also, in 1943, when Universal decided to re-make The Phantom of the Opera, it was to star Deanna Durbin, Boris Karloff, and Alan Jones.

Sean: That would have been the most phenomenal cast. See? Now you’re really breaking my heart.

Dale: At the time, with all the planning, the studio re-furbished and re-painted the opera set from the original Lon Chaney film because it was to be shot in Technicolor. At the last minute, Claude Rains replaced Boris Karloff because he was busy doing something else. Nelson Eddy had left M.G.M. – he walked out after The Chocolate Soldier – so Universal offered him the role of “Anatole”. Then Deanna Durbin refused to do “Christine” because she didn’t want to be compared to Jeanette MacDonald. She didn’t want to do a “Deanna Durbin & Nelson Eddy” – which I can understand. It was a smart move on her part. But the film was a tremendous success. Right after that, Universal made The Climax which was a sort-of prequel to Phantom. Susannah Foster was the soprano in both films.

Sean: But you and I both can imagine Phantom of the Opera with Alan Jones in place of Nelson Eddy and Deanna Durbin instead of Susannah Foster.

Dale: Oh, yes, much more so!

Sean: Do you think the film would have been a greater success had Universal stayed with their original casting rather than how it wound up?

Dale: The film was a success, but it could have been Universal’s biggest success up to that time. The critics said, “Too much opera, not enough horror.” And it was only the third color film that Universal had produced. They didn’t even have a color logo at that point!

Sean: If Deanna had played “Christine” with Boris Karloff and Allan Jones, that production of Phantom of the Opera would have become a perennial TV Classic and – by now – everybody would have grown up with her.

Dale: Deanna always said she loved making movies. But also said she was not the “Little Miss Fix-It” who was up on the screen.


Dale is known as “Wisconsin’s Leading Film Historian”. Since 1966, he has been the President of FOOFS – the Followers of Old Films – a group that started out as a “Remember Jeanette MacDonald” party. He is also President of Milwaukee Film Classics which screens films bi-monthly at the Charles Allis Art Museum. Dale has taught film history at Cardinal Stritch University as a part of its continuing Adult Education and was a Staff Writer for WOKY Radio’s quarterly magazine, The Best of Times. As a freelance writer, he has been published in Exclusively Yours, Milwaukee Magazine, national film magazines and newspapers. He collaborated on the very successful book, The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. For twenty years he co-ordinated the Classic Film Series at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and for eight years was Film Curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum. For four years he hosted “Dialing For Dollars” on local Channel 12 where he also had his own segment, “Movies Golden Moments” (or “M.G.M”). He wrote and produced his own 10-minute segment, “Take Two”, on the syndicated program, “Hollywood, Then and Now” and for several years did the commentary on WOKY’s annual Academy Award Show. Dale also co-ordinated the popular summer program, “Cinema For Seniors”, at the Marcus Center.

This interview excerpted from Sean Martinfield’s article in the San Francisco Sentinal:Deanna Durbin- The Femme Fatal of Noir City X-mas, Wed night at the Castro Theatre

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