What better way to spend the “most wonderful time of the year” than with a Film Noir classic that just keeps giving and giving? Before pushing the PLAY button, we extend heartfelt thanks to Mr. Eddie Muller (“The Czar of Noir”) for selecting this multi-faceted work (in glorious 35mm) as part of his 2011 Noir City Christmas screenings at San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre. For most of the sold-out audience that night, it was a first-time introduction to the film’s leading lady – Deanna Durbin. Still with us, celebrating her 91st birthday (12/4) at her home in Paris, the work of this truly legendary Hollywood soprano has been pretty much a screaming mystery since her self-imposed retirement in 1948 at age 27. Shortly before Christmas 1950 she married husband #3, Charles David (her director for Lady on a Train), then re-located to a chateau in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. With his solemn promise to let her live the “life of nobody” – Deanna Durbin simply went away.
I was 8-years-old when M.G.M. opened the vaults and made its classic library of films available to local TV stations. Other studios followed suit, such as Universal (saved from financial ruin by its top-grossing female star, teen-aged Deanna Durbin); Twentieth Century-Fox (likewise in the chips because of musical moppet Shirley Temple); and Warner Brothers Studio whose roster of feisty leading ladies included Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Ida Lupino. What with morning, afternoon, and late-night screenings – by the fourth grade I had morphed into a ’30s and ’40s black & white movies geek. But Deanna Durbin’s films were not part of those packages and, consequently, not in my head. I could testify to the appeal of Jeanette MacDonald, June Allyson, Joan Blondell, and Ginger Rogers – but the celebrity status and artistic impact of the once highest-paid Hollywood soprano was totally lost on me. Turns out, it was Deanna’s own un-doing. Her last contract at Universal stipulated she would receive a percentage from all future screenings of her films – no matter where, when or how that occurred. Who knew from movies on TV? There was no TV. Corporate greed prevailed. Universal eventually decided Durbin’s perpetual royalties – the same variety negotiated by today’s artists – were something of a bother and not terribly cost-effective. “Lock ’em up, f’get about it.”
Her fans certainly never forgot – and secreted away their unimaginable collections of Deanna Durbin memorabilia including paper dolls, coloring books, autographed 8x10s, posters, 16mm prints, recordings, and hope chests. Lots of folks may not realize they’re living in a “Deanna Durbin Model Home”! It’s also true that – because of “artistic differences” – more than a couple of generations of movie watchers never got the Deanna Durbin experience.
Until recently. Thanks to DVDs and the Turner Classic Movie Channel, it seems Deanna Durbin is in the middle of a comeback.
The whole crowd at the Castro Theatre went nuts over Christmas Holiday, and Janet and I and have been fascinated by it ever since. The screenplay is based on a re-tailored version of Somerset Maugham’s 1939 novel which was originally set in Paris. Considered one of the best works by director Robert Siodmak, the film is packed with historical significance and inspires fresh conversation about the Time, the Place, and the Girl. And the Boy! Co-star Gene Kelly is as dreamy as it gets when it comes to winsome psychotics and the mothers who love them too much – this one played by the bewitching Gale Sondergaard. We became totally engaged with Deanna’s performance as a naïve envelope-stuffer turned jaded prostitute and were charmed by her unusually droll rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year”. She also delivers the smoothest yet most complex version of Irving Berlin’s “Always” ever heard. Lyrics such as, “Days may not be fair, always…” never rang so true as in this Noir tale of a Christmas Eve from not so very long ago.
Happy Holidays, Deanna!
– – Sean Martinfield. December 2012