Deanna Durbin, 1921–2013

The Hollywood child star who turned her back on fame

For much of the 1930s and ’40s, Deanna Durbin was the good girl who could do no wrong. The plucky child star charmed movie audiences across the world with her warm soprano voice and became Hollywood’s second-highest-paid actress. Her admirers included British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Anne Frank, who pasted Durbin’s photo onto a wall in the secret quarters where she and her family hid in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. The only person who didn’t like Durbin’s movies was Durbin herself, who grew tired of playing, as she put it, “Little Miss Fixit who bursts into song.” In 1949 she quit the industry, and remained determinedly out of view.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Durbin grew up in Southern California, where she studied singing. At age 13 she was hired by MGM and appeared in a one-reel short with another “13-year-old, Judy Garland, who sang swing while Durbin sang classical music,” said The New York Times. Soon after, she moved to Universal Studios and was cast in her first movie, 1936’s Three Smart Girls, a musical comedy in which she played one of three sisters trying to reunite their parents. The film was a hit, and Durbin appeared in a string of movies playing spunky youngsters fixing the problems of unhappy grown-ups, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.).

Her own personal problems weren’t so easily solved. When Durbin’s first marriage fell apart, the studio cautioned her that her “image” would be ruined if she got a formal divorce—which she did, in 1943. “How could anybody really think that I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I found I didn’t love, just for the sake of an ‘image’?” she later said. Like many young stars, Durbin “struggled to make the transition from sprightly teen singer to more serious actress,” said the Los Angeles Times. She played a prostitute in love with a killer in 1944’s bleak film noir Christmas Holiday, but the movie disappointed audiences and critics. With her career fading, she turned her back on Hollywood in 1949, and retired to France with her third husband. She outlined her simple new life in a letter to reporters in 1958: “I’ve gained weight. I do my own shopping, bring up my two children, and sing an hour every day.”

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