No matter how many imitators Hollywood might develop, there was only one Deanna Durbin and there will never be another one. People today don't realize how fresh she was, how unique. When they hear about her, they assume she was some sort of "goody goody" and inevitably want to avoid her. Described that way she sounds awful, but she wasn't.
Deanna Durbin's movies are about innocence and sweetness. They're from a different time and a different place. Outside the movie house, there was Depression, poverty, war, death and loss. Audiences then were willing to pretend to enter into a game of escape. No one really thought the world was like a Deanna Durbin movie, they just wanted to pretend it was for about an hour and a half.
The concept of a Deanna Durbin-a lovely teenage role model who makes a big success-seems dated. And yet the beat goes on. Today her type is bigger than ever, as merchants have clearly identified the female teenage market a a gigantic one. "Deannas" don't sell the same brand of innocence, but they sell. And sell. Now they live on TV. The venue is
different, and they dress like little tarts, but they're still kids working the
The most successful and mainstream representatives are the Olsen Twins,
Mary-Kate and Ashley, who for years starred in the sitcom FULL HOUSE. They now license their imge to video games and market their "lifestyle brand," which sells clothing, shoes, perfume and other such items through Wal-Mart. Other new Durbins have a home on the Disney channel: Raven (THAT'S SO RAVEN), Hillary Duff (LIZZIE McGUIRE), and the animated
heroines Kim Possible (voice-acted by Christy Carlson Romano) and Penny Proud (voice- acted by Kyla Pratt). These neo-Durbins of Disney are an interesting lot. They're diverse-black, white, live-action, animated, clairvoyant, klutzy, even superpowered-but they're uniform, all of them being positive energetic girls who live the middle-class American teenager's existence.
Hillary Duff's Lizzie McGuire is probably the best known of the bunch, but the Disney channel has promoted Raven heavily. She made a film for the channel, THE CHEETAH GIRLS, about three high school friends who form a singing group. A single from the movie played freuqently on the Channel, in which the girls sing about the legends of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, but in this song, there's a twist: the three girls aren't buying into the fantasy! "I don't want to be like Cinderella," the three girs sing. "I can slay my own dragons. I can dream my own dreams. I'm my own knight in shining armor. I'm my own superhero." It's not all that hard to imagine Deanna Durbin singing these words.
Deanna Durbin's screen character was simple and direct, with a lemony zest and a sly self-humor. Like Mary Pickford before her, she has been totally mispresented. In her movies she stopped at nothing to get what she wanted. She's female power unleashed, seldom naive and almost always a manipulator-a role born in her first movie, THREE SMART GIRLS.
Except for CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, her roles kept to the image she had successfully defined as a child: spirited, determined, and conniving. She undertakes countless pretenses to further her own wishes-pretending someone is her Dad who isn't, pretending she's someone's fiancee when she isn't, pretending to be a new maid when she isn't, pretending to be someone's widow when she isn't, et cetera. But whatever she does, it's
light and easy. And when things start to drag, she sings. Her movies usually ended with her singing, all plotlines and all side characters left out of the frame. (Who were they, anyway?) Audiences liked it that way, and female teenagers adored her. She was their role model and they remained loyal to her long after her career was over.
Why did audiences embrace Durbin? She's that American icon-the problem solver, the little underdog winner, the individual whose determination changes things to the way she wants them to be. Sometimes she's poor, but then she gets successful or richer. Sometimes she's
rich, but she's always down to earth, acting as if her bedroom weren''t bigger than Madison Square Garden and as if every teenager wore floor-length white ermine. For females she was that special movie example-a member of their sex whom the entire world revolved around, the center of the filmed universe.
Deanna Durbin might not have been a great actress, but she wasn't a bad one either, and she WAS a great personality. There was an honest quality about her and audiences felt it. Whatever motivated her to leave the business-the desire to be real and have a life thatmade sense- was the truth that audiences felt in her onscreen presence. Durbin connected
right to audiences. She seemed to be one of them. The amazing thing about her was that it turned out to be true. She came down off the screen and proved it by rejoining them. Her defection wasn't a ploy and was never rescinded.
Why DID Deanna Durbin retire? Watching her obvious joy in her singing, in her music, and even in the delight in the roles she plays, one can only wonder how it is for her now. All reports are that she is happy in her life, and that she never regretted walking away from Hollywood. (Judy Garland said that she had once run into Durbin in Paris, and that she was
obviously happy. Garland, on the other hand, had confessed her own woes to her former colleague. Laughing, Garland said Durbin told her, "Why don't you get out of that business, you dumbbell?")
But what a talent Durbin had. What a voice! Does she hum a few bars while she bakes out there in her French farmhouse? Does she ever think about the past? Does she ever say, "I could have been a contender if they had let me play Hedda Gabler?" Deanna Durbin, that most open and radiant of movie stars, remains more enigmatic than Garbo. She retired and led a normal life, the one thing that seems to haveeluded almost
every other movie star. She's the winner, and still champ."
Jeanine Basinger, THE STAR MACHINE, 2007