Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, May 10, 2013

Films of Henry Hathaway: Brigham Young (1940)

 I now return to my too-long-dormant series commemorating
the movies of Henry Hathaway, my personal nominee for the most
neglected and underrated director of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

But this post is more than that. It's also Cinedrome's contribution
to The Mary Astor Blogathon, co-hosted by my Classic Movie Blog
Association colleagues Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted
and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Click on the first link in this
paragraph for a list of other entries in the blogathon, and on
the other two links for a more general entry into Dorian and
Ruth's excellent blogs -- a lot of great stuff there! (This
 blogathon, by the way, celebrates the 107th anniversary
of Ms. Astor's birth, born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke
on May 3, 1906.)

Mary Astor was an actress of remarkable versatility, which
she demonstrated time and again in the course of her 43-year
screen career. That point is amply illustrated by this image for
the blogathon, since nothing could be more different from the
Mary Astor you see here than the one you'll see in the
movie I've chosen for the subject of this post...

*               *               *

"Darryl," Henry Hathaway said when Darryl F. Zanuck borrowed him from Paramount to direct Brigham Young, "the two dullest things in the whole world are a wagon train and religion. Now you take them and put them together."

"This man Brigham Young," Zanuck replied, "is more important than the story."

Zanuck first became interested in filming the story of the "Mormon Moses" in 1938, at the suggestion of 20th Century Fox staff writer Eleanor Harris and with the encouragement of novelist Louis Bromfield, whom Zanuck hired to write a screen story for another Fox staffer, Lamar Trotti, to turn into a script.

(A side note on Louis Bromfield: In 1940 he was one of the most famous writers in America, considered the peer of Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald; notice that he receives authorial pride of place on the title card for Brigham Young, in type even larger than that for Zanuck himself. Nearly all of his 30-plus books were bestsellers, and he won a 1927 Pulitzer Prize for his third novel, Early Autumn. In his day he was a prime example of the Literary Man as Celebrity: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married at his Ohio farm in 1945. Alas, when he died in 1956 it was almost as if every one of his readers had died with him, and he is largely -- and unfairly -- forgotten today. A number of his books were made into memorable movies, and I may be posting on some of them in time to come.)

Although the title of the picture was Brigham Young, top billing went to Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell as two fictitious characters created by Bromfield and Trotti. Power was cast as Jonathan Kent, a young non-Mormon "outsider" who ends up scouting for Brigham Young and his followers on their trek west, while Darnell was to play Zina Webb, a Mormon girl with whom he falls in love.

Originally slated to direct Brigham Young was Fox contract director Henry King, the studio's specialist in historical pictures and atmospheric Americana. King had already directed such Fox pictures as State Fair (1933), Ramona and Lloyds of London (both '36), In Old Chicago ('37), Alexander's Ragtime Band ('38), and Jesse James and Stanley and Livingstone (both '39). (Several of those had starred Tyrone Power, although Power had yet to be cast in Brigham Young.) It seemed a natural fit, but for some reason the deal with King fell through. James D'Arc, in his commentary on the Brigham Young DVD, says that he could find no documentation in the Fox archives explaining this. I think it's just possible -- and I hasten to emphasize that this is the purest speculation on my part -- that King, a Catholic, was uncomfortable with the Mormon story. I have absolutely no evidence for this, but it strikes me as the sort of thing that wouldn't necessarily be committed to paper.

In any case, whatever the reason, in January 1940 Zanuck arranged to borrow Henry Hathaway from Paramount to direct the picture. That was when Hathaway made the remark that opens this post; it was also when Hathaway suggested changing the religious orientation of the two star characters: make Jonathan Kent the Mormon and Zina Webb the outsider. Zanuck agreed, and Hathaway (at his own expense) brought in Grover Jones, who had worked with him on Lives of a Bengal Lancer ('35) and The Shepherd of the Hills ('40) among others, to write the change into the script. (Lamar Trotti, Hathaway later said, was incensed, and didn't speak to the director for the rest of his life.)

For the all-important role of Brigham Young himself, Zanuck
waffled. He considered Spencer Tracy, Don Ameche, Walter
Huston, Albert Dekker, even Clark Gable (assuming he could
be borrowed from MGM). But all, it seemed to Zanuck, had
too-well-established screen personae. Zanuck even halted pre-
production while he wrestled with the question. In the end, he
went out on a limb, casting Dean Jagger, who had been rattling
around Hollywood as a freelance actor since 1929 without making
much of an impression. As this dual portrait shows (that's the
real Brigham, circa 1850, on the left), Jagger's resemblance to
Young was striking. Serving as technical advisor on the picture
was 79-year-old George Pyper, a Salt Lake City theater buff and
manager of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As a young man,
Pyper had known Brigham Young personally (just think about
that for a moment), and he had this to say in 1940: "Besides
resembling him in appearance, there's also a striking similarity
to voice. I was only 17 when Brigham Young died, but I had
known him well. Mr. Jagger even has some of Brigham's
mannerisms and his walk."

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, was played by Vincent Price, then in the
third year of his movie career (Brigham Young was only the
eighth of his 199 film and TV credits). The role was merely
a supporting one -- almost a cameo, considering the major
star Price would become -- since it was Smith's murder by
a lynch mob on June 27, 1844 that propelled Brigham
Young to leadership of the Mormon Church. Hathaway
later remembered that he insisted on Price for the role:
"He seemed just right -- so ethereal." In a 1972 letter
to James D'Arc, Price wrote: "I think one interesting
sidelight was the wonderful direction of Henry
Hathaway -- how he avoided any 'religious' feeling
and made it a believable story of strong men and
women fighting for their faith. He was particularly
vehement on this score with the part of Joseph.
There was to be no hint of the standard Christ
image -- rather he felt Joseph was the interpreter
of God's word and as such should not wear a halo."

A fictitious character was Angus Duncan, played by Brian Donlevy (shown here on the right with Frank Thomas as Hubert Crum, also fictitious; Donlevy was even considered -- ever so briefly, and probably not seriously -- for the part of Brigham). In Trotti's script, Duncan rivals Brigham Young for leadership in the wake of Joseph Smith's murder. In fact, Young had no serious rival in the eyes of most of Smith's followers, although a few men siphoned off some believers into splinter sects of their own. Angus Duncan is the voice of dissent within the Mormon ranks, at first -- while Smith is still alive -- advocating for craven surrender in the face of the Mormon Church's frontier persecutors. When Duncan stands in council and whimpers "Just give them whatever they want so we can have peace!", audiences of 1940 were clearly expected to remember Neville Chamberlain on the London tarmac after surrendering to Adolf Hitler at Munich. Later, as Brigham Young leads the Latter-day Saints on their westward exodus, Duncan becomes a 19th century American version of the Old Testament figure of Dathan, who rebelled against Moses (the Edward G. Robinson role in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments). Even the names are similar: Duncan; Dathan. Duncan is forever second-guessing and carping at Brigham ("I told you what would happen if we settled in this valley, but you wouldn't listen to me! You ran off with a false prophet!"). At one point on the trail, he even hears talk from an eastbound traveler about gold in California (an anachronism; gold wasn't discovered till more than a year after it happens in the movie), Duncan then passes the gossip off as a revelation from God, hoping to lead the Mormons astray -- in a real sense, offering them a Golden Calf (an analogy the script makes explicit).

Mary Astor played Mary Ann Young, Brigham's senior wife. It was a tricky assignment, because of course Mary Ann wasn't the only one. (In fact, on the right in this picture is Jean Rogers as Clara, Wife No. 2.) Long before 1940, the Mormons had renounced polygamy, but it was still one of the main things people associated with the early church, and Brigham Young handled the subject gingerly. An anti-Mormon yahoo makes a crude joke about "50 wives". When, on their westward migration, the Mormons stop at Fort Bridger, Brigham has a conversation with the famous scout Jim Bridger, who asks, "Say, how many..." Brigham cuts him off: "Twelve." And the conversation quickly switches to other things. Later, in a fireside chat with Mary Ann, Brigham praises her: "Sometimes I don't know what I'd do without you. Always the same, never complaining, never jealous of the others..." Others? An inattentive viewer (which I certainly was when I first saw Brigham Young as a child) would think Mary Ann was Brigham's only wife. Jean Rogers gets screen credit but speaks hardly a line of dialogue, and there are occasional shots of other young women riding in or walking alongside the Young wagon, but in terms of the dramatic action of the movie, Mary Ann speaks and acts for them all. Here's James D'Arc in his DVD commentary:
"As Mary Ann, [Astor] is pivotal in bolstering Brigham in his doubts, in the midst of his almost unbearable responsibility. Hers is a strong presence, decisive, practical and unsentimental. She prays that God will talk to him, even as she encourages Brigham with her love and support."

The only other mention of polygamy -- and in fact the only
sustained one -- comes in two later scenes (90 min. into the
112 min. picture). First, Jonathan Kent proposes marriage to
Zina Webb, and she scornfully wonders how many more he's
going to ask, and how he plans to go about it: "Just imagine,
30 wives combing your beard!" This scene was obviously
written by Grover Jones, since in Trotti's original script it
was Zina and not Jonathan who was the Mormon (how the
proposal would have been treated if Hathaway hadn't
suggested the change is anybody's guess).

Immediately after, there's a scene between Jonathan and
Porter Rockwell (a historical figure played by John Carradine)
where the two humorously discuss the possible population
boom under plural marriage, Rockwell saying, "I'm aimin'
to do my share." And with that, the subject is closed for
the remainder of the movie.

Other events in early Mormon history were treated more fully and dramatically. The picture begins with a nightrider raid on the Kent homestead during a party. Jonathan's father is beaten to death, and even Zina's father is shot dead -- even though he's not a Mormon himself, just somebody being friendly with the wrong people at the wrong time. This and later scenes of the persecution of Mormons had clear parallels -- which Trotti's script underscored -- in Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews. The Holocaust was still in the future, but pogroms like Kristallnacht were already on record; Zanuck even referred to raids like this in 1840s Ohio, Missouri and Illinois as "pogroms".

In the movie, Joseph Smith is tried and convicted of treason. The trial is fictional; actually, Smith was awaiting trial when he was murdered. But it dramatizes the rabid anti-Mormon sentiment of the time in the raving denunciations of the prosecutor (Marc Lawrence) and the unhesitating "guilty" verdict of the jury. It also allows Brigham Young to address the court, describing his first meeting with Joseph Smith (shown in flashback) and delivering a ringing endorsement of freedom of religion: "You can't convict Joseph Smith just because he happens to believe something you don't believe. You can't go against everything your ancestors fought and died for. And if you do, your names, not Joseph Smith's, will go down in history as traitors. They'll stink in the records, and be a shameful thing on the tongues of your children." (In fact, during the events that led up to Smith's killing, Young was in Massachusetts spreading the word and recruiting converts.) After the trial, a resigned Smith implicitly transfers care of his flock to Young -- "I want you to stay and take care of my people." -- before being led off with his brother Hyrum (Stanley Andrews, the "Old Ranger" of TV's Death Valley Days). Later, the mob murder of Hyrum and Joseph is shown pretty much as it happened that night in Carthage, Ill.

The next great dramatic set piece in Brigham Young is the exodus from Nauvoo, Ill. in the face of mounting hostility. It also occasions the first open conflict between Brigham and Angus Duncan. Like Moses in the Book of Exodus, Brigham prevails, and the Mormons light out on their trek by crossing the ice of the frozen Mississippi. Again, dramatic license is taken. The Mormons set out over a period of weeks in February 1846, not in a single night, and the Mississippi, though filled with ice, wasn't quite frozen enough to bear the wagon train like this. But with the Mormons escaping from a band of vigilantes hot on their heels, it makes a dramatic parallel to the Israelites fleeing from Pharaoh's army through the parted Red Sea.

This spectacular shot, by the way, was the work of special effects genius Fred Sersen. Director Hathaway had nowhere near that number of wagons at his disposal; the building and maintaining of Conestoga wagons was an all-but-lost art by 1940, to say nothing of finding and feeding the horses and oxen to pull them. Most studios had no more than a handful of wagons in their rolling stock, which had to be cleverly filmed and edited to swell their numbers. Many scenes of the westward trek in Brigham Young were enhanced by the use of stock footage from Raoul Walsh's early sound epic The Big Trail, one of the last pictures to amass Conestoga wagons in anything like the numbers suggested here. (The Big Trail, a legendary box-office dud in 1930, holds up quite well today, and rates a post of its own.)

The climax of Brigham Young comes, not surprisingly, in the spring of 1848. After a grueling and disastrous winter of 1847-48, when the Mormon settlement in the Great Salt Lake Valley faced starvation that threatened to decimate their numbers -- if not annihilate them entirely -- things are beginning to look up with the spring planting. Then, a new disaster. A sudden infestation of crickets arrives to wipe out their crops. This scene was shot in Elko, Nev., where just such an invasion (at the time, anyhow) occurred like clockwork every few years. Hathaway and the company flew to Elko and waited. Just as they were getting impatient -- "Don't they know they're holding up the schedule?" -- the crickets arrived, and it was a nightmare as much for the company as it had been for the Mormons in 1848. Mary Astor left vivid descriptions in both her volumes of memoirs: the ugly bugs, countless millions of them, the size of her thumb, the piles of them as much as a foot high, the stench as they died and rotted in the 110-degree heat. The scene was scheduled to be shot over four days, but after one horrible day the cast and crew were in revolt; the hell with the money, they were going home. Hathaway and Grover Jones put their heads together, combining, shifting, telescoping. Finally Hathaway assembled the company, promising to wrap things by noon the next day if everybody would knuckle down and go to it. They didn't make noon, but by four p.m., with heroic efforts, they were done.

In the movie, just as the Mormon despair matches that of their 1940 portrayers, comes...

...the famous Miracle of the Seagulls, a sky-blotting flight of birds that, in the words of one Mormon of the 1840s, came "sweep[ing] the crickets as they go", devouring the insects and saving the settlers' crops.

Again, some dramatic license here. Where in history the cricket invasion had descended on the settlement for several days, to be followed by two weeks of the saving intervention of the seagulls, the movie has the whole thing, crickets and seagulls both, occurring on the same frantic day, set to the stirring strains of Alfred Newman's epic score. (In a nicely subliminal touch, the theme Newman used to score the arrival of the crickets was a variation on the music he used to accompany the nightrider raid on the Kent homestead at the opening of the picture.)

The scene of the seagulls, like this shot here, is another example of Fred Sersen's work, combining images of the company on location at Lone Pine, Cal., with footage of seagulls shot months earlier at Utah Lake near Provo.

And finally, it must be said that in point of historical fact, Brigham Young wasn't there for the Miracle of the Seagulls; he was off to the east arranging for the safe passage of later Mormon settlers, and he only heard of his followers' miraculous deliverance by letter from his deputies on the scene. For a movie, of course, this would never do; Dean Jagger's Brigham -- along with Mary Ann, and Jonathan and Zina, and even the ankle-biting Angus Duncan -- had to be on hand, right there in what would one day be Salt Lake City, Utah, reveling in the divine vindication of Brigham Young's leadership, which had brought him and his followers across a thousand miles of hostile prairie to their Promised Land.

After its premiere in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young underwent a title change for its general release, becoming Brigham Young -- Frontiersman. This is how it appeared in reviews and publicity, and on posters and lobby cards, as a way of emphasizing the pioneer rather than religious aspect of the story. But it never appeared that way on screen, as the title card that begins this post attests. Now, the "Frontiersman" is gone for good, having presumably served its purpose, and Brigham Young again bears, in all labeling and packaging, the title under which it premiered in Salt Lake City on August 23, 1940.

*               *               *

Thursday, May 9, 2013

R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

It has just come to my attention that Ray Harryhausen died Tuesday
at his home in London. In this day and age when nearly all movie
special effects are created by people sitting at computer consoles,
the process of stop-motion animation that he mastered -- filming
three-dimensional models one frame at a time, making infinitesimal
movements in between by hand -- has become too expensive, slow
and time-consuming to survive. Still, all those graphics programmers
sitting at all those consoles most likely grew up on Harryhausen
pictures like Twenty Million Miles to Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
and Jason and the Argonauts -- and grew up wanting to make
movies just like them. In his modest, unassuming, never-getting-
into-the-history-books way, Ray Harryhausen may have been
one of the most influential moviemakers of the last half century.

I did my own tribute to Harryhausen nearly two years ago,
singling out two of my favorite Harryhausen pictures for a
blogathon on 1950s monster movies hosted by Forgotten
Classics of Yesteryear. It was called "Catching Some Rays"
and you can read it here. For now I have nothing more to
add to it except to say Thank you, Ray Harryhausen, and
flights of creatures sing thee to thy rest.

Friday, May 3, 2013

America's Canadian Sweetheart, 1921-2013

Mrs. Edna Mae David passed away at her home in France sometime last week, and the 21st century lost another one of its last few links to the Golden Age of Hollywood. I knew I had just the picture to run with this post on Edna Mae, so I pulled it out of my files. When my six-year-old great-niece, who has never seen or heard of Edna Mae, saw this portrait, she said, "She looks like Jessica Rabbit." I'd never thought about it before but y'know, it's true; in this publicity shot she does look like Jessica Rabbit. And that's just about the last thing you'd ever expect anyone to say about Deanna Durbin.

Deanna Durbin -- her nom de screen was a creative rearrangement of the letters of her first name  -- was born in Winnepeg on December 4, 1921, the daughter of a blacksmith for the Canadian Pacific Railway who had immigrated with his wife and Deanna's older siblings from his native Lancashire. When (as she later put it) "the cold Canadian winters ate up all the summer savings", the family decamped to California, where Papa Durbin supported the family through the worst of the Great Depression as a welder and in "a variety of manual jobs". It was there that some Hollywood talent scouts discovered what soon all the world would know: this little girl could sing like an angel.

She might not have cared for that "angel" business. In her last interview, with historian David Shipman in 1983, she recalled a photo shoot with Life Magazine's Philippe Halsman during the 1940s: Halsman said he was going to photograph her "looking like an angel", and she said that that was the one way she did not want to be photographed. "...I wanted to look glamourous. I couldn't wait to wear low-cut dresses and look sultry." She'd probably have loved being compared to Jessica Rabbit.

Still, "like an angel" is the only way to describe her voice, a clear warm soprano that could raise gooseflesh on an iron lawn jockey. Walt Disney heard it when she auditioned for the voice of Snow White, but he didn't hire her because she sounded too grown up (she was 14). The boys at MGM heard it, too, and they signed her to a short-term contract. She made only one picture there, in early 1936, an 11-minute short called Every Sunday, in which she was teamed with another of Metro's prodigies, Judy Garland, as two pals whose singing saves Deanna's grandfather's weekly band concerts. 

There's a persistent legend that when Louis B. Mayer saw the finished product he ordered underlings to "dump the fat one"; problem was (or so the story goes), both girls were still a little baby-fat plump, and the boys weren't sure which one he meant -- and they guessed wrong. The story may be true (Deanna certainly believed it), but I'm dubious. MGM staff arranger Roger Edens had already pegged Judy as potential dynamite, and I suspect he'd have done anything short of murder to keep her on the payroll. In any case, Deanna was out -- but not for long. Universal Pictures, scrabbling desperately to avoid bankruptcy, gratefully snapped her up. There were weekly appearances on Eddie Cantor's radio show, and at the end of '36 Universal "introduced" her in Three Smart Girls. She had just turned 15. (Trivia answer: the Other Two Smart Girls were Nan Gray and Barbara Read.)

This is how she appeared in the very first scene of Three Smart Girls, when she hit the ground -- er, water -- singing. And this is why I'm skeptical about that Louis B. Mayer anecdote. This scene, with California's Lake Arrowhead standing in for Switzerland, was shot barely six months after Every Sunday. Does Deanna look like "the fat one" to you?

 The other persistent legend about Deanna Durbin's career is that she single-handedly saved Universal from going belly-up, and this one's probably true; at the very least, she kept the studio afloat until Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields came along. She was a sensation in Three Smart Girls, and Universal scurried to cast her in picture after picture playing, as she later disdainfully put it "Little Miss Fixit who bursts into song."

The sorry truth is, when all is said and done, she did more for Universal than they ever did for her. After one of her best pictures, It Started with Eve (1941), they let the team of producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster, who had nurtured her in hit after hit, be lured away to MGM while holding fast to Deanna herself. They never bought any Broadway musicals for her; they never hired Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin or George or Ira Gershwin to write songs for her.

To be fair, Universal did commission Jerome Kern and E.Y. Harburg to write the score for 1944's Can't Help Singing. This was a sort of Oklahoma! meets It Happened One Night, with Deanna as a senator's rebellious daughter running away to Gold Rush California to marry her sweetheart (wispy David Bruce) but falling for another man (bland Robert Paige) en route.

The result was another box-office hit, though it lacks...well, sparkle, I guess. Not that Deanna doesn't hold up her end -- here she is enjoying a reprise of the title song during an open-air bubble bath before hitting the dusty trail for California. Maybe the problem was the director, a graceless hack named Frank Ryan (he directed one other Durbin picture, Hers to Hold ['43], the second sequel to Three Smart Girls). Or the script, which frittered away precious minutes on labored comic relief from Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey. Robert Paige was part of the problem, for sure. Anyhow, there was more than a grain of truth in James Agee's assessment: "It seems to me this could have been a beautiful and gay picture; unfortunately it is made without much feeling for either beauty or gaiety." That was the problem with many of her pictures, especially after she lost the guidance of Pasternak and Koster: too often, the only one on the set with any feeling for beauty and gaiety was Deanna herself. She always delivered -- but it could get pretty lonely at her branch of the post office. She didn't even get help from Technicolor but this once. Universal lavished Technicolor on a string of backlot campfests with Jon Hall and Maria Montez, even used it for a 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera, but before and after Can't Help Singing their biggest star had to make do with black and white.

It was probably only careless, shortsighted stupidity on Universal's part, but at times it almost looked as if they were trying to sabotage her. Christmas Holiday ('44) is a perfect example. It's a gritty, downbeat noirish thriller directed by Robert Siodmak and written by Herman J. Mankiewicz from a Somerset Maugham novel. Deanna plays a nightclub entertainer (removed just far enough from a prostitute to clear the Hays Office) married to a murderous, mother-obsessed louse (Gene Kelly). Yes, Deanna sings -- giving an aching rendition of Irving Berlin's "Always", and introducing the Frank Loesser standard "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" -- but it's a drama, not a musical, and Deanna's very good in it. But, come on, a picture with Deanna and Gene Kelly (early in his career, at that point known chiefly for For Me and My Gal, Dubarry Was a Lady and Cover Girl) that turns out to be a melodramatic downer? Called Christmas Holiday??

This was the same year that Dick Powell created a whole new screen persona for himself playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet over at RKO. That studio played their hand well, changing Raymond Chandler's title from Farewell, My Lovely so audiences wouldn't think they'd be seeing a tearful romance. Likewise, at 20th Century Fox, the title of Betty Grable's first dramatic picture was changed from Hot Spot to I Wake Up Screaming, and Betty had another hit. Deanna might have done the same if Universal had changed Maugham's title so audiences wouldn't feel bait-and-switched at the box office. What was the studio thinking?

They were thinking (I think) that they didn't want her to grow up. Too late; she already had. Pasternak and Koster might have finessed the transition for her career -- they had already made a good start with It Started with Eve -- but the boneheads they left behind couldn't manage it. By 1947 Deanna was the highest-paid woman in America (which probably means the highest-paid in the world, barring royalty), but she still had no say in the scripts, directors, or co-stars she worked with. (Pipe down, little girl, and do as you're told.) When her first marriage (to second-unit director Vaughn Paul) fell apart in 1943, Universal even tried to talk her out of getting a divorce. Bad for her image. "How could anyone really think I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I didn’t love," she asked David Shipman, "just for the sake of an 'image'?!"

By the way, don't believe those who say Deanna just didn't have the chops to handle anything more substantial than those perky Little Miss Fix-It roles. I don't know why they say that, denying the evidence of their eyes and ears. Oh wait, I think I do know why: Judy Garland. They set up some imaginary rivalry that Judy and Deanna themselves never felt. I think there may be a little jealousy there too: At the height of her stardom, or after any of her comebacks, Judy was never as big a star as Deanna. But it's not necessary to tear down Deanna Durbin to build up Judy Garland; Judy was as good as it got. 

And so was Deanna. She had every bit the talent -- the pipes, the looks, the poise, the charm, the spirit -- that Judy had. What she didn't have -- at least not after she lost Joe Pasternak and Henry Koster -- was Arthur Freed and Roger Edens and Charles Walters and Vincente Minnelli. And Mickey Rooney. And (yes) Busby Berkeley. And Georgie Stoll and the MGM Orchestra. Universal figured they had a 20-carat diamond; why waste gold on the setting?

Another thing Deanna didn't have was the eager, even desperate drive to perform. Deanna loved performing, but she didn't feel incomplete without it. "Right from the start Judy had an immense talent," Deanna remembered. "She was a professional and had been on the stage since she was two. Her later story is tragic, but I’m certain she could never have given up. She needed an audience as she needed to breathe. I understood Judy, though. I did some vaudeville with Eddie Cantor when I was beginning in pictures and between our weekly radio shows. Eight shows a day! It was very exciting. Contact with a live audience is heady stuff..."

One last thought before we leave the subject of Deanna "vs." Judy: Here's a publicity still taken of them on the set of Every Sunday. Which one is supposed to be "the fat one" again?

Deanna loved performing, but she didn't need it. When she got tired of Universal forcing her to haul the studio's junk around -- and, frankly, when she didn't need the money anymore -- she quit. Like Judy, she married one of her directors (Charles David, the French-born director of Lady on a Train in '45) and settled down with him on their estate outside Paris. Unlike Judy and Vincente Minnelli, this one went the distance, ending only with David's death in 1999. 

There were offers and trial balloons over the years. Whenever Joe Pasternak was in Paris, he'd call. "Are you still happy?" When she said yes, he'd sigh: "Damn. All right, I'll try again next time." There were more concrete offers too: MGM tried to lure her back to film Kiss Me, Kate (what a triumphant return that would have been!), but the only time she was seriously tempted was when Lerner and Loewe auditioned some of the early songs they had written for what would become My Fair Lady. "I loved them," she told David Shipman, "but I had my ticket to Paris in my pocket..." Robert Wise wanted her to play the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, too, but she knew she'd only be upstaging Julie Andrews in all the press releases. So she stayed where she was, living out the last 65 years of her life away from what she called the "goldfish bowl" of stardom, outliving all of her co-workers -- and, indeed, most of her original fans. 

Two things before I close. First, the Blogosphere has been buzzing the last couple of days with tributes and retrospectives (at least one, I won't say which, struck me as rather snide and churlish: "Was Deanna Durbin still alive?"). A good starting place to link to some of the best ones is this page at Java's Journeys.

And second, how can I not post some of Deanna's singing? First, from Mad About Music ('38), a sample of what most people picture when they remember Deanna Durbin, the sort of thing Universal tried to keep going long after the star (if not her fans) had tired of it. The song is "I Love to Whistle":

But here's my own favorite Deanna moment. It's from Lady on a Train, which I understand was her favorite among her own pictures -- perhaps because it's a nifty little murder mystery, perhaps because it's where she met Charles David. Deanna is older, sexier, at once cooler and hotter, giving a hint of what might have been if Universal had given her the support system she deserved. The song is that 1926 chestnut "Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya Huh?":

So long, Edna Mae, and thanks for the memories. The Heavenly Choir, I expect, is sounding a lot better these days.

Copyright Notice

All textual content Copyright (c) date of posting by Jim Lane. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express written permission from this blog's author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Lane and Jim Lane's Cinedrome with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.