For The Love Of Durbin: An Interview With Deanna Durbin Biographer, Melanie Gall

by Rachel Bellwoar
Deanna Durbin saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy, made classical music cool for teens, and left Hollywood on her own terms after WWII. However, unlike the celebrations for Judy Garland’s 100th birthday last month, Deanna’s 100th birthday last December didn’t seem to garner the same publicity. Durbin and Garland both started out as child stars, but while numerous biographies exist on Garland, Melanie’s Gall’s biography ⁠— Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood ⁠— is the first to be written about Deanna Durbin. Ahead of the book’s release in August, it was great to be able to ask Gall some questions over email and better understand what made Durbin a star during the ’30s and ’40s.

Rachel Bellwoar: Until recently I had never heard of Deanna Durbin. Luckily more and more of her films are getting released on Blu-Ray, but when did you first become a fan of hers, and was it through her music or her movies?

Melanie Gall: I first heard of Deanna Durbin while reading the “Booky” books, a Canadian children’s series written by Beatrice Thurman Hunter. In the book, the main character’s best friend enters a Deanna Durbin look-alike contest (and loses), but it gave me a good idea of exactly how famous DD was at the time. I am also a regular performer in Winnipeg, Canada (in fact, I’m there right now), and although Deanna has largely been forgotten here, the Deanna Durbin Home (a privately-owned residence that was donated by Deanna Durbin during WWII to raise money for charity) is still regularly visited by devoted fans. Some people here still remember her, and over the years, I occasionally heard her mentioned, and wanted to know more…

RB: For someone who’s never seen a Deanna Durbin film before, how would you describe the “Durbin Formula” and is there a film that you feel embodies it the most?

MG: Oh, you should definitely see a Deanna Durbin film. My first one was Three Smart Girls Grow Up which is actually the sequel to one of DD’s most famous films, Three Smart GirlsIt perfectly embodies the Deanna Durbin Formula, which is used in most of her films (there are some exceptions, but not many): Well-meaning but hapless adults (parents/sisters/friends) get into trouble or need help, and Deanna’s staunch and plucky attitude and her ethereal voice saves the day.

RB: Before writing this book, you actually wrote and starred in a one woman show about Deanna called Ingenue. Was there anything you learned from doing the show that changed how you approached writing the book?

MG: I love performing Ingenue! I’m actually doing a month-long run in Edinburgh, Scotland this August (as part of the annual Edinburgh Fringe). What was interesting about the show, was that I was playing Deanna, and so it really helped me to understand her as a person, and her feelings towards the rivalry with Judy Garland that was forced upon her by the movie studios and the press. Touring the show (I’ve performed Ingenue in Winnipeg [of course], Edmonton, Orlando, off-Broadway in New York at the SoHo Playhouse, as well as in Adelaide, Australia and throughout England), has also given me a sense of exactly HOW beloved DD still is. Yes, most people have forgotten her, but many others came up to me after the show to tell me about how Deanna’s music was the soundtrack of their childhood, or about how Deanna was their mother’s favorite performer “And my mum looked just like her, everyone always said so!”

Being able to give people a connection to a good memory or to bring back a piece of their history through something I love to do is incredibly special, and with this show, it seems to happen a lot.

RB: What was your favorite part about the research process for Deanna Durbin?

MG: So this might sound silly, but my favorite part of the book research was when I was in New York, performing Ingenue off-Broadway. It was December, 2019, and it felt like everyone else in the city was rushing around shopping like mad for Christmas. But every morning I would get a coffee, ride the train to one of the libraries, and then sit in their rare materials research room with a stack of dusty, crumbling files that had not been touched for over half a century, knowing (well, hoping) I would be making history live again.

RB: I loved the origin stories you provided for some of the titles to Deanna’s movies, like Three Smart Girls and why Nice Girl? ends with a question mark. What made you decide on Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood as the title for your biography?

MG: That’s a good question. In the end, the title was picked by my literary agent right before pitching the book to the publishers. She felt that the book needed Judy Garland in the title, and that was a smart decision. I find in theatre that the shows that sell the best are the ones with a clear title and description – people don’t have the time to try to figure out what is a show is about at a festival with 200 competing shows. They decide at a glance if they’re interested, and that’s likely how it works with books, too.

RB: Deanna and Judy Garland first crossed paths at MGM. How do you think Deanna’s career would’ve been different if she’d been the one to stay at MGM instead of Judy?

MG: Oh, this is an excellent question. When Deanna was signed on by Universal, she was immediately put into a small role in Three Smart Girls, which by the end of the film’s production went on to become a starring role and saved the entire movie studio through its success. At the same time, Judy was loaned to other studios for bit parts, and then put in smaller roles at MGM – the studio was bigger and more established, with a huge roster of actors and stars. They didn’t need to take a chance on an unknown teenager. Likely, if things had been switched, Judy would have been cast in Three Smart Girls (she was producer Joe Pasternak‘s first choice for the role), and she would have done well. She had a strong voice from the start. But her acting at that time was rough and unfinished, and she didn’t have the patina of stardom which Deanna displayed from the start. And so, the movie would have likely stayed a B-film, and that would be that.

Over at MGM, Deanna would have eventually been put into a starring role, but the rise would have been a lot less meteoric. At Universal, she was the-girl-who-saved-an-entire-studio, and MGM at the time did not need saving.

RB: While maybe an argument could be more for “Il Bacio,” did Deanna have a signature song, the way Judy had “Somewhere Over the Rainbow?”

MG: Deanna really didn’t have a signature song, once she became an adult. She did an excellent version of “Danny Boy,” but so did a lot of people. She sang patriotic songs, but Vera Lynn sang the same music, and was more widely known for the tunes. So no, there is no one signature song. But yes, when she was a child, “Il Bacio” was her “Over the Rainbow.”

RB: In the book you mention that Deanna’s father was a soprano, too. While he never pursued a career in music, did he and Deanna ever sing together?

MG: Her father was a boy soprano, and his voice deepened as he grew up. But he was known for his voice, and who knows? Possibly he wanted to be a singer, too, and put that dream aside for more practical ambitions. There was no mention of him singing for Deanna, but a lot of his story was carefully curated by the movie studio, and he certainly [could] have sang with Deanna when the cameras and reporters weren’t present.

RB: Do you have a favorite story about Deanna’s grandmother, who acted as the Winnipeg Free Press‘ insider source?

MG: I love the story about how the Winnipeg Free Press actually arranged for Deanna’s grandmother Sophia to attend a screening of her granddaughter’s movie when Three Smart Girls came to Winnipeg. It was a brilliant move, because arranging and then recording the event gave Free Press reporter Frank Morriss an exclusive scoop that no other reporter in the world had (Deanna’s own grandmother watches her onscreen for the first time!) This also gave Morriss a personal contact with the family (and many other scoops in the future), while other reporters had to be satisfied with press releases issued from the movie studio with details about Deanna’s life.

RB: Contemporary reviewers weren’t often kind to the films Deanna did while transitioning into adulthood. Are there any of her later efforts that you feel deserve reevaluation?

MG: I think her films need to be seen in the context of the time in which they were made. Themes or movie conventions which seem trite or overused now, were still new and groundbreaking at the time. The role of the teenager and the transition to womanhood, and gender roles were also very different in the 1930s and 1940s, and this all needs to be taken into account when critically evaluating a film made in that era. Deanna’s early/middle films were brilliant. They documented her transition into adulthood in a very planned way, with fans wanting Deanna to stay a child, the studio changing their mind on the issue several times, and producer Joe Pasternak trying to keep Deanna young, but then realizing after her engagement that he needed to speed up her transition to adulthood onscreen. Despite this off-screen struggle, the movies did organically transform Deanna from a child, into a young woman, into an adult. Nice Girl? is the one film where the transition seemed forced and a bit rushed, but First Kiss, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, and It’s a Date are all brilliant films.

RB: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Melanie!

Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood is available starting August 1st from Lyons Press. Also, for readers in Scotland, tickets to Gall’s show, Ingenue, can be preordered here. Gall will be performing at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.

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