Stephen McGinty: Living life by their own rules

Deanna Durbin was the highest paid female star in Hollywood, but walked away after growing disenchanted with the poor scripts she was offered. Picture: AP
Deanna Durbin was the highest paid female star in Hollywood, but walked away after growing disenchanted with the poor scripts she was offered. Picture: AP
Share this article
Have your say

WHEN the telephone rang in the rustic farm house outside Paris, an attractive woman would break off from the domestic chores of raising a young family to answer the phone.

The voice on the other end of the line was warm and familiar and always asked the same single question: “Are you still happy?” and when she answered “yes”, he would say, “damn, well I’ll try again next time” then hang up.

The calls kept coming until 1991 when Joe Pasternak, the movie producer, passed away but the subject of his occasional inquiry lived on for a further 12 years, quietly keeping her personal happiness intact and away from the meddling temptations and sugar-coated misery of Hollywood.

The announcement this week of the death of Deanna Durbin makes for a striking morality tale for an age obsessed with the trappings of fame. For Edna Mae Durbin, as she was born in Winnipeg in Canada, was once the world’s most successful movie star and the highest paid woman in the world, but she gave it all up, retiring in 1948 after 21 films and 13 years in the business at the grand old age of 28. A modern parallel would be if Angelina Jolie walked away from the ka-ching of $10 million paydays to live in a Scottish bothy and stayed there, ignoring the pleas to return for this film or that broadway play for the next 65 years.

During her almost seven-decade retirement, Deanna Durbin Black as she now was, having taken the name of her third husband, the French director Charles David, refused all offers of a return to the stage or screen and gave one single interview in 1981 to the film historian David Shipman, whose peerless volumes on Hollywood stars she had greatly admired. The reason for the interview was that, at the time, the BBC had conducted a survey among the corporation’s viewers and listeners and discovered that her songs and films such as Three Smart Girls (1936), and Can’t Help Singing (1944) were among the most requested and compiled a season in tribute.

There were several reasons behind her decision to retire and retreat entirely from the world she had known since the age of 14. The image created by the studios had become a straight-jacket and when attempts to widen her repertoire with dramas such as the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944) failed at the box office, they shoved her back in and tightened up the straps. She became the highest paid female star in Hollywood because every time she complained about the poor scripts, the executives threw another bundle on the table. “I was the highest paid star with the poorest material. Today, I consider my salary as damages for having to cope with such a complete lack of quality,” she said.

But there was another reason for her unhappiness. She had begun to actively dislike what so many people now seek, the devotion of fans and cheering of crowds. As she explained to Shipman: “I hated being in a goldfish bowl. If I went to New York, I had to stay in my hotel room or go everywhere under guard, whisked away in a big black limousine, terrified that the fans running alongside would get hurt in the traffic.

“My mother and I were once mobbed in Texas: the police lost control of the crowd and my mother suffered two broken ribs from people trying to reach me. I have never been so frightened. They put me in the town jail for safety and – to avoid the mob still waiting at the station – they flagged the train down in the middle of nowhere, where I got on safely.”

She had become a star almost accidentally, succeeding in auditions as a 14-year-old with a voice that sounded just that little bit older and wiser. In fact, she was close to becoming the voice of Snow White but Walt Disney insisted she sounded too old for the fairy tale’s heroine.

She rose up alongside Judy Garland, and starred alongside her in Every Sunday (1936) about two determined young girls anxious to save their weekly concerts from collapse. Judy Garland may have secured the leading role in The Wizard of Oz, but it was Deanna Durbin who found her way on to a yellow brick road that led out of Hollywood and towards a happy ending. Even as a young girl, Durbin recognised a crucial difference between the two of them, saying of Garland: “She needed an audience as she needed to breathe.”

Unlike many young stars, Durbin had been cautious with her earnings, recognising the freedom money can bring when, as a teenager, her father grew sick and was told to take a few weeks off from his poorly paid work as a welder. Being aware of his financial concerns, she asked if it would help if she brought home $100 a week: “I’ll never forget the look on his face, the happy tears in his eyes.”

It is interesting to think what young people today would make of her decision to climb off a spot-lit plinth that so many are desperately seeking to clamber up and on. Would they consider her mad?

The easy answer would be to say “yes”, but I doubt it. I think that if they knew her story, then they would recognise that she had had enough, that even with all her money and fame, she wasn’t in control of her life, she couldn’t make the movies that she wanted to make and didn’t like the movies that she did, so why stay in a gilded prison?

When her husband asked her to marry him, she said that she wanted but one thing, when he replied “anything”, she said “total anonymity” and until his death in 1999, he did his best to ensure that her wish was granted. She wasn’t a recluse by any means, Garbo wanted to be alone, but Deanna Durbin wished to be left alone and those are two different concerns. She still adored music and once her two children were safely launched, she and her husband toured Europe attending the finest concerts and opera seasons.

I’ve been trying to think of a parallel between Deanna Durbin, a Hollywood star of the golden age who died at the age of 91, and Jeff Hanneman – the lead guitarist of Slayer, the thrash metal band whose seminal album Reign In Blood (1986) included the classic tracks Criminally Insane and Angel of Death – who died yesterday at the age of 49.

One died, I hope, peacefully in her bed at a ripe old age and the other died tragically young, not of drink or drugs – although in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll he imbibed in both – but the consequence of a spider bite two years ago that led to a host of health problems, including necrotising fasciitis and eventually liver failure.

I wanted to give a nod to Hanneman in today’s column. He deserves a full head bang, but my hair has long since been cut short and I don’t quite have so many brain cells to spare. However, I did stop to listen to Tom Russell on Real XS when he played Raining Blood in tribute this morning. At just 29 minutes long, it is one of the shortest and fastest metal albums and, 27 years on, remains hugely influential as does its producer, Rick Rubin.

I could try and draw a parallel between the people who will have been saddened by Durbin’s death and who on hearing the news thought fondly of watching her films and the tens of thousands of fans who remember cramming into mosh pits to see Hanneman’s blizzard of blond hair moving up and down with the speed and relentlessness of an industrial drill as he stood flanked by Kerry King, the other lead guitarist whose signature sartorial flourish was a leather gauntlet studded with hundreds of six inch nails.

Then again the Venn diagram that unites these two disparate tribes is going to be pretty slim. In fact, those intersecting circles might just consist of me. Both artists did, however, live their lives as they wanted to. The irony was that Hanneman was a heavy metal guitarist, a career with a longevity that should, by rights, parallel a pint of long-life milk but who insisted on keeping the band on the road, whereas Durbin could have been playing sprightly Hollywood grandmothers alongside Steve Martin should she have wished to, but retired while still in her 20s.

It’s fair to say Hanneman’s loss is the more bitter as it involves my teenage years, spent in the front stalls of the Edinburgh Playhouse, which is why I’ll be listening to Reign in Blood this weekend instead of watching Lady on a Train (1946). Sorry Deanna.