Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Now let us praise Deanna Durbin, the 1930s operatic-voiced teenaged star of lighthearted musical comedies who grew up on screen and walked away from Hollywood altogether in the late 40s. Unless you are over 70, you've probably never heard of her, but she was a big deal. Anne Frank was a fan. One of the magazine photos Anne tacked to her wall in her attic hideway remains there today.

Of course at that time there was another little lady with a great big voice. A voice to big for her body that seemed to be eating away at her from the inside. A little girl named Frances Ethel Gumm who grew up on the MGM lot to become Judy Garland. Now I genuflect before The Great Garland. The ecstacy of her voice, the pain of her life, the otherworldliness of her talent and how it made her suffer. If I had a god, she'd be it. If you don't believe me, watch A Star is Born, and be prepared to exult and weep.

There is no comparison, in my mind, between the two singer-actresses, though Universal and MGM tried to create rivalry and competition between them. The Great Garland was presented as jazz (with all its contradictions), while Ms. Durbin was well, light opera, you know, something of a square, and as she sings:tra-la-la.
But I can't help it if there's always a place in my heart for the hopelessly twee. So let Ms. Durbin nestle comfortably in the category that includes novelty tunes, CuteOverload, Cheburaska, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performed by a cavalcade of Sanrio characters. And of course, The Sound of Music.

Though I believe Ms. Durbin came from the same rough and tumble vaudeville background as The Great Garland, nonetheless Universal did its best to make her look like old money. Tailored looks, and always age appropriate, with touches of late 1930s whimsey. Her bicycling outfit has a polka dot yoke that ties around her neck and waist. And look how those polka dots peek out of the pleats of the skirt. (And if you like that, all her school chums wear it too, as the cycling uniform.) Just look at that cravat, will ya? Now as a devotee of the scarf that is something I try to emulate. Natural curls, bright eyes, big smile. That's what I strive for everyday (though alas, I'm no longer exactly an ingenue and I often miss the mark). I don't care much for her overly sculpted eyebrows, but that is a minor quibble.

I recently watched Mad About Music and delighted in the uniforms for Deanna's Swiss boarding school, not to mention the murals of the alps that stand in for scenery. In addition to the cycling get-up, they've got plaid raincoats with capelets and matching garrison caps shielded by transparent umbrellas on japanese frames. I'm not kidding. This stuff is glorious. They've got jaunty boleros worn with high waisted skirts and white blouses. All by Vera West and a few gowns done by Edith Head for Gail Patrick who plays Deanna's mother. (I once had the ambition to watch all the films costumed by Edith Head but had to give up. She was one busy lady.)

If you'd like to see Deanna in action, go here and here. Though I warn you, it just might melt your teeth it's so sweet. Mad About Music also has a novelty harmonica orchestra, the obvioulsy fake alps in the picture,"traveling incognito", and an imaginary father. It's set in a nostalgic, romanticized Europe where somehow everyone speaks English. It is a ball of kitsch where if you say something often enough and cross your fingers, somehow it will come true. Again, I'm not kidding.

Now Deanna usually plays a rich girl, and nothing really bad ever happens to her. (Unlike Shirley Temple who was orphaned in just about every picture.) But the characters she plays are still smart, kind, a bit kooky, and never so refined that she can't do a pratfall. The word on the street is that she was a consumate professional, even at 12. And she had the good sense to walk away from the Hollywood machine when she still could. But that makes sense if you look at her performances. She is working hard, but leaves something of herself in reserve.

"If you do not go to your limit, what do you have to give your audience?" That's what one of my Butoh teachers used to say. And I agree wholeheartedly that does make a performance compelling. The Great Garland always gave 110%, no matinee soft sell, not her. The Great Garland doesn't even leave herself bus fare to get home. Deanna gives it her all, yes of course, and even with the total shlock she had to work with. But then she's going to have a ice cream soda, read a little bit and get to bed. And I admire that.

Why must we all throw ourselves on the pyre of Dionysian creativity? What so wrong with being kinda well-adjusted? Not that I would know much about being well-adjusted, but leave the drama on the stage, no? Kill your children as Medea, or whatever it is, but don't take it home with you. Now I try to do performances like I'm working a middle-management job. Do my darndest, then go home and listen to the radio. No need for excoriating self-criticism, congratulations, or several rounds of scotch and monopolizing the conversation afterward. Hmmm, maybe I'm becoming too sensible.

But as far as I know, Deanna had a much easier time of it for one simple reason: she wasn't on drugs. As for the Great Garland, well, the studio was giving her speed when she was a preteen to just keep her Hollywood thin. It gave her attacks of paranoia where she was whirling around her trailer saying people where plotting against her.



Blogger fuzzylizzie said...

Deanna Durban was also a fashion trendsetter. In 1941 Vera West's designs for her in Nice Girl became the standard for proms and teenage dances. The dress was nice and demure!

Loved the post.

7:24 AM  
Blogger samsara said...

Hi there, Ms. Fuzzylizzie, and thanks for your comment.

I didn't know that Deanna was a trendsetter. I thought everyone was trying to look like Veronica Lake. Indeed what I love about Deanna's style is that it's nice and demure! I haven't seen "Nice Girl", but have it on my list and am looking forward to it. And I'll look into Ms. West's other designs.

9:35 AM  

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