Deanna Durbin, the singing starlet with the bubbly personality and the jewel-tone voice whose enormously popular movies were widely credited with saving Universal Pictures from bankruptcy during the Depression, has died. She was 91.
Her popularity peaked by her late teens and by her mid-20s Durbin had left Hollywood forever, made wealthy by her relatively brief career. She died in April in France, said family friend Bob Koster, the son of Henry Koster, who directed Durbin in films early in her career.
Durbin started her career at MGM along with Judy Garland, but she was canny enough to realize that the studio wasn't big enough for two juvenile female singers, so she moved to Universal. That was a step down in terms of prestige, but it made a lot of sense for her career. Universal didn't have much of a musical roster at that time, and it was eager to make Durbin its premier musical star after her success in Three Smart Girls in 1936. That led to a series of movies that showcased her classically trained voice as well as her sparkling personality as a smart-beyond-her-years youngster (something that Garland could never pull off):
With her success, however, came the inevitable typecasting. Universal had the habit of finding a formula that worked and never changing it. Durbin ultimately grew tired of playing the same role over and over again with weaker and weaker material, and she called it quits in 1948. She was one of the last surviving links to the Hollywood studio system.
I think Durbin just got fed up. Only a few years earlier, Alice Faye, another big musical star, gave a similar one-finger salute to 20th Century-Fox, vowing never to return to the movies (she ultimately did, seventeen years later).