Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can’t Help Watching: Deanna Durbin and me.

I lost it, that magic. I’m not sure when, but it was a long time ago. As for why, it’s no mystery. This is a strange post for me, more personal than usual, and it’s also one of the only times haven’t essayed about a specific picture. As the title of this blog says, I consume old movies. In voluminous amounts. In the wide world of film enthusiasts, movie bloggers, and ‘regular’ people you bump into your daily life — young and old, I’m the most broadly viewed movie person (I turn that particular phrase as a literature person might employ ‘well read.’) I’ve ever come across. You name it, I’ve probably seen it. During this year’s iteration of 31 Days of Oscar, TCM failed to play a single film that was new to me. It’s embarrassing at times. I’ve begun to notice that my colleagues at school will avoid discussing movies around me because I’ve already seen everything that comes up in our lunch table conversations — and in such situations I have a pompous and silly tendency to show off. Besides, my film watching doesn’t grant me any magical powers of understanding or interpretation either. I’m often in such a rush to get to the next movie that I fail to ruminate over the last one in the way the filmmakers would want me to. In other words, unless something really stands out to me as original, entertaining, or intellectually stimulating, I fail to take the time to properly digest a film — I just hurry to the next course. I’ll often plow through many, many movies before I find one I want to write about.

In my bio blurb, there on the side, I claim to watch more than 500 pictures each year, but that’s only a vague hint at the truth. I refrain from the real number in order to avoid being thought too weird. Between you and me, I watched 114 films in May alone, and I’ll pass that figure in June and July, and I only count films that I’ve never seen. The 2002 documentary Cinemania follows five folks who do essentially nothing but go to the movies all day, seeing from 600 – 2,000 films per year for each, at the expense of normalcy in the other areas of their lives. I’m not like that — they go to the theater, I don’t. However I’m too close to them for comfort — maybe Belloq’s ‘just a nudge’ would have me wide-eyed in the sequel. While I have a great job that I love and do very well (I’m ‘off the hook,’ as the students say, on and a great family, I’m a hardcore lifelong insomniac, and when everyone else is sleeping I’m watching movies, from roughly 10 PM – 4 AM every day. It’s been that way with me for the last 25 years. Two to three movies a day, every day, for 25 years. You do the math. (In case you’re wondering, I get up around nine and come home at six. I’m fortunate to live just a mile from work.)

Back to the magic. When I first began watching old films as a teenager, I was enthralled in some difficult to describe way by the images on my television screen all those late summer nights. I loved these films, loved them. That’s the magic I’m talking about. Back in those days I could fall into an old movie, be transported by it to some wonderful place — far beyond my personal experiences or memory, but one comfortable and familiar. I began to make lists of the films I’d seen or wanted to see, something I still do. I’d make charts of Joan Crawford or Carole Lombard movies, of Oscar nominees and winners, of movies with the word ‘big’ in the title, of film noir (what a revelation!) and neo-noir, and of crimes films that aren’t considered noir. I’d seek out the movies and check them off my lists. I’d make more lists to replace those I completed. I’d make copies of my lists so I’d be able to access them from home or the office, then more copies so I’d have a set in the living room and the basement. Eventually I realized it wasn’t about having lists close at hand, it was about the ritual of crossing a movie off with a sharpie, highlighting a viewed title in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, or deleting a title from a list saved as a Word document. My current watching habits are dictated by one list in particular that I’ve been pursuing for more than a decade. I’m frantic about it these days, but thankfully, I think I’m only a year or so away. One of my best friends and colleagues has been yammering at me for years to turn the whole thing into a book project (hmm, thinking about it). That I was and continue to be an obsessive compulsive is undeniable. Movies, lists, and insomnia gave me a way to have a ritualized life that doesn’t get in the way of being ‘normal.’ There’s something wickedly Faustian about all of this, but I’ve been able to make it work for the vast majority of my adult life. Probably because I like rules and parameters and consequently I respect the lines I draw in the sand of my life. If I have to work late, I work late. When my kids are sick I sit up with them so my wife can sleep. And most importantly, movies are off limits from 6 – 10 PM every day.

But as I said, I’ve lost that mojo, and I ache for it — I’m nostalgic for nostalgia. It brings me some happiness to see so many young people authoring classic film blogs (I wish there were a few more guys though). I’m jealous, I can sense in their writing the presence of these same feelings that I’m missing. And I’m coming to grips with that most middle-aged of lessons: it’s awfully hard for one to go back in time, to recapture that sense of wonder — if it’s even possible at all. Every now and then I get a fleeting moment of that purple Mia Farrow-esque swept away feeling, but such moments grow rare. The problem is twofold. First, like most classic film fans I started with the greats and worked my way backwards. These days I watch B grade and obscure or forgotten films almost exclusively. I’ll toss a prestige picture into the mix in order to break the monotony, but I never include a film in my total count if I’ve seen it before — and sometimes I care about the numbers more than the monotony. Heck, one of the main reasons I began blogging in 2008 was to slow myself down a little and allow for some sort of outlet for my obsession that didn’t necessarily involve watching movies. (I also thought that as a college professor, I needed to jazz up my writing.) Second, Hollywood has always been in the formula business — find something that works and go with it. Beat the dead horse until the box office receipts tell you to put the stick away and find another horse. I’m going to start writing about Deanna Durbin in a moment or two, and let me assure you that I adore her films as much as anyone, but if you’ve seen one picture from Universal’s Durbin unit, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The irony for me is that I never seem to tire of her pictures, but such can’t be said regarding other stars. When you’ve seen as many movies as I have, even the narrative devices of first-rate movies become a little predictable. But here’s the thing: Deanna Durbin still gets me. I can still watch a Durbin movie without getting bored, staring at the little electronic counter, or feeling the urge to check my laptop for new email. It may not be that sense of wonder that I enjoyed before I stopped being a ‘movie’ guy and became a ‘film’ guy, but it comes awfully close, and it satisfies. (By the way, thank heavens I haven’t become a ‘cinema’ guy yet — or even worse, someone who refers to movies as ‘the cinema.’ To each his own, but if that ever happens and I start tossing that stuff around, I hope someone plugs me.)

So that brings me back to Durbin, who I’ve been watching a great deal of lately. I’m thinking about a scholarly article that really digs into the elements that comprised the Durbin formula, and the way they were applied throughout her years at Universal. I wrote about her once before at Where Danger Lives, and I got nostalgic in that piece too. She does that to me. My first Durbin picture was one of my first old movies, Three Smart Girls, and in all likelihood I connected with her because our ages were similar— hers on-screen, mine in real-life. And I was smitten. I still am. To me, she’s one of the most thoroughly attractive female stars ever to grace the screen. She was spectacularly and unglamorously pretty. To say she was the all-American girl next door is so droll, but there’s hardly a better way to put it. Her screen persona, in one film after the next, is reliably charming and charmingly reliable. Her handlers at Universal, producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster (along with Joe Valentine, her cameraman), understood her appeal, which is more uncommon than you might imagine in the movie business — Deanna was able to transition for juvenile to adult stardom not by reinventing herself, but by staying exactly the same. Her films reinforce the power of Hollywood formula; they are all essentially alike. She never mugs for the camera, never tries to be glamorous, urbane, or chic — as a matter of fact, she convinces you on some deep down level that the girl on the screen is just being her real-life self. Effortlessly graceful, particularly when she wants you to laugh at her, and always a little self-conscious, Durbin’s screen image is either totally authentic or the best example of studio hocus pocus in movie history.

And in spite of the fact that she was the biggest star at Universal for nearly her entire fifteen years there, and her films were more or less all hits, it’s almost easy to understand Deanna’s reluctance to keep cranking them out as it is to understand the studio’s desire to maintain the status quo. The details of her retirement from the business have been exhaustively written about elsewhere, so I won’t rehash them here, but I’ll add that while it is easy to make Universal the bad guy when it comes to Durbin, it has to be mentioned that audiences refused to accept her in roles that didn’t involve comedy, singing, and romance — and even as far as those efforts are concerned, we have to consider Durbin as a star of both the thirties and of the forties — of the pre- and post-war periods. If her appeal declined in the years leading up to her retirement, it was because while she stayed the same, the world war had made the audiences who used to flock to her pictures a great deal less innocent. It was a paradox that couldn’t stand: ticket-buyers wanted her to forever remain that pretty little girl with the beautiful voice, yet they now needed their movies to reflect a more complicated and rapidly changing world — Lady on a Train wasn’t what they had in mind.

Durbin is still out there, living a happy and ‘secluded’ — as all the articles say — life in France. Wherever and however she is, I say thanks for the memories, and the magic.


  1. I wrote a one-act once about a woman facing upheaval in her life who remarks, "Some people drink. Some people do drugs. I watch 'The Best Years of Our Lives.'"

    I would not suggest that, like a user of alcohol or drugs, your film habit has reached a point where ever-increasing doses are no longer effective; that wouldn't even be funny let alone true. But, I understand, and I imagine old movie fans generally do, that the irresistable fascination, or emotional comfort, or wonder we derive from this 20th century art form/big industry is more than nostalgia. If that were all it was, we could neatly define it and put it away when not our personal souvenirs.

    But we never put it away. That love of old movies influences anything else we watch, and for some, influences how they look at life. How many of those young bloggers you refer to dress themselves, with an eye towards Audrey Hepburn, or paste favorite pictures of beautiful stars all over their home pages and all over their bedroom walls?

    Your comment here about young bloggers: "I’m jealous, I can sense in their writing these same feelings that I’m missing. And I’m coming to grips with that most middle-aged of lessons: it’s awfully hard to go back in time, if you can manage it at all."

    Perhaps they don't go back in time, but unselfconsciously live whatever time they want.

    I'm glad Deanna Durbin still holds some magic for you. I like your observations on the close of her film career: "If her appeal declined in the years leading up to her retirement, it was because while she stayed the same, the world around her had become a great deal less innocent. It was a paradox that couldn’t stand: audiences wanted her to forever remain that pretty little girl with the beautiful voice, yet they needed films that reflected a much less innocent and rapidly changing world..."

    I always like to read your observations; they are unfailingly intelligent and astute. I hope you find the magic again, or a new track that will compliment your diligent nature and sense of wonder.

  2. Thanks Jacqueline.

    "The Best Years of Our Lives" Ahhh, now that's the good stuff.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful post.

    I loved this comment on Durbin: "Durbin’s screen image is either totally authentic or the best example of studio hocus pocus in movie history." Yes!

    Although a lifelong film (and especially musicals) fan, I'd only seen Durbin's short EVERY SUNDAY until a few years ago. Getting to know her films has been such a joy! It's wonderful that Deanna's magic continues to draw you in. I encourage you to write the article you're considering, I'd love to read it and I'm sure there are many more out there who would enjoy your thoughts as well.

    I can relate to your love of lists! I've kept a list of all movies I've seen since I was about 11 years old, only adding new titles to it. (I do have a column where I add to stick figure bundles each time I rewatch.) About a year ago I put the list on the computer (just the titles, not the "rewatch count") as a backup, so now I keep it in both places. At the start of each year the last few years I make a "viewing ideas" list of many (many!) pages based on all the titles available to me (recorded from TCM, DVD, etc.) and cross off as I watch, while also keeping a tally of how many seen each year. I think I inherited a love of list keeping from my father, and three of my kids are list crazy too, keeping folders on the coffee table where they cross off Best Actress movies seen, Best Song movies seen, and my 13-year-old who loves character actors crosses titles for actors like Sir C. Aubrey Smith off printouts of IMDb listings. I share this just because perhaps you might enjoy knowing there's "more of you" out there! :) There's simply something very satisfying about having lists for guidance and seeing progress.

    I went through a very lean viewing period when my four kids were young, seeing only about 60 new-to-me titles in a decade. (It's hard for me to believe now! What's even weirder is that I don't remember a lot of the films seen when I was pregnant/nursing/surrounded by little people, yet I remember clearly movies I saw when I was 12...a couple years ago I was shocked to discover I'd already seen FINISHING SCHOOL...twice!) As my kids got older, the pace started zooming way up again roundabouts 2005, coinciding with also having time to start blogging. I think that, for me, the discipline of tracking my viewing by blogging each title has helped me pause to consider how the title fits into the "jigsaw puzzle" of Hollywood history. The depth of the posts varies depending on multiple factors, but each one serves to kind of clear that film out of my brain before I move to the next one. I'm not sure I consciously realized that until your own post got me to thinking about it.

    As I've worked my way deeper back into B movies and lesser-known titles, I've been reflecting recently that part (but not all) of the magic of these films is that put all together they're an entire *world*, and it's such a joy to discover which faces from that world will turn up from film to film. I'm also continually amazed that alongside the formulas, there's such creativity and diverse styles -- sometimes I'll wonder "Wow, who thought of doing *that*?"

    Thanks again for sharing such an interesting and thought-provoking essay. Like Jacqueline, I hope you find that magic again, and thanks for all your very enjoyable posts.

    Best wishes,

  4. Thanks Laura. Yes, it is wonderful (sort of!) to hear that I'm not the only lister out there. And I really wish I had the discipline to write about all of the films I watch, but where I am now, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel on this long list that I've been working on and it keeps me grabbing at the next film in the queue.

    I like the idea of a re-watch count, that never occurred to me! It makes me wonder how many times I've seen certain films, like The Best Years of Our Lives or Double Indemnity or Laura or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

    It's great that your kids have inherited your affection for the classics. Mine are too young right now, but I hope they do too.

  5. Hi Mark,

    I've enjoyed reading your entertaining and thought-provoking comments very much. But as another diehard admirer of Deanna Durbin, while I agree that her films, like those of most stars, often adhered to a successful formula, it seems to me that such out-of-sort Durbin vehicles as THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY, LADY ON A TRAIN, and especially, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, were much more "radical" and "cutting edge" than similar attenpts by rival studios to broaden the appeal of their wholesome female stars, including Judy Garland at MGM and Alice Faye and Betty Grable at 20th Century Fox.

    Even some of Durbin's more traditional star vehicles contain suprisingly "mature" elements, such as 1941's NICE GIRL?, the plot of which centers around Deanna's determination to lose her virginity to older man Franchot Tone, and 1940's IT'S A DATE, in which her onscreen boyfriend, Lewis Howard, mistakenly mimes a drug addict going through withdrawl symptoms for a group of Broadway producers.

    All of this, of course, can't adequately explain Deanna's enduring appeal, but I think you've touched on several of the basic elements and encourage you to write a more scholarly appraisal of her career. She's ripe for reassessment and reappraisal.

  6. Mark, thanks for your comment. I think it really illuminates the different ways that business was conducted at a small studio like Universal rather than majors like MGM and Fox — the difference being (for those who may not know) that Universal had no theater chain and was forced to rely solely on receipts. There are plenty of ways to divide Durbin's career in half, but the one that makes the most sense is the films she made as part of Universal's "Durbin Unit" with Joe Pasternak, Henry Koster, and Joe Valentine, and those she made after.

    You mentioned "The Amazing Mrs. Holliday," which was the first film of Durbin's career that was made without Pasternak's guidance. When Pasternak left for MGM in the wake of "It Started with Eve," Deanna made her play with Universal executives and gained a great deal more control over her projects than the studio thought best for her — though she bought it with a suspension, a la Bette Davis. That is certainly the dividing point in her career, but as Durbin got to play the more grown up roles that she wanted, audiences began to gradually shy away from her. Legions of her fans have suggested that it was Universal's fault for mishandling her after Pasternak left, and while it's impossible to know what really happened, it sure appears that Deanna was something like a lawyer trying to represent herself in court. Audiences only seemed to want her one way, and while we can try to blame Universal for the projects they offered her, Deanna, as the studio's top star, had approval on almost every aspect of her productions. So in that sense, sure, the movies were radical in some way — she plays a prostitute in "Christmas Holiday" after all, but unlike Garland or Grable or Faye, Deanna was the driving force behind her career direction, rather than the studio that sponsored her. Deanna demanded the changes, Universal didn't want to repackage her.

    I think it's also quite true, referencing your point about "It's a Date" that her pictures relied a great deal more on story than did those made at MGM or, without a doubt, Fox. Robert Osbourne always comments that one of the biggest secrets of Durbin's success was that audiences liked her more when she was acting than they did when she was singing — and MGM's notion of a musical was to fill the spaces between song and dance numbers with as much glamour and as frivolous a plot as possible. Durbin's material may have been equally light in tone, but her films were a great deal more story-driven than her contemporaries at the other studios. I agree that I don't think there is a higher compliment that we could pay her — but that depth in story remains part of the 'formula.'

    In the end I think Universal wanted her to just keep being the Deanna that everyone wanted, a beloved financial juggernaut, and she didn't — so she decided to walk away. Great comment, thanks for reading and chiming in.

  7. Thanks for your very detailed and erudite reply, Mark:

    It's difficult, if not impossible to appportion the credit/blame for Deanna's post-Pasternak productions. While it's undoubtedly true that Deanna went on suspension to compel Universal to give her more mature/sophisticated roles, I think it's wrong to say that Deanna got everything she wanted, as the compromises between star and studio are apparent in all of her post-Pasternak era films.

    For example, THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY may have a more serious plot than her earlier films, and, in its' more lavish scenes, allows Deanna to wear a glamorous wardrobe and upswept hairdo, much comedy is mined from her inability to walk comfortably in her high-heeled shoes and her awkward table manners at the Holliday dining room table.

    And, in fairness to Deanna, Pasternak makes clear in his memoir that long Abefore she began to complain about the childlike aspects of her films, some theatre owners were urging him to allow her to occasionally play a more sexy role onscreen as she grew into an exceptionally beautiful young woman.

    Again, while Deanna may have had more say in the selection of her film vehicles than actresses at other stuidos, Universal's efforts to create a more mature image for her don't strike me as all that dissimilar to the efforts of MGM, for example, to create a more mature persona for the maturing Judy Garland.

    For example, less than a year after Garland's success as "14 year-old" Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, she played a young mother who died in childbirth in LITTLE NELLIE KELLY. A little over a year after that, she played a struggling vaudevillian, making her own way and losing her brother to combat in World War I in FOR ME AND MY GAL.

    Later Garland films such as THE CLOCK and THE PIRATE, were undoubtedly produced in response to her continuing insistence that she be allowed to play more mature roles onscreen. I think you're right that Judy never had the clout at MGM that Deanna had at Universal, but the basic frustration at their "wholesome" images was endemic to young actresses of the studio era, as, indeed, it is today.

    And, as Universal did with Deanna, in response to public outcry and indifference over Judy's more sophisticated turns in ZIEGFELD POLLIES and THE PIRATE, MGM immediately implemented a policy of onscreen retrenchment, producing more traditional Garland vehicles like EASTER PARADE, IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME and SUMMER STOCK that emphasized her well-established, much-loved "wistful wallflower" persona

    And, in fairness to Deanna, there's some evidence to suggest she wasn't entirely wrong in wanting to develop a more mature onscreen image. Several contemporary sources indicate that films like HERS TO HOLD and HIS BUTLER'S SISTER were even more successful than Deanna's earlier Pasternak productions had been, and it's often stated that CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY was Universal's most financially successful film up to that time.

    If true, this would certainly help to explain why Universal continued to raise Deanna's already enormous salary, practically until the day she left the studio.

    I think another prominent factor to consider was Universal's inability to fashion viable vehicles for Deanna in the changing post-World War II era. After the War, films became more "democratic", almost always promoting a star duo rather than a single star attraction, and muscials even more lavish and story-oriented.

    With no one on its' contract roster to match Deanna's talent and onscreen lustre, and apparently incapable of producing a comparably stylish musical production to match those of rivals 20th Century Fox and MGM, Universal and Deanna were at a real disadvantage at this time.

  8. Mark - Great stuff in there! I think through the power of lots of words we are finally on the same page. I often wish people like us could somehow get together for drinks - but I guess that what the Internet and blogging accomplishes in its own way.

    I've read from some sources that Christmas Holiday was a flop and from others that it was a success. Thomas Schatz covers Durbin fairly extensively in "The Genius of the System," and he says the film was a financial disappointment. I'm aware that Deanna was the highest paid Hollywood actress at the time of its release, but I'd like to get to the bottom of the issue with Christmas Holiday's box office. If you have any info you can share please do so.

  9. Hi Mark:

    If memory serves, there is a contemporary article by THE NEW YORK TIMES that cites CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY as one of the biggest hits of 1944. I'll see if I can locate it.

    There's also Deborah Alpi's biography of CH's director, Robert Siodmak, in which she states:

    "...CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY was a substantial popular success: by the end of July 1944, the film had grossed $2,000,000, more than any other Durbin picture (the average gross for a Durbin film was $1,250,000) and surpassed every other Universal release at the time."

    Unfortunately, I don't recall the source of Ms. Alpi's information concerning CH's box office figures, but it's a sentiment echoed by James Harvey in his chapter on CH in MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES. among others.

    Sorry we can't meet for drinks to chew the cinematic fat, but you can always e-mail me through this blog if you'd like.

  10. That's funny - I'm reading the Harvey book right now, though I'm not that far in yet — just the opening chapters — he seems to understand the femme fatale very well. I'll try to pin down the other sources as well. I'll like to get some concrete data so I can update my entry on that film. IMDb has CH premiering on June 30, so 500 K per week for the first four weeks seems a bit generous. Having seen it so many times, I'm having a hard time imagining it to be such a big hit. IMDb also claims Buck Privates netted 4,000,000 but I'm not sure what sort of scope that figure covers. Alas, I wish there was some sort of bottom-line resource that was generally available to answer such questions.

  11. I know what you mean. The box office grosses for many classic films often seem to be inflated, and, of course, as is the case today, studios could often manipulate figures to make a film seems more (or less) successful than it was. You perhaps recall how, a few months after its' release, Paramount stated that FORREST GUMP, consistently touted as one of the highest grossing films of all time, had been a box office disappointment.

    Still, I think it's likely that CH was a big box office hit, but has often been touted as a "failure" because it was so controversial.