An Introduction to Deanna Durbin AKA Judy Garland’s preteen singing nemesis

Maybe about a year ago, I was introduced to Deanna Durbin. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s understandable. She’s pretty well forgotten. However, in her day, she was one of the highest paid actresses and her popularity actually saved Universal from bankruptcy.

When she was discovered at thirteen, her name was Edna and she was in competition with a young Judy Garland at MGM. They were both great singers and were thought to be answers to the Shirley Temple problem. They made a short subject film together called Every Sunday where they were put side by side and tested. I think they’re both great, but that’s just me!

According to legend, MGM Studio head Louis B. Mayer watched the film and nixed “the fat one.” He apparently meant Garland, but Durbin was the one who lost her contract. Shortly after, she was picked up by Universal and made a string of light musical comedies. The major difference between Durbin and Garland’s career was that Garland was allowed to transition to adult roles while Durbin was kept in juvenile territory.

Still, I was amazed by Durbin’s quiet beauty, her comedic chops and her astoundingly beautiful operatic voice. Though she retired from film at the age of 27, she left a mark on moviegoers and deserves to be remembered.

With that in mind, here are her best performances and films IMHO:

Three Smart Girls (1936)

This film was Durbin’s feature film debut. She was just 15 years old. Directed by Henry Koster and written by Adele Comandini, the film follows three sisters, one of which is played by Durbin who scheme to reunite their divorced parents so their father won’t marry a gold-digger. Sound familiar? Three Smart Girls was remade in the 60’s…a little film called The Parent Trap.

With co-stars Ray Milland, Charles Winniger, and Barbara Read, Three Smart Girls is a fun lighthearted musical and it gave Durbin her first chance to shine.

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Girls will be girls…haha

First Love (1939)

Any Cinderella fans out there will get a kick out of First Love. In this modern re-telling, Durbin plays Constance Harding, an orphan who finishes up school and goes to live with her wealthy uncle (Eugene Pallette) and his family. She even has an evil step-sister to boot, played by Helen Parrish.

The film is often noted for having Deanna’s first on-screen kiss, her beau being played by a twenty year old Robert Stack. Though certainly flawed, this film is one of her best. It’s fun and sweet and has some wonderful songs!

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What a FIRST KISS! #HerDressThough

It’s A Date (1940)

In this one, made just after First Love, Durbin plays Pamela Drake, a young, aspiring actress with a famous actress mother, played by Kay Francis. She gets offered the lead role in a new play only to realize that her mother is competing for the same role. On a boat, she meets John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon), a much older man who she believes is vying for her affection. Pamela soon realizes she may be competing with her mother romantically as well as professionally.

Story-wise, parts of this just don’t work for me, but despite its flaws, it has some wonderful scenes of screwball comedy antics and a great finish where Durbin sings Ave Maria.

It Started With Eve (1941)

This film has a great premise. It follows Anne Terry (Durbin), a hat check girl who is asked to pose as a man’s (Robert Cumming) fiancee because his father (Charles Laughton) is dying. Only problem is after Durbin meets Cumming’s father. He doesn’t die. No great moment to tell your loved one, “Uh, sorry. Just kidding, not my real fiancee. Just thought you were dying, so, uh…” There’s no way for that not to be awkward.

This was the first of Durbin’s films that I saw and it is thought by many to be her best. It is my personal favorite. I feel like it accomplishes telling a coherent story while including the screwball comedy antics and Durbin’s lovely voice! Her chemistry with Robert Cummings doesn’t hurt either!

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I kinda wish hats were still a thing. Just me?

Christmas Holiday (1944)

It’s hard to encapsulate this one. It’s unlike any of her other films. Though her co-star is the lovely musical Gene Kelly and the title sounds like a Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas special, Christmas Holiday is a fairly bleak film noir. Durbin was 23 when she made this film and finally gained script approval, a right she used to graduate to more adult roles.

Christmas Holiday follows Jackie Lamont (Durbin), a singing prostitute (they never say it outright, but that’s what she is) who meets a young lieutenant (Dean Harens). They find solace in one another, telling their tales of how they got to be where they are. Jackie recounts finding out her husband, Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) murdered a girl and explains that even so, she still loves him. It is truly Gene Kelly as you’ve never seen him before. He’s a far cry from Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain.

Though it’s a truly strange film, Durbin proves that she has more than just an amazing voice. And the cinematography is on point!

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The black and white is GORGEOUS!

She was gorgeous, a singing prodigy, and a fantastic actress!

It’s so easy to play the “if/then” game, but I truly believe if Durbin’s talents had really been recognized and utilized, she could’ve become a star on the same level as Judy Garland. But she was different than Garland in many ways – she seemed to have a good head on her shoulders and chose a happy, quiet life over the chaos and absurdity that is Hollywood.

The magic of movies is that we can still appreciate her despite the fact that she stopped acting at 27 and passed away in 2013. I discovered her only recently and for those who, like me, enjoy films of the musical and screwball comedy persuasion, get ready for your new obsession!

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A New Year Ensemble to be proud of. Anyone know where I can get those hair star pins? P&T!

Happy watching!

Gifs and photos property of Universal Pictures.

The Genius of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

Okay, so I know I’ve made this blog almost exclusively about movies, but I feel compelled to talk about one of the most original, creative, and fun shows on television currently. As you know if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m a huge fan of old school musicals.

In the past few years, there’s been a slew of shows with singing, most notably Fox’s Glee and NBC’s Smash. However, there’s something different about The CW’s Crazy-Ex Girlfriend. Rachel Bloom’s totally original and creative show doesn’t surround a world with a built in reason for musicality. Glee was about a high school acapella group and Smash took us behind the scenes the making of a broadway show. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has no reason, like the best old school musicals.

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When the show began back in October, many critics believed it couldn’t sustain itself over the course of several episodes – Rachel had said there would be at least two original songs in each episode. Funnily enough, it sustained itself and then some. With Aline Brosh-McKenna (the screenwriter behind The Devil Wears Prada), the show has commented on something real and relatable – the delusions we all have surrounding romance and how a person can “complete” us.

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Rachel’s Rebecca Bunch moves across the country to follow an old high school camp boyfriend she runs into in NYC. She thinks it’s a sign that they’re supposed to be together. The fact that he already has a girlfriend – just a small obstacle. Never mind that Greg, the hunky bartender, likes her despite the fact that he knows she’s in love with Josh. Side note: Greg is played by Santino Fontana – aka Prince Charming in Broadway’s original cast of Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. 

The songs in the show are different because many times, they’re ironic and dark. They’re also extremely catchy. This carries over from the music videos Rachel created before Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – which, incidentally are how she got noticed in the first place. One of her best ones is “Fuck Me Ray Bradbury.”

One of my favorite moments in the show is in episode four, when Rebecca is being courted by Greg. Greg sings to Rebecca, “Settle for Me,” a song reminiscent of all the old Hollywood musicals I love – most notably Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The black and white was a nice touch.

The show does all kinds of music. The opposite of an ode to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes” stars the object of Rebecca’s affection, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) singing like NSYNC or The Backstreet Boys. It’s a song any girl born in the 90s will understand.

“You’re a Stupid Bitch” might just be the most poignant song Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has tackled. Rebecca sings it right after she gets caught in a lie by Josh and she feels horrible about herself.

Greg (Santino Fontana) has become one of my favorite characters.This song is everything. Greg’s ode is so, so relatable. Watch “I Could If I Wanted To” and tell me you don’t agree.

Later in the season, Rebecca starts dating Greg, which led to one of the best numbers the show has had: “Oh my god, I think I like you!” I literally can’t stop listening.

One of the things that has separated Crazy Ex-Girlfriend from other television, especially from other CW shows, is that every character looks like a real person. No one is a stick thin, perfect looking model. The cast is diverse, talented and relatable. It all comes back to Rachel Bloom who despite playing a character who makes a lot of bad choices, is intensely likable.

Bloom worked extremely hard to get where she is and her Golden Globes award speech reveals her to be humble and appreciative of the opportunities she’s been given.

Her original pilot of the show which was made for Showtime was not picked up. Brosh-McKenna and Bloom thought it was over, but The CW swooped in and gave the show a home, embracing all its quirkiness. It’s truly an accident that something this original and different got made and I just hope it continues to get renewed. Bloom is an inspiration to me because she knew what she wanted to make and she didn’t conform. The show is all her – we need more original voices like hers!

The CW is starting to rebrand itself. So, don’t be put off by the fact that it’s on the same network responsible for things like The Vampire Diaries and 90210. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is THAT GOOD and if you give it a chance, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Astaire gave her class; Rogers gave him sex appeal. They gave us some of the best movies ever…IMHO.

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been anticipating writing this particular post, mostly because I have a little bit of an obsession Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And not just an obsession with their dancing, but with the writing: the subtle blend of great screwball comedy antics with stunning, lovely musical numbers.

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I remember seeing a picture of Astaire and Rogers before I ever saw one of their films. My first impression: “He’s the romantic lead? That guy? Really? But he’s so unattractive”. Guys, remember I was in my early teens so my perception of attractiveness was pretty much solely based on appearance. Conversely, by appearances, I misinterpreted Rogers as a vapid dumb blonde.

That was what really made them work. They both subverted expectations. Their romances were based on wit and serenading and fancy footwork. Astaire started in the business in vaudeville as a dance partner for his sister, Adele. He had said she was really the one who wanted it. However, when Adele got married, he stayed in the business while she retired to have a family.

In the early ’30’s, Astaire famously screen tested for David O’Selznick, the prolific producer of Gone with the Wind. David’s first impression:

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little”. – David O’Selznick, Producer

It’s funny looking back on that quote because it forever immortalizes how wrong producers can be, even great ones. Although Astaire didn’t make his film debut until 1933, it quickly became clear that he was talented.

Rogers made her film debut in 1929. Her famous persona was always there, even in her pre-code films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Just look at her facial expressions in this number:

Now, to give a little background on the period. Rogers and Astaire rose to fame during the depression, when people were looking to be uplifted. They didn’t want to see themselves onscreen, starving and working hard to make ends meet. They wanted to see beautiful sets, gorgeous gowns and extravagance.

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The Astaire/Rogers films delivered on all those fronts. They were glossy and unreal and meticulously choreographed. Moreover, they were fun! They also boasted amazing classic songs from George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

What always seems to be forgotten when people discuss these films are the wonderful character actors who made up the supporting cast. People like Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Erik Rhodes performed much of the screwball comedy antics to juxtapose the romance. Below is a great scene of Eric Blore in The Gay Divorcee:

Okay, so if you’ve never seen an Astaire/Rogers film, it’s probably best to start with Top Hat (1935). It’s the one where Astaire sings “Cheek to Cheek” and it’s really the epitome of what an Astaire/Rogers film is. The film also has one of my favorite musical numbers:

I dare you to not have a smile on your face after that clip. I know, I know. You’re in love with a man who’s unattainable. Well, join the club. 😉