When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

It’s December, when I celebrate the birthdays of two divae:  Maria Callas and Deanna Durbin.
MARIA CALLAS -- La Prima Donna Assolutissima!!
Callas — the Prima Donna Assolutissima — reignited the tradition of diva worship in the arts, and due to the cult-like following she engendered, she created a generation of crossover between film directors and opera directors.  The first of the Italian neorealist film directors, Luchino Visconti, being an avowed Communist, had grown to disdain the creaky artform of opera as a dying dalliance of the elite … until he witnessed a Maria Callas performance.  Visconti dropped all film plans and designed 5 opera productions in three years for her, because (as he stated), “One must serve Callas.”

Callas fell in love with Visconti, but he was having a raging affair with the opera’s orchestra conductor, Leonard Bernstein.  I can only imagine the electricity in the theatre the night after rehearsals when Visconti and Bernstein were leaving together and Callas screamed from the stage, “Don’t you dare leave with that homosexual!!”  [Seems to me that saying “that homosexual” in an opera house is tantamount to making an announcement in a Mennonite church that the driver of a black automobile left his headlights on…]  Alas, the love life of Callas was her downfall:  either enmeshed with gay movie directors (Zefferelli, Pasolini, Visconti), or having her long-time lover Aristotle Onassis talk her out of continuing her career (throughout the 1960s, Zefferelli tried to persuade Callas to make a film version of Tosca, but Aristo would pull her emotional strings to where she’d back out).  Her one feature film, Pier Palo Pasolini’s MEDEA, both showcases her and does her disservice.  A disservice in that placing Callas in the gritty, documentary-like landscape of a Pasolini film was not as fulfilling a mise-en-scene for Callas and her dramatic talents as a richly textured, velvety and over-the-top Zefferelli production would have been.  However, the film showcased her because of the subject matter. To quote the U.S. ad copy from its 1970 release:

It’s a movie about a woman who beheads her brother, stabs her children and sends her lover’s wife up in flames.

For Maria Callas, it’s a natural.

Perhaps she is still held in such awe, despite the lack of documentation of her performances, because — as any Callas-worshipper will tell you — she died of a broken heart.  When Onassis ditched Maria and married Jackie Kennedy, Callas lost the will to live.  Over a handful of years after his marriage, she became a recluse then one day her heart just stopped beating.

Happy Birthday, Maria.

Born 2 years before Callas — and still alive and kickin’ — is the movie diva who single-handedly saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy at the age of 15, and at 21 was the highest-paid woman in the U.S.:  juvenile singing star Deanna Durbin.

I was not always a Durbin connoisseur … not by a l-o-n-g shot! I had spent decades assiduously avoiding catching any of her movies.  Then one evening at a branch of the Chicago Public Library, a VHS copy of THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP [even the title made my skin crawl] was staring me down.  I decided, as a film historian, to finally excavate what I could about the historic Durbin phenomenon of the 1930s and 40s.  I was so embarrassed at being seen with a Durbin video in my possession that I tried to put it under my coat as I moved towards the street.  A security guard noticed my shame-based behavior, then stopped and searched me.
DEANNA DURBIN:  Is it just me, or does a sexy shot of her peekaboo clevage on a magazine called "YANK" have an aura of Oananism about it??
But the bad start led to a happy ending.  The film was doing nothing for me until one scene where she acted like a brat.  I noticed something authentic and sensual in her performance, the way Boomers reacted to Ann-Margret singing and strolling toward the camera lens in the intro of BYE BYE BIRDIE.

Then in the last reel of the film, when she sang at her sister’s wedding with orchestrations by Charles Previn, the endorphins that her voice released in millions of Depression-era moviegoers, melting their cares, did the same thing for me on one of those dark, soulless, despairingly cold nights of February in Chicago.

Suddenly I was hooked.  And I found as a fan I was in good company: among her biggest admirers were Brando and Garbo.  During WW2, Winston Churchill would celebrate military victories by having a private screening of a Durbin film.  At the 1992 Academy Awards, legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray was given an honorary Oscar a few weeks before he passed away.  In his acceptance speech from his hospital bed in Calcutta, he said “This is certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career. As a small, small schoolboy I was terribly interested in the cinema, became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin, got a reply, was delighted; wrote to Ginger Rogers, ah, didn’t get a reply…”

As I state in my introductory essay on Joan Crawford in postmodernjoan.com, Durbin was the anti-Crawford, taking the opposite trajectory of the rest of Hollywood’s golden-age stars.  While other actors tried to embody the images the culture industry manufactured for them (e.g., Clark Gable didn’t care for hunting or fishing, but the publicity department churned out so much ballyhoo of him as an outdoorsman that he took up both pursuits), Durbin always talked of her screen persona and star image in third person:  always referring to her film personality as “the Durbin persona.” She also understood what she was selling, summing up her appeal this way:  “Just as a Hollywood pin-up represents sex to dissatisfied erotics, so I represented the ideal daughter millions of fathers and mothers wished they had.”

Tired of being (as she put it) “Little Miss Fix-It who busts into song,” she married a French director and retired to the suburbs of Paris where this month she saw in her 87th birthday. The Broadway musical My Fair Lady was especially written for her but nothing could get her to come out of retirement, which began at the age of 28.  When Judy Garland ran into Durbin on the streets of Paris, and told her of her career tribulations, Deanna laughed and said, “Why don’t you get out of that business, you dumbbell?”

If you want to get a taste of Deanna Durbin, I recommend 2 movies:  CAN’T HELP SINGING is Deanna’s only color film, shot in richly saturated Technicolor in the southwestern Utah backdrop of John Ford territory.  The direction is by the neglected artist Frank Ryan, about whom I’ve tried to dig up some backstory but so far have come up empty.  In studio-era Hollywood, most directors came to film from another profession, and usually it’s easy to identify that field by the way they make a movie.  (E.g., Frank Tashlin was a cartoonist; Sam Fuller was a reporter, etc.)  Although I haven’t been able to find out anything on Frank Ryan, his blocking and the business he gives his actors suggests to me that he was well-versed in circus skills. CAN’T HELP SINGING is the most whimsically balletic of non-dance musicals from the studio era.

Durbin's Film Noir:  CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY


CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY was Deanna’s attempt to break out of her goodie-goodie roles by playing a chanteuse in a New Orleans whorehouse. Wartime audiences stayed away in droves. The script is from a Somerset Maugham short story, and the direction is by film-noir maestro Robert Siodmak.

BTW, is it just me, or does the sexy photo of Deanna Durbin above, with peekaboo cleavage, on the cover of a magazine called “Yank” have an aura of Onanism about it????

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