When a forgotten star from Hollywood’s Golden Age died recently it brought back the story of her long-ago professional competition with a more famous contemporary who died many years ago. Now that both stars are gone, if you’ve ever imagined what it would be like as a famous Hollywood movie star, which one would you choose to be?
During the Depression in the mid-1930’s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contracted two talented young teenagers, born within six months of each other. Both were from “the sticks”, and both were in Hollywood for the motivations that have always lured talented teenagers to Hollywood. One was Frances Gumm from Grand Rapids, Minnesota; the other was Edna Mae Durbin from Winnipeg, Canada.
Each girl could sing, dance and act, at a time when MGM was looking for the next Shirley Temple. But Hollywood has always been a ruthless place, and Frances was simply a little more talented and charismatic. So, at the expense of the Canadian girl, MGM extended Frances’s contract. Frances is more familiar today as Judy Garland.
Meanwhile Edna Mae changed her first name to Deanna. Despite being let go by MGM, she was signed by the financially distressed Universal Studios. Most people alive today don’t realize that in the 1940’s, Deanna Durbin was one of the world’s highest paid stars. Then, before she was 30 she left Hollywood and the movies forever.
When Deanna finally died last month, her name was unknown to all but an ever dwindling group of diehard old-time movie buffs.
The counterpoint between the two provides an interesting insight into the vicissitudes of stardom. Both actresses began their careers in light musical comedies but Judy was the beneficiary of the superior talent around her at MGM, as well as better scripts and songs. In 1939 she was awarded the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, which became a classic in large measure due to her performance. For the next decade, because of her divine voice, dancing and acting ability, she was acknowledged by many as the most talented and versatile performer in the Hollywood studio system. However, this eventually became her curse.
While turning out movie after movie for a demanding studio, Judy suffered from low self-esteem, compounded by alcohol and drug dependency. To keep her working unconscionable hours, studio doctors plied her with medications, which led to lifelong problems. By 1950, she had difficulty working regularly although she intermittently turned in fabulous comeback performances including memorable television appearances, concerts, a superb acting turn in Judgment at Nuremberg, and the starring role in A Star Is Born (according to Imdb when she failed to win the Academy Award for that performance, Groucho Marx called it “the biggest robbery since Brink’s”).
But Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas anymore and Judy Garland died in 1969 at the age of 47 in parlous financial straights, physically and mentally broken. Despite her travails, her reputation today endures as one of the greatest 20th Century show business talents. Her signature song from the Wizard of Oz, Over The Rainbow, is rated the # 1 movie song of all-time on lists compiled by both the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film institute.
Meanwhile at Universal, Deanna Durbin’s early movies, while nondescript artistically, were so popular that she was instrumental in saving the studio from bankruptcy. For a time, her movies alone accounted for over 15% of the studio’s revenues. Her fans included Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini. Anne Frank kept a picture of Deanna on the wall of the attic where she and her family hid from the Nazis.
However, Deanna was never able to escape being typecast as the “perky young woman”. After the War, when singing styles changed the demand for her operatic voice disappeared. Her final pictures bombed and a new crop of actresses emerged to take her place.
By 1950, unlike Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin gave up on Hollywood. Still in her 20’s, she had invested well and was financially secure. She said goodbye to the United States, travelled all over the world, and retired to a small French village. She rarely gave interviews but an occasional report surfaced at how she was never happy making pictures in Hollywood. One wonders whether Judy Garland read that, and if so, whether she felt a twinge of sympathy. Once a world famous celebrity, Deanna was gradually forgotten and with each passing generation, her legacy as a star diminished.
There is the question.
Judy Garland, the supreme talent, will be remembered as long as there are movies. Yet she was plagued by self-doubt, addiction, countless heartaches, and died at a young age. Deanna Durbin, the lesser talent, was a shooting star, popular for only a brief time. But she had the self-confidence to forsake the Dream Factory while still a young woman, and by most accounts she lived a long, happy life, albeit far from the spotlight.
Whose life would you choose?
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