Insightful Deanna Durbin subject of local author’s new book

You’ve heard of Judy Garland, but you should definitely meet Deanna Durbin. St. Albert author Melanie Gall is a professional singer and music historian. It made sense that she would be the one to write about Winnipeg’s biggest theatrical export to Hollywood in the 1930s.

DETAILS

Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland and the Golden Age of Hollywood

By Melanie Gall

$38.56 Hardcover

288 pages

Lyon press

Available August 1st. Pre-order by visiting amazon.ca

It was the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when silent films gave way to talkies and actors could no longer hide behind their lack of stage presence. They had to have voices, and singers would make excellent candidates to be hired by the studios.

You’ve heard of Judy Garland, but where in the history books does Deanna Durbin get her right? Leave it to professional singer and music historian Melanie Gall to turn this history book into a pandemic project, to be published soon. Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood tells the story of two friends/co-stars/rivals with two very different paths in Tinseltown.

Not only that the author from St. Albert has had something to do in recent years.

“I photographed all the information because I thought maybe someone should write this book at some point. I was in New York in December 2019 and performed the show it is based on. I photographed basically every document from archives. I did all the research; I just hadn’t read it,” she said.

“I just photographed everything, had everything on my phone, so when I was trapped in St. Albert for two years, I had all this research just there. I printed everything out, organized it, did more research and wrote a book.”

The Durbin family moved to California from Winnipeg when little Deanna was two years old. She began making a name for herself as a singer when she entered her teens. The chanteuse was only 15 years old when she had her first film role in 1936. Though Garland would be the bigger name just a few years later with The Wizard of Oz, the bigger talent was Durbin, says Gall.

So why hasn’t she gained more lasting notoriety? There were no biopics of Deanna Durbin starring Renee Zellweger.

The question arises: How did Gall even know about her? Gall, who enjoys making stage shows based on people’s lives, somehow caught the hint.

“I knew her because I performed in Winnipeg every year. She’s from Winnipeg. I’m always looking for people to do shows about. I’m sure at some point a patron came along and said, ‘Hey, you should do a Deanna Durbin show,'” she said, though she notes that she first heard about the singer/actress through a series of children’s books did read growing up.

“I always thought, hey, this would be a very marketable thing: to do a show about Winnipeg’s one major Hollywood export of the 1930s. There were others too. There were a few singers and Hollywood stars that came out of Winnipeg, but she was the greatest.”

Seeing her on film, Gall said, was evidence enough for that claim.

“Her talent was overwhelming. She glowed on the screen. Within two minutes I think I get it. I understand what the fuss was about. This wasn’t just a flash in the pan star. It was very clear how talented she was and how she transformed a film.”

Though Durbin and Garland were comparable for what the studios were trying to create them, the two achieved fame in different ways.

Durbin had some setbacks early in her career, but she was basically roused from obscurity and made into a star. That was her bow, said Gall. She was first hired by MGM, but they “accidentally” fired her, which they never got over. She was hired again by Universal and made an instant star.

Judy Garland, on the other hand, fought in vaudeville as a baby.

“She was never entirely successful. They were more or less the same age. She was hired by MGM a little earlier. They were friends back when they were at MGM together. After Deanna was fired, Judy never heard the end of it that it was a mistake and she should have left. When Deanna Durbin’s name was in the spotlight in her first film, Judy Garland had a small role in the film.”

This movie was Every Sunday, published in 1936. They could have become lifelong friends, sharing their ups and downs and maybe sharing the screen again and again. It didn’t work that way.

“Before-The Wizard of Oz … [Garland] didn’t have many major leading roles, while Deanna was a star from the very first film she was in. It was impossible for them not to be rivals because it was something Judy wanted so badly. People kept telling her that she wasn’t good enough. Even when she was a star, she was told what she was doing wasn’t good enough and how physically wrong it was, and her voice wasn’t right. And everything Deanna did was praised. They were rivals. They were rivals in the press. No matter how they personally felt, they were constantly being compared. Even after Judy died, even in her obituary in the New York Times, they were compared. She could never get rid of it.”

For a movie buff, this is a book that should have been written years ago. Gall offers a comprehensive and cosmopolitan look at these two stars and puts the Hollywood machine in a new perspective.

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