Tuesday, July 24, 2012


"Happiness if everywhere" by ilovedoodle

Today, I found myself listening to "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" excessively on repeat.  It is likely one of my favorite songs/spoken word pieces of all time.  I was 'commencing' from 8th grade into high school the year the song hit the airwaves (1999/2000, for those who don't remember), and it connected with me then on a deep level that now, as an woman at the tail-end of her 20's, I'm only just beginning to understand:  the need to possess foresight into an uncertain and potentially perilious adult life -- and actually live the advice given in order to find happiness, rather than risk one day looking back and lamenting the time lost.

This also led me to a similarly inclined poem, to which many have compared Mary Schmich's "Wear Sunscreen" article due to its tone, theme, and style ... It's lovely, and I'm surprised I haven't come across it over the 13 years I've been a fan of Luhrmann's song and Schmich's column:
Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

- Max Ehrmann

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Isn't this enough?"


Isn't this enough?
Just this world?

Just this…
Beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable, NATURAL world?

How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?

If you're so into your Shakespeare
Lend me your ear:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet
…… is just fucking silly.
Or something like that.

Or what about Satchmo?!
I see trees of Green,
Red roses too
And fine, if you wish to
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu
In a post-colonial, condescending
Bottled-up and labeled kind of way
Then whatever, that's ok.

But here's what gives me a hard-on:
I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon.
I have one life, and it is short
And unimportant…
But thanks to recent scientific advances
I get to live twice as long
As my great great great great uncleses and auntses.

Twice as long to live this life of mine
Twice as long to love this wife of mine
Twice as many years of friends and wine.

- Tim Minchin, "Storm"

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Top 10 Favorite "Buffy" Episodes

With the announcement of Joss Whedon's Top 10 "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episodes (and a marathon of said episodes set to air on LOGO on May 19th beginning at 10 AM), I was inspired to reflect back on all the memorable hours of TV the Slayer and her Scooby Gang brought to my young, impressionable life during the show's life-changing (at least for me) 7 year run.

Check out Joss' Top 10 list here. Beware, Buffy-virgins! The list includes spoilers. Do yourself a favor: Watch the series. Then read the list. Don't worry, it'll be there when you get back. And then, like me, make your own list!

While Joss' picks include plenty of fan favorites, with only a few head-scratchers ("The Wish"? Really, Joss?), I can't help but want to throw some love at the lesser-known greatsand maybe agree with a few of his.

Join me, and if you disagree, that's okay! List your favs and change my mind!  *SPOILER WARNING!*

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Deanna Durbin: America's [Forgotten] Kid Sister

During the mid-1930s, Hollywood studios scrambled to find child stars that would capture the heart of American audiences.  Just as 20th Century Fox had Shirley Temple, other studios were on the lookout for monumental talent, and oftentimes, their greatest discoveries were made by accident.  Universal Studios’ most popular singing discovery of the '30s came in the small, but feisty package of 13-year-old Deanna Durbin. 

Her sudden rise to fame changed Hollywood as she became the mold which future teenage stars of the era would be compared.  Surprising audiences with her crystal clear soprano that rivaled even Jeanette MacDonald, Durbin came onto the scene by chance and enjoyed an intense but short seat at the top.  Her musical films were so popular and lucrative that she single-handedly saved a studio from bankruptcy and brought pleasure to audiences all over the world. 

The girl once referred to as “America’s Kid Sister,”¹ has been preserved in Hollywood musical history as the first great teenage star to be embraced both as a child and as a grown woman. With her tenacious spirit and heavenly soprano, Deanna Durbin’s short career, while forgotten by most, paved the way for young female singers on film for decades to come.

Deanna, born Edna Mae Durbin in December, 1921, came from humble beginnings in Winnipeg, Canada before her family migrated to Los Angeles when she was still an infant.²  Her parents never set their sights on Hollywood careers for their daughters, but instead, wanted their youngest daughter, Edna Mae, to nurture her talent that they discovered when she was very young.  It was Edna’s older sister Edith, in fact, that proposed to their parents that Edna receive singing lessons.  The young girl had an angelic voice, which only grew and developed into the mature voice of a woman by the time Edna was thirteen years old.

She studied opera and trained classically for many years before anyone took notice, and it wasn’t until 1935 when a talent agent from MGM Studios, Jack Sherill, stumbled across her during her own singing recital.
3  At the time, MGM was developing a biography picture on opera diva Madame Schumann-Heink and were on the lookout for a child opera singer to play the performer as a young girl.  Sherill didn’t look any further than Durbin, who was tested for MGM and signed for an optional contract in late 1935, which was renewable every three months.  Unfortunately for Durbin at the time, the picture (tentatively titled Gram) never materialized due to Schumann-Heink’s premature death, and Durbin’s contract was not renewed.[4]  It was believed by not only her family, but by Durbin herself, that her career was over before it began.

Durbin did, however, make one picture with MGM before finishing with them completely. The musical short, titled Every Sunday (1936), was an 11-minute presentation featuring two young girls, whose singing styles were contrasted by combining opera with swing.  Durbin appeared alongside another future teenage singing sensation, Judy Garland, before either of them appeared in the films that made them stars.  Several rumors surround this rare film, particularly in regards to Louis B. Mayer’s decision to drop Durbin from her MGM contract, signing Garland’s instead.  The first rumor stems from a misunderstanding, in which the film’s producer, George Sidney, was told by Mayer to “dump the fat one,” referring to Garland.  Sidney, however, thought he meant Durbin, so he got rid of her instead.[5]

This rumor was refuted by some who note that while Durbin’s character in the film is named “Edna,”[6] she is credited during the final credits as “Deanna Durbin.”  Durbin’s screen name, “Deanna,” wasn’t given to her until after she signed with struggling studio Universal in June 1936.[7]  Skeptics of the previously stated rumor argue that Durbin was already signed with Universal before Every Sunday was produced in July 1936, but that her optional contract with MGM stipulated that they could use her for up to sixty days following the contract’s termination.  Either way, the short film was hardly a star vehicle for either singer, but it was the launching pad for two very different careers.

Once Durbin was picked up, almost reluctantly, by Universal Studios, her singing and acting skills were tested relentlessly.  The studio felt her acting was lacking any real substance, though her singing voice was unparalleled for someone her age.  Sherill fought with Universal executives, claiming that Durbin was just the kind of star they needed to raise the studio out of its financial and creative hole.

Ultimately, the studio took a chance on the teenage soprano, pairing her with two European filmmakers that were also facing their last chance for a hit: director, Henry Koster, and producer, Joe Pasternak.[8]  Koster believed he could make Durbin a star, and in September 1936, the trio began production on a new musical comedy, titled Three Smart Girls (1936.)  What followed for the newly renamed Deanna was unexpected and immediate worldwide fame, spanning the decade in what film historian, Clive Hirschhorn, dubbed “The Durbin Era.”[9]

Over the course of Deanna’s thirteen-year career in Hollywood, she made twenty-one films, all musicals to one degree or another.  While her characters varied slightly, the majority of her films possessed a very unique musical style, and the musical sequences themselves were just as distinct.  The films were called musicals because they featured Deanna Durbin singing, but with very few exceptions[10] did any other character in the film sing as well.  Regardless, the musicals during most of Durbin’s career could be categorized as modern fairy-tales, revolving around a sophisticated, big-city community or household.

On some occasions, Durbin’s character would infiltrate this privileged, wealthy society, usually by accident. Her appearance is almost always troublesome for one or more of the side characters, who see her as an outsider and unworthy of their attention.  The trouble she causes is eventually trumped by the love she creates in the hearts of wealthy old men, snotty rich girls, and of course, eligible young suitors who only needed to be shown how much better a woman could be.

On the other side, many of Durbin’s characters actually come from this same privilege, but she manages to develop a down-to-earth, kind nature that rejects all selfish behavior and attitudes.  Throughout the film, it would become her job to set her personal “kingdom” right again.  During her teens, the formation of the couple in her films wasn’t always traditional: the “couple” might refer to her and a male suitor, a family member and the person they love, or even a man and his dream.  This “couple,” once formed, would bring peace to Durbin’s world and end happily ever after.  Such a formula became Durbin’s own brand of musical that took a step away from traditional format.

In that sense, there was rarely dancing in her films, and the musical interludes were always introduced through dialogue with Deanna’s character’s motivation to sing thoroughly explained.  While that motivation may have seemed a tad contrived or forced, it was never shocking or confusing when the singing began, because it is always established that her character possesses the talent to sing.  Motivation simply came from the presence of a stage or piano, sometimes an entire orchestra, while other times, Deanna’s character would ask with a smile and a squint in her eye, “Would you like to hear me sing?”

The answer was always yes, and without hesitation, she’d break into a stunning operatic aria.  The songs didn’t always directly reflect the plot, but the simple act of singing was a means for her character to achieve her goals.  It was that moment in every film when she opened her mouth to sing where it was clear why she would go on to capture the world’s heart.

(Promotional publicity stills © Universal)

The teenage Deanna Durbin was portrayed in her films in a very distinct and deliberate way.  In the beginning, the success of her first film, Three Smart Girls, skyrocketed her to fame and fortune, not to mention top-billing in every film she would star in for the rest of her career.  Three Smart Girls was such an undeniable success and its new discovery such a bonified star, the film literally saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy.[11]  This success quickly accelerated Durbin’s career; her contract was extended and she was signed to appear in a handful of new pictures designed completely around her and the image the studio created for her.

Her characters were developed to fit the image of a fiery, sassy, forward-thinking, and often impudent girl with an obvious lack of restraint, but a big heart.  Durbin herself later called this character “Little Miss Fix-It,”[12] referring to her characters’ desire to make all things wrong with the world right again.  She connived and fought to unite lovers, help her family and friends, and bring harmony and joy to those around her.  Her first five films illustrate this exactly, the first of which, of course, was Three Smart Girls.

In the movie, Durbin plays Penny Craig (a role she revived for two sequels), the youngest daughter of three who convinces her sisters to fly from Switzerland to New York to keep their father from remarrying and reunite him with their mother who still loves him.  At only 15-years-old, Penny’s rapid-fire talk, always clear and eloquent no matter what the ramblings, stole every scene.  Her very next film, 100 Men and a Girl, showcases this same determination when her character, Patricia Cardwell, fights to help her struggling musician father and his unemployed friends form a symphony orchestra.  The plots of her films are always comedic, yet heartfelt, and they are enhanced by the insertion of Durbin’s musical performances.

Durbin [center] in Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939) © Universal
Her singing voice has the power to captivate and enthrall, as if hypnotizing everyone around her, including the audience.  The musical sequences are often shot to convey this, with little to no movement from the camera or actors.  The focus is placed solely on Durbin with interchanging close-ups and medium shots, often expanding to include reaction shots from the characters around her who have fallen under her spell. The music makes everyone else forget, even for a moment, where they are and what they’re doing.

For example, in Three Smart Girls, Penny’s father, Judson Craig, comes to his daughters to demand they go back home to Switzerland at the request of his selfish fiancée.  Before he can, Penny asks her father if he’d like to hear her sing.  Without waiting for a response, she slides into the emotional and powerful ballad, “Someone to Care for Me.”  Her voice is so sweet and so entrancing that Judson forgets what he came to request of his daughters.  The same thing happens later in the film when Penny runs away from home, only to be intercepted by police officers and brought back to the station.  There, she tries to convince them she’s a famous opera singer and breaks into song, singing “Il Bacio” in the middle of the crowded station.  Before the audience knows it, every officer has surrounded her in awe, as if drawn to her innocence and sweetness.

While her talent is apparent, her innocence is often contrasted with the fact that she’s using her talent to con and seduce adults into helping her achieve her goals.  Thankfully for Durbin’s screen image, those goals were always for the benefit of those around her, not just herself.  Commonly, other characters in the film, her family included, drastically underestimate her capabilities because she is so young; but just like her singing voice, her tenacity and spunk manage to surprise them, and ultimately, she saves the day.

Deanna Durbin became the idealized version of the “perfect daughter,”[13] one whom parents around the world could watch and wish was theirs. The popularity of this image was so great that Universal worried before Durbin was even 18 years old what kind of affect her maturity would have on audiences.[14]  While her contract wasn’t set to expire for another couple of years, the studio knew that they would have to make a handful of hard decisions regarding their top star.[15]

By 1940, Durbin had achieved unprecedented successes, ranking as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.[16]  With Judy Garland breaking out as a rising star in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz at MGM, Universal wondered how long they’d be able to keep Durbin’s squeaky-clean, child-like image believable on screen.  It didn’t help that Durbin, nearing twenty years old, was rumored to be engaged to Vaughn Paul, an assistant director who worked on her first five films.[17]  Universal was faced with the choice of continuing Durbin’s innocent screen persona, letting her out of her contract, or simply allowing her to grow up naturally.[18]  

Several of her late 30s/early 40s films, which still held onto the aforementioned image, began hinting at Durbin’s progression into womanhood, regardless of what the studio wanted. In particular, the romantic comedy musical First Love (1939) featured Durbin’s very first on-screen kiss with actor, Robert Stack. This kiss generated great worldwide publicity and prompted some very strong reactions from fans the world over.  One older male fan from Russia considered Durbin to be so pure and saintly, he requested that Universal avoid having any of her characters kiss or embrace men on camera.[19]

Durbin in First Love (1939) © Universal
Eventually, word got around town that Durbin had married Vaughn Paul, so Universal took a chance and allowed their star to take on more adult roles.[20]  The first of which was the 1941 film, It Started with Eve, where Durbin was paired alongside an aging Charles Laughton, who played a cantankerous dying man wanting to meet his son’s fiancée before he dies.  In a desperate attempt to find someone, the son (played by Robert Cummings) runs into Durbin on the street and brings her home.  Complications arise as the old man’s health improves and his affections for Durbin intensify to the point where telling him who she really is may only further affect his health.

This riotous comedy set up a new formula for Durbin pictures, which transformed her teenage innocence into adult earnestness.  As a result, the public embraced the new, grown-up Deanna Durbin with open arms, noting that with age, her voice was fuller and the lyrics she sang more powerful.[21]  The forward-thinking attitude of her younger self translated to a greater confidence and mischievous sensuality as her music style changed.  Operatic pieces still dominated the soundtracks, yet more modern swing and jazz numbers gave Durbin the sophisticated maturity of a modern woman capable of making love.

During the next few years, Durbin took on two dramatic roles, first in Christmas Holiday (1944) and again in Lady on a Train (1945), both of which step further away from the Deanna Durbin mold.  The films were well-received, but focused much less on the musical sequences than on the film noir plots.  It became apparent that Durbin wanted to establish herself as a serious actress, not just a singer, but Universal refused to give her a film that did not include singing.  By 1945, the era of Deanna Durbin came to an end, even though she continued to make pictures on through 1948.  Her popularity never really decreased throughout the 40s, but her films weren’t as well-received year after year.[22]

After making her two last films in ’48, Something in the Wind and For the Love of Mary, Durbin abruptly got married for the second time and quit Hollywood, moving to the outskirts of Paris, promising never to return.  She later revealed her longing for “a life of nobody,”[23] and though she is still alive as of 2007, she has not spoken to the press or appeared publicly since the early 1950s.  In 1958, however, she did allow a letter to her fans to be published, in which she explained her need to escape the false image of “Deanna Durbin,” whom she says never really existed.[24]  By removing herself from the spotlight, she was able to become who she really is, allowing the image of Deanna Durbin the public grew to love to be how she’s always remembered.

Durbin’s contribution to the musical film genre may seem slight, considering the lack of cult appeal that followed her peers.  Judy Garland, remembered as the greatest musical film star of all time, couldn’t hold a finger to Durbin during her prime.  MGM’s desperate attempt to capture what Universal managed to find in Durbin only a few years before is one of the reasons the mega-studio took a chance on the lesser known Garland for what became her break-out hit, The Wizard of Oz (1939.)[25]

Durbin’s film mentors, Koster and Pasternak, eventually went on to MGM along with so many others, trying to recreate the magic of Deanna by bringing up new discoveries Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson.[26]  Pasternak even remade the Durbin classic Three Smart Girls into the Jane Powell star vehicle, Three Daring Daughters (1948).[27]  Durbin’s career was short-lived, but she never failed to capture the audience’s love; in that respect, she will never be forgotten.

Her music remains as pure sounding and impressive today as it did 70 years ago, and her films hold the same magic and sweetness they did when audiences first experienced them. As radio legend Eddie Cantor said of Durbin in 1936, “To hear her is to adore her. To both see and hear her is to take her to your heart for all time.”[28]

[1] Dan Churchill, “One Smart Girl,” The New York Times (1939)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jim Tully, “Fifteen & Famous,” The Los Angeles Times (1937)
[4] Churchill, “One Smart Girl,” The New York Times (1939)
[5] Rumor widely accepted by Deanna Durbin fans, which suggests that Garland owes her entire career to Durbin’s luck. (source: http://www.deannadurbin.org)
[6] “Edna.” Deanna’s birth name; Judy Garland’s character was named “Judy”
[7] Cited from a blurb written in The Hollywood Reporter (June 1, 1936); author unknown.
[8] Tully, “Fifteen & Famous,” The Los Angeles Times (1937)
[9] Clive Hirschhorn, The Universal Story (New York: Crown Publisher, Inc, 1983), pp. 96
[10] The only Durbin films that featured other characters singing were Something in the Wind (1948), It’s a Date (1940), and Can’t Help Singing (1944), the latter of which was the only one with a traditional musical form
[11] Hirschhorn, The Universal Story (New York: Crown Publisher, Inc, 1983), pp. 96
[12] Adele Fletcher, “Totally Happy,” Modern Screen (1972)
[13] Kay Proctor, “Deanna Off the Screen,” unknown periodical (1941)
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Churchill, “One Smart Girl,” The New York Times (1939)
[17] Proctor, “Deanna Off the Screen,” unknown periodical (1941)
[18] Ibid.
[19] George Benjamin, “Our Deanna,” Modern Screen (1940)
[20] Evans Plummer, “Deanna the Wife,” Movie Radio Guide (1941)
[21] Ibid.
[22] Hirschhorn, The Universal Story (New York: Crown Publisher, Inc, 1983), pp. 157
[23] Quote alleged, but original source is unknown. IMDb.com: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002052/bio
[24] Garvin Hudgens, “Deanna Herself for Once,” Syracuse Herald (1958)
[25] Ibid.
[26] Clive Hirchhorn, The Hollywood Musical (New York: Portland House, 1991), pp. 127
[27] Ibid.
[28] Quote featured in the original trailer for Three Smart Girls (Universal, 1936)
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