Was....Durbin truly the “superstar” claimed by the headline of the Associated Press obituary? Indeed she was...If anything, the Hollywood hype falls short because her impact on a world at war transcended stardom.
When the Japanese wanted to crush the morale of the American families imprisoned at the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila at the outset of World War II, they released the news that Deanna Durbin had died in childbirth, a sham presented so convincingly that it prompted a memorial service. Since the Japanese banned the use of radios, the prisoners continued to think the “can-do girl” was dead for almost three years, until a makeshift radio pulled in a broadcast from San Francisco and they heard her voice dedicating an evening of music “to the women of the Philippine Islands.”
On the other side of the world in Amsterdam, Anne Frank was taping two photos of Deanna Durbin on the wall of the secret annex, both from First Love (1939), a variation on the Cinderella story in which Durbin receives her first screen kiss from Robert Stack. Although there are no explicit mentions of the film in Anne’s diary, her frequent references to the developing relationship with Peter and their first kiss suggest that she must have given those images more than a few significant glances in the spring and summer of 1944. The photos remain on the wall, just as they were, at the Anne Frank House museum.
Another Durbin fan, British prime minister Winston Churchill, had no need of photographs; he made sure to see the films before they were released to the general public in the U.K., where she was even more beloved than she was in the U.S.A. Churchill’s special favorite was One Hundred Men and a Girl, in which Deanna helps bring together Leopold Stokowski with an orchestra of out-of-work musicians that includes her trombone-playing father (Adolphe Menjou). Churchill reportedly screened the film on celebratory wartime occasions while enjoying brandy and a cigar. The same movie was also “a great prewar favorite in Japan,” as were all of Durbin’s pictures, according to various sources, including Donald Richie, who says that Akira Kurosawa’s early film, One Wonderful Sunday “takes its concert finale straight from One Hundred Men and a Girl,” while paying homage to Durbin through the “jazzy optimism” of the fresh-faced heroine “pulling for her young man just as Deanna Durbin pulled for Stokowski — same polished cheeks, same tear-filled eyes.” Another example of her following among the Japanese: a Deanna Durbin film, His Butler’s Sister, was the first American movie that General MacArthur’s Occupation Committee permitted to be shown in Japan.
The fact that Durbin’s films were banned in Germany suggests that she was equally popular there; apparently the same was true in Italy, where in 1941 Mussolini published an open letter to “Dearest Deanna” in his official newspaper asking her to intercede with President Roosevelt “on behalf of American youth” to convince FDR not to become involved. The letter spoke of how “we always had a soft place in our heart for you” but that “today we fear that you, like the remainder of American youth, are controlled by the President and perhaps tomorrow will see fine American youth marching into battle in defence of Britain.”
Around the time Mussolini was calling on Deanna to intercede with Roosevelt (she sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at the memorial concert for FDR), her “hair, makeup, and on-screen outfits set fashion trends worldwide and were emulated by millions,” according to the AP obituary. In the 1941 hit Nice Girl?, the “spangled white organdy dress, ruffled and modestly cut” worn by 20-year-old Deanna “became the rage at proms and country club dances across the United States.” The teen-age soldiers-to-be who went to those dances with the girls in white organdy might lust for pin-up cheesecake like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, but Deanna was the girl of their lovesick dreams and deepest hopes. A soldier from England told her that she epitomized “Sincerity, tenderness, music, and laughter … it is just a little piece of Heaven to be able to visit the garrison cinema, see you and feel the sweetness and peace which surrounds you.”