Saturday, May 4, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Ave, Vale...

"Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot 
be taken altogether seriously because it is 'too much.'"
- Susan Sontag

I've found myself thinking, rather to my surprise, a lot about Deanna Durbin since we learned of her death earlier this week.  I've also listened to her a great deal more than I probably ever have before, and it makes me sad I hadn't done so earlier. Whatever you can say about her vehicles, which were pretty much doomed to mediocrity just because she was tied to Universal rather than a studio, like Metro or Paramount maybe, that could have surrounded her with taste and style, she herself is really rather marvelous.  If nothing else, she's hugely livelier and more unaffected than her rather turgid reputation would suggestion.

She's remembered, I suppose, far too patly, as the stiff and stuffy girl soprano who represented High Culture against the swing stylings of the likes of Judy Garland - a role she played (without the stuffy part) exactly once, in an MGM short, Any Sunday.  Her fans have known better, of course: she can act, she can charm, and more than anything else, she can sing, really and truly, in a way that puts to shame most of the other light soprano darlings of the day.  There's a story that she turned down a chance to sing at the Met, and while that may be a stretch, it's not the ridiculous puffery it would be if attributed to, say, Jane Powell or even Kathryn Grayson.

It's moments like the above, however, that probably haven't helped her case.  Here we have the climax of 1940's It's a Date, with St. Deanna singing Schubert in a Vera West habit that calls to mind the more risible moments of the old Radio City Easter Pageant.  This is one of those sequences when the plot has long finished and the principals are assembled solely for the purposes of admiring the star as she trills her way to a lingering fadeout.  On hands are, by Universal standards, a host of extras and a treasury of characters, led by Eugene Pallette and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (as the Famous Playwright whose vision this scene somehow fulfills), along with Kay Francis as Durbin's actress mother, at the start of her coast into supporting parts that ended in Monogram quickies and summer stock.*

It's all, in Sontag's words, just a shade "too much."  But close your eyes, or better, focus them only on Deanna: that's real music, an old chestnut sung straight, and well, and on its own terms genuinely moving.  The scene is Camp, through and through, but she's someplace else. Gratia plena, you might almost say...

* The part is by way of being a kind of rite out of passage out of stardom; Joan Blondell** Ann Sothern played it a decade later in her last MGM picture, when It's a Date turned into Nancy Goes to Rio.  She was saddled with Jane Powell as the daughter, actually ,which only makes it all the more so...

** Thanks to Gentle Reader Joel65913 for the correction.  Why do those two ladies insist on confusing themselves in my feeble brain?


  1. How many times did Kay Francis play Deanna's mother? Talk about career suicide!

    Deanna's early films -- the ones Joe Pasternak produced and Henry Koster directed, were actually quite sophisticated and clever, and often had a European milieu (or feel). It's the more routine films she made in the mid to late-40s that really doomed her. In the end, though, maybe they were a blessing in disguise as they gave her a good reason to flee show business and have a normal life.

  2. Alas, poor Kay - it gets worse. By the end, she was mothering Teala Loring. Who? Exactly.

    One really does wonder at the possibilities had Durbin gotten better stuff after her transition (quite successful) to adult roles - she was approached for things like Kiss Me, Kate> and even the stage My Fair Lady later on, but by then she was happily ensconced in France and not to be tempted. Good on her; few people have such a clear-eyed view of their own path.

  3. She was a favourite of mine..I remember watching this movie as a kid. Leave it all behind for a normal life in France? I think she got the better end of the deal.

  4. This is one of Deanna's that I have not caught yet but would like to very much. The combo of she and Kay Francis, even if it was at the beginning of the big skid, is irresistible! And to have Walter Pidgeon, Eugene Pallette and Cuddles Sakall thrown in is almost too much to ask for.

    Just one thing dear Mr. Muscato having seen Nancy Goes to Rio, I don't share your distaste for Jane Powell but different strokes, her mother in that was Ann Sothern although Joan would have been sensational in the part! Those two ladies were of a quite similar type and I can remember watching them together in Cry Havoc! hardly the lightest of fare but they managed to bounce off each other with a few zingers. I believe it was the only time they shared the screen, a pity they would have been awesome in a comedy together.

    1. Gah! I always do that! Poor Ann and Joan - so different, yet so frequently confused.

      And I don't really hate Jane Powell, who can be very charming - I'm afraid she's just a useful punching-bag, as it were, at times. Certainly next to, say, Loretta Young, she's Bernhardt and Duse and Garbo all rolled up in one...

    2. There we are in complete agreement! Don't even get me started on her Oscar win for The Farmer's Daughter and how she ended up with the Oscar Susan Hayward should have won for Smash-Up. Gretch the Wretch was so weak as Katie Holstrom compared to the wonderful and sadly short lived Inger Stevens.

      I know Rosalind Russell was the front runner to win that year and I dearly love Roz but she was so wrong for Electra, should have been Olivia de Havilland or Kate Hepburn preferably Olivia with Garbo as the mother, if Susie had won for Smash-up then maybe Roz could have won for her iconic turn in Auntie Mame the next time they went head to head.

    3. Well, I've always been quite clear about my feelings re: La Young. And I have to agree that Roz in classic mode is not at her most sparkling (Sister Kenny's no picnic, either, really...).