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