Actress Deanna Durbin Left Fame, Success Behind In Hollywood

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Audie Cornish and Melissa Block remember movie actress Deanna Durbin, who is said to have saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy before she vanished from public view 64 years ago. Her death was reported Wednesday by her fan club. She was 91 years old.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We have one more letter to read, though this one wasn't sent to us. It was sent to reporters back in 1958 by the actress Deanna Durbin. The former child star had quit show business a decade earlier and wanted simply to be left alone. She wrote, I was a typical 13-year-old American girl. The character I was forced into had little or nothing in common with myself or with other youth of my generation, for that matter.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Deanna Durbin's death was reported yesterday in her fan club's newsletter, which quoted her son. She was 91. No date or cause of death has been released. What is known is this: At the age of 26, Durbin left Hollywood to find happiness with her family in rural France. That, after a spectacular movie career that began in 1936, at the age of 13.

What made Durbin so popular?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEANNA DURBIN: (Singing in foreign language)

BLOCK: Deanna Durbin made her big screen debut in the film "Every Sunday" with Judy Garland. She then signed a contract with Universal Pictures, where she made a string of wildly successful movies, including "Three Smart Girls," later remade as "The Parent Trap." She cultivated an image, or the studio cultivated it for her, as the good girl who could do no wrong.

CORNISH: Soon, the public was snapping up Deanna Durbin dolls and dresses. Among her fans, Winston Churchill and Anne Frank, who hung pictures of Durbin in the room where she hid from the Nazis. Durbin's success is credited with helping Universal Pictures avoid bankruptcy and made her one of the highest paid women in America.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM)

DURBIN: How do you do, Mrs. (unintelligible). Oh, yes, of course. How are you (unintelligible)? Oh, I mean...

BLOCK: But Deanna Durbin felt trapped by her own celebrity. After starring in more than 20 movies for Universal, she not only gave up acting, she also stopped talking about acting to the press or the public. In that letter sent to reporters long after she left Hollywood, Durbin wrote, I was never happy making pictures. I've gained weight, I do my own shopping, bring up my two children and sing an hour every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DURBIN: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

BLOCK: You're listening to NPR News.

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