SEPTEMBER 5: The girl who saved a studio

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ON THIS DATE in 1937, fifteen-year-old Deanna Durbin appeared in her first starring role in A Hundred Men and a Girl, a highly profitable musical comedy that helped save Universal Studios from bankruptcy.

The former Edna Mae Durbin of Winnipeg, Canada, first triumphed in 1936’s Three Smart Girls. According to Hollywood correspondent Eileen Percy, Universal bosses had noticed the young soprano’s “electrifying” effect on concert crowds before the shooting of the picture and rewrote the script to give her more screen and song time. Made for $326,000, Three Smart Girls brought in more than $1.6 million, a 500 percent profit that arrived at the nick of time for the struggling studio.

With the followup success of A Hundred Men and a Girl, Durbin became known as “the girl who saved the studio.” Mad About Music and That Certain Age, both released in 1938, continued her run of box-office hits, and Universal made her Hollywood’s highest-paid female star. 

The New York Times described Durbin as “a natural, unaffected sunshiny little person” in a review of Mad About Music, but youthful exuberance could only take her so far. “I couldn’t go on forever being Little Miss Fixit who burst into song,” she said. Viewers never embraced her in grownup roles and she retired from films at age twenty-six

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