How would they compare? Would Garland still outdo Durbin in name, image and sound recognition today without Oz? If so, to what degree?
McElwee states"…if I had to pick a winner, I’d have to go with Deanna, because, well, she is still here, after all.” McElwee has a point. Perhaps people put too much stock in a performer being famous and not enough in her having peace of mind. This blog post, however, will not choose a winner and will concentrate only on each star’s level of fame. You can place your own value on that fame.
We’ll delve into what keeps Garland’s legacy, for the foreseeable future, firmly pasted to the wall of entertainment history, and we’ll extract Oz and see how that reduced legacy holds up against that of the formidable Durbin.
Factors in Garland v. Durbin
- Length of Life
- Prolific Artistry and Television
- Shaping Her Own Legacy
- Durbin’s Retirement
The Judy Garland legacy goes on due, in no small part, to the universal appeal of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the enormous marketing of this film and its lore. Generations of people, long after Garland’s death, still associate the star and the film with some part of their childhood. Consequently, the film often acts as a gateway to her other work.
Deanna Durbin doesn’t have an Oz - that movie which is both timeless and appeals to all ages. Films during Durbin’s pixie or puckish stage are wonderful time capsules, but won’t play well with those determined not to enjoy old films. Even if Durbin had an Oz in her repertoire, this self-possessed, mature young lady doesn’t play insecure - a significant, relatable theme in childhood fantasy films.
Still, there are other reasons for Garland’s perpetual fame besides the Emerald City.
Length of Life
We all know the familiar stories of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe skyrocketing to what seems to be permanent icon status after dangerous habits somehow lead to an early demise. Judy Garland’s death is similar and her mass of insecurities are well-known, which tends to evoke empathy with the lady beyond her movies. Thus, the tragic star would still have had icon status without Oz. However, her grip on the general public’s childhood would be considerably reduced sans the yellow brick road.
Deanna Durbin is alive and in her 80s. Although this vivacity hampers cementing her film legacy, she will be spared society’s morbid tendency towards over-idolizing a star who dies before reaching threescore and ten.
Prolific Artistry and Television
Both Durbin and Garland were featured on radio, in movies, magazines and newspapers, etc., just like any other star. However, since Winnepeg’s Sweetheart hasn’t performed since the 1940s (even though she has had offers), the Durbin legacy misses out on the big wave of television, which tends to lessen an audience’s familiarity with her a bit.
Durbin knocked the European War off the front pages with her first screen kiss as a teen and retired in her 20s. Garland didn’t have that kind of stardom while she was alive, but appeared regularly on TV and performed in popular concerts and albums until her death in the 1960s, all of which has put her into many homes - a phenomenon that tends to increase the likelihood of people remembering a performer.
Shaping Her Own Legacy
Durbin has famously remained mum about her career, except for a few missives here and there to publications in order to set the record straight on some bit of nonsense. Garland, however, gained notoriety telling tall tales about MGM, etc. on late night shows and at parties. She was interested in talking about her early career, cashing in on her past work and shaping the public‘s perception of her legacy, which makes Garland a front-line film and music historian, perpetuating her own lore.
A star’s legacy also depends on an audience’s accessibility to their body of accomplishments. These days, an entertainer’s work must be available for “ command performances” on a person’s television, computer or phone. Judy Garland’s films and music have been marketed like crazy; her voice can be legally downloaded as your phone’s ring tone. On the other hand, as McElwee notes, MCA/Universal has just released a second Deanna Durbin movie package, but very discreetly. It’s as if they just know the pre-existing fans will be drawn to it like heat-seeking missiles [we are], but will not bother to curry favor with the uninitiated.
Judy Garland’s children [Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft, Joey Luft] are fairly well-known and seem to be attracted to the spotlight a bit. Their presence helps blow the dust off the Garland legend and keep it sparkling and vibrant.
Durbin’s children [Jessica Louise Jackson and Peter David] seem to have avoided the stardom for which their mother is famous, which results in fewer of Durbin‘s fingers firmly clutching the general public‘s sentimentality. [Though, the artist clearly isn‘t interested in having that power again, anyway.]
One reason that Garland remains more well-known than the lady who expanded Universal’s status in the studio world, was the highest paid female movie star in the world from 1938 to 1942, who was so popular that the Axis falsely reported her death to demoralize prisoners of war, is due to Durbin’s complete retirement from public life.
Had Joe Pasternak had his druthers and Durbin signed to MGM after she left Universal, McElwee opines that the singer, under Arthur Freed, would have starred opposite Gene Kelly during the height of his filmic opuses. Perhaps the Kelly films would have broken the string of Miss Fix It stories (which had kept her bound to a formula at her alma mater), producing a fresh career for the movie veteran.
Tied to legendary and innovative musicals from a studio whose rights were eventually sold to Warners - a company that is determined to make the MGM library accessible - Durbin’s second film career might have been more famous today than her first. The megastar might have been just as iconic these days (if not more so) than Garland because of that extra head start at Universal.
To Sum It Up
Without Oz, Garland
- would not have had a firm grip on so many audience members’ childhood memories,
- would have had a narrower fan base without the Oz conduit to her other works, and
- (like Frank Sinatra) despite a prolific and varied career, would probably be known to the general public primarily as a singer.
- her early and tragic death,
- her TV shows and appearances,
- popular concerts and albums,
- accessibility of her work (film, TV, music), and
- offspring who perpetuate her legacy as much as did the star herself.
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More from Greenbriar on Deanna Durbin
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