Deanna Durbin and Her VHS Tapes

Ah! The 1990s! VHS was at its peak in my childhood home. VHS- Video Home System - the case in which a series of images and sound were made on magnetic tape and held on reels.

By this point, every new film was available for home viewing in this format, and a few old films, as well,would be released. We lived for the old films. The parents would take us to Suncoast video store at the mall. (Remember the mall? It's like brick-and-mortar Amazon.)

We would comb the shelves for any film made before the 1980s. Old, familiar faces were on the covers - Lena Horne and Bill Robinson smiling on the cover of Stormy Weather; Judy Garland and Fred Astaire (in top hat, of course) walking arm-in-arm down 5th Avenue in Easter Parade; Nancy Kwan posing in mid-dance on the cover of Flower Drum Song.

They were all there- my friends. And then there was Deanna Durbin.

Deanna Durbin (born Edna Mae Durbin in Winnipeg in 1921) is best known for her string of successful starring roles for Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s. The star retired from show business in her 20s to live in France with her family, until her death in 2013.

Durbin's films were often light, musical comedies,with the notable exception of some of her stories during World War II, like Hers to Hold, or Christmas Holiday (a sobering tale of a marriage gone wrong). Deanna's musicals were not dance features like the Nancy Kwan film, or the Bill Robinson musical, or the Astaire movie - the types of films where we children would rise and try to copy the movements. Deanna would sing a snippet of an aria by Léo Delibes, or a simple song about going home, and hold us enraptured. In a Durbin film, even the silliest plot makes you fall into the story and believe these characters are real.

During her lifetime, MCA Universal Studios released some of her films in VHS format. Today, the DVDs of the same films do not share the same cover art as the VHS tapes. I wanted to have a look at the old covers, the ones I grew up seeing.
Visiting the old house and the old VHS tapes of my youth, I grew a little nostalgic. I was compelled to take pictures of them.
It is at this point that I wish I had an artist's vocabulary to describe the the VHS covers; they always catch my eye. The covers are simple, easy on the eyes, not busy. 
For each cover, Deanna Durbin's face fills the canvas. Just above her face, in her hair, is her name in an elegant script that nearly resembles a signature. Under her name is the word, "in" and then the title of the film. These last few words are in a different, straight forward print font. The print typeface is mildly reminiscent of Art Deco fonts.

Every image is in a monochrome of some type - same hue all over, but different amounts of light and shadows. There is a cover in green monochrome, blue, even Deanna Durbin's only color film - Can't Help Singing- is treated to a light sepia monochrome cover.

Each image is of Durbin in costume for the film the cover is advertising. I wonder if they took a frame from the film or found publicity stills.
The back of the covers are allowed to be more colorful and busy, with what seem like images from colorized lobby cards or parts of old posters placed at the bottom under the plot descriptions and credit lines.

Inside the VHS covers would come a little folded advertisement of more Durbin films. This one from 1997 reads on the front, "She was the brightest musical star in the history of Universal Studios...Deanna."

On the inside of the little ad, you'll find that for $19.98 -Yes, just over a dollar for every year of the millennium, so far - you can own another Durbin film. Truth be told, I wanted to collect them all.

It seems that Can't Help Singing, Nice Girl?, and That Certain Age were late-comers to the VHS party. According to IMDB, Deanna completed 21 feature films and 2 short films. We see, as if 1997, only 11 were available in this set. I wonder if they ever released the remainder to VHS.

Of course, once you turn on the tape, you will have a commercial first, advertising the other films in the series. Then the feature would begin. I recall as a child wanting desperately to see the advertised movie First Love - a Cinderella fantasy for Durbin- as I had been drawn to the Cinderella fairy tale for years. I would later enjoy it as an adult.

I did not turn on any films during this visit to the old home place. However, I discussed with the family how inconvenient it is to

  • find the VHS tape you want,
  • place it in the VCR, 
  • sit through the ads (or fast forward), 
  • and then, and only then, watch a movie.
Then at the end you would need to rewind the tape. You would hear the whirring of the reels inside the machine as the reels pulled the film to its proper place, until you hear that signature CLICK! Then you take out the VHS tape from the VCR, replace it in its cover, and back on the shelf. Strange, the things you associate with entertainment.

All of that action just to watch a film seemed like nothing at the time. We were the children; the adults ordered us to get up and do these things, which we gladly did. It was exciting to put on a film. I felt like what I imagined in my childish mind  that a projectionist must feel when s/he puts on a film for the cinema audience - a kind of healthy pride in the exciting technical work of bringing you a story.

Today, that routine seems so laborious, or like an event. Digital media - having movies online or on your computer's hard drive- is much more convenient and casual. It's a  short series of  clicks on the laptop, or selections on your tablet or phone with your finger, and you are watching a film. You are sometimes watching something while doing something else on the computer.

How long has it been since I MERELY watched a film at home and did nothing else while it is on? How long has it been since I have given the home viewing of a film my full attention as I did in childhood?

I must admit, however, that the survivalist in me prefers to have a hard copy of every movie that I like in addition to the digital one, just in case the apocalypse happens, the internet goes out, and we still want to watch Deanna Durbin singing.


  1. Reading your lovely article on the wrold of VHS put a smile on my face as it brought back great childhood memories. Rewinding the tape: oh the memory! And remember: "Now available on videocasette"? :D

    1. Yes! I remember "Now available on videocassette!" That announcement was so fun. You really wanted to know what was coming next. In the case of Deanna Durbin films, I would watch the ads as if they were the movie - rewinding the ads, trying to get an idea of what the film was like; they were not easily accessible, so the ad was all you had.

      I loved the sound of rewinding tape. It was exciting! I felt so trusted, being responsible for handling the VHS during movie time at home. It was my duty to bring you the motion picture.

      I'm smiling just thinking about it.
      Java Bean Rush aka Deborah


Thanks for your contribution to Java's Journey.


About Java

"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email:


Blog Archive

Writer's Block Doesn't Stand a Chance