It’s strange that someone who was so famous has been mostly forgotten, but being forgotten is what she wanted. She was still a huge star when she walked out of Hollywood in the late forties and settled in France. She had many offers to come back, but turned them all down, and gave practically no interviews.
Comparing her life to her contemporary (and friend and, in the public eye, rival), Judy Garland, would seem to indicate that Durbin made the better choice.
It can’t have been easy, being a star at 13 and being the ‘ideal child’:
“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. I could never believe that my contemporaries were my fans. They may have been impressed with my ‘success.’ but my fans were the parents, many of whom could not cope with their own youngsters. They sort of adopted me as their ‘perfect’ daughter.”
She was America’s Little Sweetheart. The problem was that we never want our little girls to grow up, but little girls do so anyway. She wanted more mature roles, but Universal (which Three Smart Girls had saved from bankruptcy and which was living mostly on the profits from her movies) knew that the public wanted ongoing sweetness.
Her one foray into darkness, Christmas Holiday, was a horrible flop and the public was outraged (the role she played was as a hooker, although they never quite say so in the movie). See it if you can – good movie and it will be your only chance to see Gene Kelly as a psychotic murderer (her husband, escaped from jail, coming back to kill her). I can understand that it may have been too much – a subtler transition into grittier roles might have worked.
In any case, she went back to sweet stuff, which the public loved, but she didn't, and finally she decided she’d had enough and she quit. Probably the most abrupt voluntary departure from Hollywood stardom ever.
I’m saddened by her death, of course, but she had disappeared from public view long ago. She lived more than sixty years of the life she wanted, after leaving Hollywood. It's ironic that, while she hated the 'happily ever after' roles she played, she was able, apparently, to live that life (or as close as humans get to 'happily ever after'). While I'm happy for her, I selfishly regret that she made so few movies, and so few good recordings of that beautiful voice survive.