Boosted by Durbin's appearances on Eddie Cantor's radio show, "Three Smart Girls" was the studio's biggest hit of the year. It also was nominated for best picture, losing out to MGM's "The Great Ziegfeld."

After that, Durbin, Pasternak and Koster became known as the "Durbin unit," which became the key to Universal's survival for the next few years.

Durbin and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, who made their first Universal picture in 1940, "saved the studio from going down the tubes," according to Rode, the film historian.

The Durbin unit would go on to make "100 Men and a Girl," "Spring Parade," "Three Smart Girls Grow Up," "First Love" and "It Started With Eve." Pasternak also produced the Durbin vehicles "Mad About Music," "That Certain Age," "It's a Date" and "Nice Girl?" with other directors.

Before Durbin's 20th birthday, she had appeared in 10 wildly profitable films for Universal. She also was one of the highest paid stars of her time, making a reported $250,000 a year.

Producer A.C. Lyles, 94, was working at Paramount when Durbin turned into a "major, major attraction for Universal."

"She was a charming and talented lady," he said Wednesday, "an amazing star with great talent."

But, like many young stars, Durbin struggled to make the transition from sprightly teen singer to more serious actress with a broader range.

In the 1944 film noir "Christmas Holiday," she played an unhappy honky-tonk singer opposite Gene Kelly, but the movie was seen as a disappointment. Film critic Thomson wrote that she was "hopelessly adrift" in the role.

At age 23, Durbin received good reviews for "Lady on a Train," a 1945 comedy-murder mystery directed by Charles David, who five years later became her third husband. (The film was produced by her second husband.)

PHOTOS: Deanna Durbin's life in pictures

But her popularity had peaked. She made five more films after that, ending her career in 1948 with "For the Love of Mary," in which she portrayed a White House switchboard operator juggling the attentions of three men.

By the time she and David married, Durbin was completing a near total retreat from the public eye.

Villagers in Neauphle reported seeing Durbin from time to time at the post office or dry cleaner but, at her request, maintained a strict code of silence about their famous resident.

"My wife retired from the film world when we married," David told The Times in 1982. "When she was a star she behaved like a star, and played ball with the publicity boys. But she never enjoyed that part of her life. As soon as she could, she gave it up."

David died in 1999. Durbin's survivors include her daughter, Jessica Jackson, and her son, Peter H. David.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.

Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com