Tuesday, October 20

Linda Darnell

There are actresses who never seem to mesh well within the gates of Tinseltown.  On some level, of course, they have talent and looks and desire.  There are often others who champion them, guide them, nurture them.  In the 1930s, 40s and 50s particularly, there were studios to groom them, dress them, teach them, showcase them.  Some are lured by fame and fortune and a determination to have it at any cost once the ride begins.  And the cost comes.  And sometimes it comes with tragedy.

Linda Darnell never truly adjusted to the Hollywood scene in the same way that Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland never did.  True, she didn't have their fame or talent but she was not lacking in either area either.  Unlike them, she was not an uncooperative actress but she never connected to the scene, was never sure how she fit in the overall picture.  When I think of her in this regard, I am reminded of the expression be careful what you wish for.

She was eye candy from her earliest days.  She was the prettiest of the four children born in 1923 Dallas, Texas.  Her aggressive, overbearing mother wanted desperately to be somebody and when it didn't come to be for her, she turned to Linda.  During her years in Dallas, when she was paraded in front of kiddie plays, music recitals, dance tryouts, beauty contests, church choirs, Linda said she wanted to go to Hollywood and be a movie star but it is likely she was simply echoing her mother.  Mama would tell Linda how happy she would be if Linda became a movie star and didn't Linda want to make Mama happy.  Little did she know she'd hear talk similar to that in a few years.  Linda had always been in training for making someone else happy.

A 20th Century Fox talent scout came to Dallas looking for fresh young faces and Mama knew of one.  She performed for him and mother and daughter were soon on the train to Los Angeles.  Both, of course, were sure that this was what they'd be hoping for.  Linda wanted to die when she met her idol, Tyrone Power, and was equally impressed meeting Alice Faye and Don Ameche.  But while Linda had the face and body of an 18-year old, she was, in fact, only 14 and Fox decided to pass on offering her a contract.  She was told to go home, grow up some and we will see.

She was razzed terribly back in Dallas, but it made Mama more determined... Linda less so.  But just a year later the process started all over again with Linda performing in everything she could manage and once again, good fortune rained on her.  It was another talent scout, another train trip and another visit to Fox.  But this time something had changed.  Her dark beauty, which photographed gorgeously, came to the attention of studio head Darryl Zanuck.  That was all she needed.  It was also all she didn't need.

Part of her insecurity, it's been speculated, came out of the fact that Linda didn't play her age.  From the start the 15-year old played grown women.  She spoke the lines, she displayed the emotions without having a sense of what she was saying or doing.  It wouldn't be very long at all before she was playing married women.  Mama had actually kept her pretty baby pretty innocent.  In some ways she hadn't developed as well as some other 15-year olds.  It didn't help her confused state to have the kind of body she had.  In those days they probably called her buxom.  It was not only the body of a grown woman but it was the type that got wolf whistles.

After hiring her Zanuck thought he might have made a mistake.  Finding Linda to be too shy and skittish, she would question whether she had any presence and in Hollywood dictionaries, presence means popular.  But there was that contract.  Zanuck determined to simply promote her as the great beauty she was.   It wouldn't be the first or the last by him or to her.   They also decided to showcase her natural shyness and wholesomeness.

She was immediately put into the pivotal role in Hotel for Women (1939).  It was no great shakes and her role as a young model perfectly fitted what she had to offer.  That same year she had the title role in Day-Time Wife opposite (gasp!), Tyrone Power.  Its obvious purpose was to shed light on two beautiful stars, no matter the innocuous comedy. 

If the studio was going to promote her natural beauty, it certainly went one better when it produced a script based on Linda's actual life.  You remember that first trip to Hollywood where she was rejected?  Well, now you have the plot line of Star Dust (1940).  She was smartly paired with another studio heartthrob, John Payne.

They say the mail was overwhelming for the Power-Darnell pairing.  The public clamored for more and Fox was only too happy to accommodate.  Up next was Brigham Young (1940).  Fox ballyhooed it like it was Gone With the Wind, but it was actually a rather melodramatic, less-than-authentic, boring little wagon train western with Power and Darnell as two of the members of the group. 

Then happily came the pair's two best films.  First up was The Mark of Zorro (1940.  Who could have guessed that watching Ty Power's long lashes fluttering through a black mask and Linda heaving forth in Mexican peasant blouses would bring in all of America?  She was utterly convincing as a senorita, so much so that she essayed a similar role in the equally successful Blood and Sand (1941), a colorful glimpse into the life of a bullfighter, magnificently portrayed by Power.  Linda, as his sweet-as-pie girlfriend, takes a back seat to fiery Rita Hayworth as Dona Sol.

There is no doubt that Linda Darnell by this point was world-famous.  The focus on her beauty was a right move for the studio.  She photographed gorgeously and everybody at the studio loved her.  It was noticed that she was cooperative, eager to please and easy to get along with.  It is not known when she began sleeping with her boss.  Hopefully he waited until she turned 18, but who knows?  He certainly did like young girls.  Everyone at the studio knew that at 3 o'clock, Monday-Friday, a young starlet entered the outer chambers of Zanuck's football field-sized office and spent some quiet time there.  And apparently they weren't all simply starlets.  They certainly changed over the years... new faces, new bodies, younger but rumors have been that Linda was quite the regular.  It couldn't have helped her fragility.

In 1943 she couldn't have had a more fitting farewell to the sweet, young, innocent roles any better than to have had a cameo as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette.  Linda was tired of such roles and begged Zanuck to give her more interesting parts.  Her smoky voice and a come-hither countenance made those around Fox sit up and notice her all over again.  Some called her Luscious Linda and she was on her way to being the studio's resident sexpot.  But the fact was, no matter how self-assured and manipulative she became in future roles, she never lost her insecurity.  To bolster her confidence, or so she thought, she began drinking and before long she turned into a full-blown alcoholic and would remain so for the rest of her life.

City Without Men (1943) had Linda top-billed as a young wife who lives in a boardinghouse near a prison where her husband is doing time. As a straight drama, it offered her a chance to play a role unlike the sweet young things Fox had her doing.  The same could be said about her role in Summer Storm (1944) where she played an ambitious woman worming her way into an engaged man's life.

Also in 1944 she was an Indian maiden who battled Maureen O'Hara for the charms of Joel McCrea as Buffalo Bill.  It must have been one of Bill's toughest decisions.  Using cunning methods to insinuate herself into a man's life became a mainstay for Linda's roles and one of the best of those was in the lavishly-filmed Hangover Square (1945).  She plays a vixen who ruins the lives of those around her, most especially a rotund composer she pretends to love but only wants him to write songs for her.  She registered strongly with the public in this one for her acting although there was no shortage of comments on her astonishing beauty.

There was a great brouhaha over Linda's next film, Fallen Angel (1945).  The story concerned a drifter who flops down in a small town and begins romancing a trampy waitress and also a spinster.  Fox singing star Alice Faye hadn't worked in a couple of years and both Zanuck and director Otto Preminger wanted her for the spinster role.  It was a straight dramatic part and all hoped it would give her career a needed boost.  Faye was wary because she and Zanuck hated one another and she always made it clear she never visited his office at 3 p.m. Monday-Friday.

I like and own the film noir but it is an odd little piece and never really comes together.  The waitress (Linda) is a user who says she'll marry the guy (Dana Andrews) if he only had more money.  So he decides to marry the well-to-do spinster and snatch all of her money.  Around halfway through the film, the waitress is murdered and the drifter is falsely blamed.

When Faye saw the rough cut of the film, she said she felt a fury she had never known.  Zanuck or his minions cut the movie to showcase Linda to a better advantage than Faye.  The singer said they cut her scenes so extensively that it made the overall story incoherent.  She didn't publicly blame Linda, but likely had some choice things to say otherwise.  She certainly did blame Zanuck.  When the showing was over, she wrote him a note and left the studio for good, walking out on her newly-signed contract.  She would have smaller parts in two films some 16 years later.

Linda's inability to put her foot down around the studio could be the only reason she took the small role of the doomed Tuptim in Anna and the King of Siam (1945).  She did get to perform with Rex Harrison whom she would be most successfully paired with again three years later in the delightful comedy about adultery, Unfaithfully Yours.  I always thought Linda was splendid in her comedies.  Given the drama she always had in her personal life.

At this time she was married to ace cinematographer, J. Peverell Marley.  They adopted a daughter and stayed together for eight years.  She was later married to a brewer for one year and an airline pilot for five years.  I suspect she was not easy to live with.  There was always a great deal of attention paid to her looks which made Linda occasionally appear self-centered.  She was always nervous about her career.  What if they decided she wasn't very good?  And what would happen to that career if she gained too much weight, which happened to be an issue because of the excessive drinking.

In between husbands (and sometimes during husbands), she could be a party girl.  One suspects that she could be a badly behaved one as well when she palled around with her friend, the rather notorious Lana Turner.  What a sensation those two must have caused.

Her most famous affair, a fairly lengthy one, was with the director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  He would put her through her paces in two of her best roles and she was, as they said then, mad about the boy.  It was a lopsided affair at best... it's pretty certain that the brilliant, cerebral Mankiewicz, a known womanizer, found other charms in Linda that he greatly appreciated. 

In 1946 she made the first of four films with Cornel Wilde.  They were well-matched on several levels.  Their maiden effort, Centennial Summer was Fox's version of Meet Me in St. Louis, but not nearly as successful.  Jeanne Crain played the sweet sister and Linda was the tart one.

Meet Chihuahua

Then came two of Linda's best roles.  In 1946s My Darling Clementine (a wrong title if there ever was one), she played Chihuahua, a fiery Mexican saloon singer.  Here she should have forever put to rest any memory of her first roles.  It's a take on the O.K. Corral fiction with Henry Fonda and Victor Mature playing Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, respectively.  She's dispatched rather effectively before the ending.  I should count up how many times she has died in films.  I'm sure it's considerable. 

Linda was the second choice for the title role in 1947s Forever Amber.  Peggy Cummins had started filming and was unceremoniously dumped.  Cornel Wilde was already on board.  With her hair newly blonded, she gave all she had to play the lusty barmaid.  She even put up with director Otto Preminger, a man she detested and had worked for twice before, to play Amber, a role she thought would bring her international acclaim.  It certainly helped her international fame but most people snickered at the silliness.  I think it proved one thing for sure... she was as beautiful as a blonde as she was a brunette.

Other than Preminger, Linda's only regret about starting Amber was that there would be a fire scene.  She hated fire.  She was reminded how much when she was burned at the stake in Anna and the King of Siam

In 1948 she was in The Walls of Jericho.  I'm sure it's not a very good movie but I was drawn to it for some soap opera-ish reason.  It involves a lot of shenanigans in the law business but more to the point the sultry Linda is married to Kirk Douglas while in love with Cornel Wilde.  Wilde, in turn, is in love with Anne Baxter even though he's married to Ann Dvorak.  Oh, you have to be there. 

Linda first worked for Mankiewicz in 1949s A Letter to Three Wives and turned in one of her best performances.  She, Jeanne Crain and Ann Sothern receive a letter from the town troublemaker telling them that she has run off with one of their husbands.  (Actually it turns out Linda's husband, Paul Douglas, is the one.  Lordy, what was he thinking?)  It was brilliantly written and directed by Mankiewicz and he would win Oscars for both.

Of the trio, Linda had the best part, one an actress could sink her teeth into, and she did.  One does want to look good for one's director-boyfriend though, doesn't one?   Mankiewicz wrote some  sassy lines for Linda's character.  One, when she's ready to go out on a date, a friend says... If I was you, I'd show more of what I got.  Maybe wear somethin' with beads.  And Linda's Lora Mae says... What I got don't need beads.

The following year Mankiewicz teamed her with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier in No Way Out.  It was a seering look at racism, focusing on a white patient who takes things to extremes when he is ministered to by a black doctor.  A de-glammed Linda played Widmark's ex-sister-in-law and she gets punched around and degraded.  She would later say it was the only good picture she ever made.  While I disagree with that, it is certainly true that she rarely played such roles.

She hoped the studio would see that she could play parts other than decorative ones.  She knew she'd learned her craft along the way and had no formal training but hadn't she proved that she could do more?  Why then, she wanted to know, was she assigned to do a bunch of fluff?  Whether comedies or dramas, the stuff she was doing these days was not what she had in mind.  Mankiewicz had left her and apparently Zanuck was busy most afternoons.

Soon she was gone from the studio.  In fairness, so were a lot of others.  There were some changing times.  Linda was a beneficiary of the studio system, especially in the 1940s.  As an independent actress, say like Stanwyck, Linda might have been unemployable except she had the beauty and they capitalized on it.  She had come to love the goodies her job allowed.  Fortune favored her.  She knew she owed Fox a great deal and she was nervous she might not ever have it again.  And wasn't it all just a shame?  Hadn't she just done some of her best work?

She went to RKO for Blackbeard the Pirate (1952).  A swashbuckler, for God's sake, had it come to this?  This was the first time I saw Linda Darnell and I fell madly in pre-teen lust.  She was gorgeous, wily, sassy and had heaving bosoms.  I may take a poke at swashbucklers now but I certainly didn't then.  Arrggghhh.

I was hardly done drooling when she came out in a dandy little chase melodrama that I thought (at the time) was IT... Second Chance (1953).  Menacing Jack Palance pursues Linda and Robert Mitchum all over Mexico with some exciting footage on cable cars.  Semi-grownup me found more flaws but it still goes that these two movies are the ones that cemented my fandom with Luscious Linda.

Movie work continued but primarily in inferior projects.  She may have wanted it otherwise but she relied on her stock in trade... looks and playing the cunning woman.   She hoped for a career in Europe, particularly Italy, but it didn't work out.  By the end of the 50s and early 60s, those young looks were no longer there.  They were replaced with the handsomeness of a woman who was getting older.  She fought her weight constantly and she was smoking more and drinking no less.

She always could make the air turn blue with her cursing and more of it was in evidence as her career sunk into television guest shots.  Most of her Fox lady friends were not doing the same.  It was not a good time for her.  Along with television, she also began doing regional theater.  She surprised herself how much she liked it, especially since stage acting is considered much more difficult than screen acting. 

She had been on the road with one play or another for so long and she was worn out.  She made the decision to visit good friends in a Chicago suburb and treat herself to girl talk, no makeup and lots of rest.  She and her friend and the friend's daughter were awakened one early April morning by extreme heat.  When they went to investigate, they discovered a raging fire.  Both the friend and her daughter managed to get out, but Linda did not.

She managed to live a few hours later and despite massive burns, even managed to talk.  She would tell those gathered that she was not going to die.  But she did.  It was April, 1965, and Linda Darnell was 41 years old.

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