As a classic film fan, and particularly as a student of Hollywood noir, I adore Linda Darnell. Her bold no-nonsense style coupled with dark, stunning looks make her an actress I find it hard to look away from. (Those lips! Those eyes! That hair!) So, when The Wonderful World of Cinema and The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood came up with the idea for their Marathon Stars Blogathon, asking film bloggers to pick an actor and deepen our experience by watching more of their work than we’d already seen, Linda Darnell was my star of choice.
In prepping for this Blogathon, I watched (and in some cases rewatched) films both within and beyond the noir genre. In addition, I read the complex history of her too-short life. (Feel free to skip to “FILMS” below if the personal doesn’t much interest you.) Born Monetta Eloyse Darnell in Dallas, Texas on October 16, 1923, the actress’s youthful home featured an absent father and a pushy stage mother who ignored her other children to push Monetta into stardom. With a sweet, quiet temperament and after a series of beauty pageants, she won a Hollywood contract at only 14, only to be sent back home until she was 16 and deemed old enough — only because two studios (Twentieth Century-Fox and RKO) were competing over her. By Twentieth Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, she was put immediately into a new name and adult roles, and success soon followed. Her work with Tyrone Power cemented her early stardom, particularly in Hispanic roles, including Lolita Quintero in The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Carmen Espinosa in Blood and Sand (1941).
Like many actresses before her, Hollywood life was a roller coaster, and soon Darnell found she had lost Darryl F. Zanuck’s interest. She was cast in secondary roles and only for her looks. She took a chance and got the studio to loan her out for a seductive, bad girl role in Douglas Sirk’s Chekov adaptation Summer Storm (1944). This sparked new enthusiasm for the actress despite Zanuck’s warnings, and she got to choose her next vehicle, which was the Edwardian noir and box-office success Hangover Square (1945). This led to great acclaim in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945), for which she was deemed Oscar-worthy by the director and critics. After a turn as Tuptim in Anna and the King of Siam, she was pushed by Zanuck immediately into John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). For the forgettable role of Chihuahua, she had to lose 12 lbs. and was told by Ford she was wrong for the role.
Preminger caught hold of her again for Forever Amber (1947), where both the audition process and the changing of Darnell into a 17th-century redhead was gruelling, as was her required dieting, leading to collapses from exhaustion. When the ambitious, expensive project was finally over, Darnell took several other solid roles before she captured the public’s heart once more with her hard-edged role in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) opposite Paul Douglas. Next came the picture Darnell called the only “good picture” she ever made, No Way Out (1950), opposite Richard Widmark and Sydney Poitier.
The 1950s, however, led to television and the end of her contract. Darnell worked on several films in Europe, returned home to play several television parts, and finally took stage roles.
Darnell’s romantic life was as dramatic as her acting life. She married cameraman Peverell Marley in 1943, when she was 19 and Marley was 42. Though frowned upon by the studio and many who knew her, the two stayed together and adopted a daughter. And Darnell began to drink. Subsequently, during the shooting of A Letter to Three Wives in 1948, she began a six-year affair with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, though he would never leave his wife for her. When this ended, she dated and married several others and fought increasingly heavy drinking. Eventually, she sobered and faced the future with more optimism, planning stage work and a return to film. However, one night in 1965, after watching her 1940 film Star Dust on television at her former secretary’s home, the house caught fire and burned over 80% of Darnell’s body. She died the next day at age 41.
Despite my best intentions, I have still watched only a handful of the 57 films in which Darnell has roles — large, small, or uncredited. I’ll focus here on the five I particularly watched and/or revisited in preparation for this Blogathon, in order of my personal preference. This small group (of four hits and a miss) offers a suggestive sampler of Darnell’s unforgettable beauty, charisma, and talent. I’ll be diving in for more soon.
1. No Way Out (1950): Though I knew her name, No Way Out is the first film featuring Linda Darnell in which I paid direct attention to the actress. Her role is compelling in this social issue-meets-crime/noir picture. Edie Johnson is a woman torn between adherence to the racism learned on the wrong side of the tracks and the enlightenment brought by meeting educated and caring people, both white and black. I particularly love that our focus is not on her beauty but her dynamic character. And I’ve written more about Edie’s role in the film here.
2. Fallen Angel (1950): The next time I watched Darnell in noir was as tough and determined Stella, utterly mesmerizing as she steals Dana Andrews’ heart and the whole picture without even trying. Top-billed Alice Faye doesn’t stand a chance. More about the film when we watched it for #BNoirDetour night here.
3. Hangover Square (1945): I originally sought out this film for its star, Laird Cregar, a fantastic mountain of an actor who chills you to the bone in I Wake Up Screaming (1950), then breaks your heart both within Hangover Square (as a composer fighting murderous madness) and without (because he died two months after crash dieting to take the film’s lead). The film also inspired Stephen Sondheim’s music for Sweeney Todd. When I watched it again, however, it was to take in Linda Darnell’s Victorian singer and ill-fated femme fatale Netta, who exploits the composer to enhance her career. She’s equal parts gorgeous and evil.
4. A Letter to Three Wives (1949): While my choice of films makes plain I enjoy Darnell best when she’s bad, her role in A Letter to Three Wives gives us much of her noir appeal outside a noir framework. Icy, determined Lora Mae aims for marriage to her wealthy, crass boss (Paul Douglas), only to find that, in the end, she actually loves the big gorilla. While Jean Crain wilts and Ann Sothern sparkles, Darnell — whose character’s tale and change of heart occupy the final third of the melodrama — burns from the inside, low and hot.
5. My Darling Clementine (1946): There are many films I could choose for my “miss,” from the musicals Darnell loathed participating in to the secondary roles that gave her little to work with (and me little to discuss). Instead, I end with Chihuahua — for which Darnell received second billing but little acting to go with it. I’m interested in what the role says about the studio system, Hollywood whitewashing, and oppressive feminine beauty norms. As noted above in the BIOGRAPHY section, Darnell found herself cast in the film without interest, forced to lose 12 lbs., and then judged wrong for the part by Ford. I watched this film long ago, and didn’t remember the character at all, much less Darnell. In revisiting with my eye out for the actress, I mostly cringed and shook my head. Darnell’s Chihuahua illustrates how secondary female characters of color were played by dark-eyed, dark-haired white women. Fear of similar cringing will likely always keep me from seeing Rex Harrison as the King of Siam and Darnell as Tuptim with Irene Dunne in Anna and the King of Siam (1946). I may bite the bullet and watch the young Darnell opposite Tyrone Power in their race-bending performances in The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941), but only if I can watch one of the other four films above right after!
In short, Linda Darnell has become a beloved favorite for me in my ongoing exploration of classic Hollywood. And I hope this small introduction tempts you to watch (or rewatch) her dazzling work, too.