Friday, October 16, 2020

A Tribute to Linda Darnell

Note: I paid tribute to Linda Darnell here on her birthday in 2013. This year I am honoring the actress with a tribute sharing 10 favorite Linda Darnell films, adapted from my 2014 column for ClassicFlix. Please click any hyperlinked title to read an extended review. 

Linda Darnell is best remembered as one of the most beautiful women to grace the movies in the '40s and '50s, yet a closer look at her career suggests she was much more than that. The underrated Darnell was talented as both a dramatic actress and a comedienne, and her list of credits is one any actress would envy. 

Darnell starred in every kind of movie, including film noir, Westerns, swashbucklers, comedies, musicals, and dramas; some of her films are among the very finest titles in American cinematic history.

Linda Darnell was born Monetta Eloyse Darnell on October 16, 1923, in Dallas, Texas. Monetta's mother groomed her daughter for stardom from her earliest childhood, and Monetta was first brought to Hollywood by a Fox talent scout when she was just 14. Fox found Monetta too mature in appearance to be a child actress but too young to play adult roles, so she was sent home to Texas for another year.

In April 1939 15-year-old Monetta returned to Hollywood and went under contract to 20th Century-Fox, where she promptly began filming a starring role in her first movie, HOTEL FOR WOMEN (1939).

That same year she was still just 15 when she starred as the leading lady opposite Tyrone Power in DAY-TIME WIFE (1939). Darnell later recalled her embarrassment when one minute Power would be romancing her in front of the cameras, and then she'd be interrupted to work on her school lessons. Power, who would make three more films with Darnell, was kind to the young girl and when she became nervous and blew takes, he would muff lines himself and claim the bad takes were his fault.

Darnell started out at the top, in leading roles, and became a star almost literally overnight. She appeared in over 40 films, and she also did occasional guest roles on TV series in the late '50s and early '60s.

Off the screen, Darnell had three failed marriages. Most tragically, she died in a house fire on April 10, 1965; she was just 41 years old. Darnell was survived by her daughter Lola.

University of Oklahoma Press published a fine biography of Darnell, HOLLYWOOD BEAUTY: LINDA DARNELL AND THE AMERICAN DREAM by Ronald L. Davis. Davis's book includes a great deal of original primary source research and is highly recommended.

Some of Darnell's films, most significantly the Jerome Kern musical CENTENNIAL SUMMER (1946), are not yet available for home viewing. Here are some key Darnell films which can be seen on DVD and/or Blu-ray; as can be seen below, she worked with many of the American cinema's greatest directors and had an enviable film career.

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) - One of the greatest swashbucklers ever made, and a favorite that I never tire of watching, this was the best of Darnell's four films with Tyrone Power. She was just 16 when she starred in it; director Rouben Mamoulian was quoted by Linda's biographer as saying "She was like spring, young, sweet, and innocent."

BRIGHAM YOUNG (1940) - Another movie the 16-year-old Darnell made with Tyrone Power, this is a good rather than great film, but it's a personal favorite because Power and Darnell are so appealing together. The rugged locations in Lone Pine, California, and Kanab, Utah, add a great deal to the movie's dramatic power. Directed by Henry Hathaway, who said of Linda, "A sweeter girl never lived."

IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944) - An absolutely charming and funny comedy-fantasy directed by Rene Clair (I MARRIED A WITCH). Darnell was well-teamed with Dick Powell, who mysteriously receives newspapers predicting the next day's news. I wish they had made more films together.

HANGOVER SQUARE (1945) - A sumptuously produced Victorian murder melodrama directed by John Brahm, with Darnell as a music hall floozy involved with mentally disturbed composer Laird Cregar.

FALLEN ANGEL (1945) - One of my all-time favorite film noir titles, and one of Darnell's best performances, under the direction of Otto Preminger. She plays Stella, a tough waitress lusted after by stranger-in-town Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews). Stella wants to marry money, and the broke Eric comes up with a plan to persuade Stella to marry him -- but his convoluted plot involves him first marrying shy, wealthy June (Alice Faye).

ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1946) - Darnell plays Tuptim in the excellent original dramatic version of the story which would later become THE KING AND I (1956). Irene Dunne stars as "Mrs. Anna" and Rex Harrison as the King, directed by John Cromwell. Darnell's death scene is so disturbing I've only been able to watch this movie once, especially as it foreshadows Darnell's tragic off-screen death.

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) - Darnell plays tough saloon girl Chihuahua in director John Ford's great American classic, which also stars Henry Fonda and Victor Mature. She more than held her own working with Ford and his excellent cast.

UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948) - Darnell is absolutely delightful as the bewildered wife of a jealous conductor (Rex Harrison) in this dark Preston Sturges comedy.

A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949) - This classic comedy-drama, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, might be Darnell's all-time best performance. She plays Lora Mae, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who wants financial security and marries rough-hewn but wealthy Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), only to eventually realize she actually loves the big lug. The "beauty and the beast" pairing of Darnell and Douglas works very well, and they were teamed again in EVERYBODY DOES IT (1949) and THE GUY WHO CAME BACK (1951).

ZERO HOUR! (1957) - Darnell was reunited with her FALLEN ANGEL costar Dana Andrews in this classic airplane disaster film, costarring Sterling Hayden. The actors play it straight, but much of the unforgettable dialogue was used "as is" in the comedy spoof AIRPLANE! (1980). ZERO HOUR! is a camp classic which causes the viewer to chuckle - yet the actors somehow emerge with their dignity intact. And as I wrote in my tribute to Dana Andrews earlier this year, the more I see the film, the more seriously I take it! Amusing lines aside, I find it an exciting and suspenseful film. Directed by Hall Bartlett.

This post is adapted from an article originally published by ClassicFlix in 2014.


Blogger joel65913 said...

Lovely tribute! Linda Darnell is my all-time favorite actress and in my opinion terribly underappreciated. Though she has been reassessed since her death and her reputation is better than it was she still should be better known.

Over the years I've managed to see all her films and I can tell you for some of the truly obscure ones it wasn't easy. I nearly wept the day I finally located Angels of Darkness where she costarred with Anthony Quinn, Valentina Cortese and Giulietta Masina. As far as I can tell there is only an Italian, which I do not speak, version but I watched it anyway and since the story was rather basic I was able to follow along pretty well. It was a decent film, not a lost classic but with that cast worthwhile.

I discovered her when I was a kid. Blackbeard, the Pirate was showing on the Saturday morning movie and I fell for her right away. Because of that I still hold a special place in my heart for the film, she looks great and it's colorfully swashbuckling but I have to admit it's far from her best but memory counts for a lot.

Unsurprisingly I own that biography and it is the most comprehensive chronicle of her at times very troubled life. There is also a wonderful documentary from the Biography series that A&E ran on her back when it was a real station. They talk to Richard Widmark among others of her costars and she seems like a truly kind person off-screen, it's included as an extra feature on the Letter to Three Wives DVD.

I liked all the films you mentioned except for Brigham Young. I don't hate it but I found it a trial to get through despite the cast.

As far as her contribution goes (I love Unfaithfully Yours and her in it but she's secondary to Rex Harrison's feverish take on her jealous husband) my top 10 favorites of her films are in order:

1. A Letter to Three Wives-I think it is unquestionably her best performance. Great film too.
2. No Way Out-The film is a tough watch because of the subject matter but both Linda and Richard Widmark deliver award caliber performances.
3. The Lady Pays Off-She's a school teacher who finds herself in a bind in Las Vegas. It's a minor little film, though it is directed by Douglas Sirk, but quite appealing.
4. Fallen Angel-She's great in this, tough and classically noir. The only problem with it is that she's not in enough of it.
5. This Is My Love-Harsh noir with great performances by Dan Duryea and she.
6. Hangover Square-It's really Laird Cregar's movie but Linda scores heavily as the rapacious Netta.
7. Summer Storm-Her other Sirk lead picture is a bit stodgy but she burns up the screen as the foolish Olga who brings tragedy to all including herself.
8. Forever Amber-Preminger and the censors made a hash of the wonderfully entertaining book but Linda can't be blamed for that. She's ravishing and spirited in this sumptuous misfire.
9. It Happens in Roma-Delightful if far-fetched comedy with Vittorio De Sica, with whom she pairs well, about the lengths a man and woman will go to in order to live in a really great apartment in Rome.
10. The Walls of Jericho-Somewhat florid melodrama that she made while awaiting retakes on Amber, so she's still a blonde, playing a schemer with the fabulous name of Algeria Wedge.

9:43 AM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

I totally agree about Fallen Angel. A great movie and a great performance by Linda Darnell.

I'm a huge fan of all of Preminger's noirish movies of that period.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Joel and DforDoom!

This post went up when I was in a work crunch and I'm belatedly catching up on comments! Wanted you to know how much I appreciated each of your comments.

Joel, what an interesting list. You list several I haven't seen yet! I've been able to round up some of the more obscure titles thanks to the kindness of friends and just need to find time to watch them (the film fan's perennial dilemma, but a good problem to have). Of those I've seen, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and FALLEN ANGEL are so good!

Like you I also found the A&E Biography episode a good one.

DforDoom, I'm delighted to know you're another fan of FALLEN ANGEL. It's a film I'd love more people to see. Thanks for adding your endorsement!

Best wishes,

7:44 PM  

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