Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Linda Darnell day on TCM; Saturday, August 27th, 2011

This month TCM is doing a tribute to a different movie star every day with their "Summer Under the Stars" festival.  On Saturday, they are paying tribute to Linda Darnell, one of the 1940s most popular movie stars.  She is forgotten by the general public today, but during the decade she was arguably more popular than, say, Lauren Bacall (even though Bacall is better-remembered today).  Many have noted that her rise to stardom was the stereotypical Cinderella story, but with an unhappy ending.  By the time she was in high school, she was a child model and had appeared in beauty contests due to machinations of a driving stage mother.  At the age of 15, she was discovered by a talent scout at 20th Century-Fox, who helped arrange a screen test.  She was deemed too young by the studio and sent home disappointed.  Nevertheless, she stayed in touch with the talent scout and eventually the next year, at age 16, she was given a long-term contract at Fox and starred in her first feature film "Hotel for Women" (1939). Her mother moved the entire family out to Los Angeles intending to supervise Darnell's career and bask in the glory of her daughter's success.

Her career at Fox was delineated by two distinct phases.  She started out playing sweet, ingenue types with a light, soft voice and later matured into playing more worldly, sexier roles with a deeper voice.  In the first phase at Fox, she was paired four time on-screen with Tyrone Power, in "Day-Time Wife" (1939), "Brigham Young-Frontiersman" (1940), "The Mark of Zorro (1940), and "Blood and Sand (1941).  Darnell and Power were indescribably beautiful together.  They had a wholesome, easy chemistry that seemed more like brother-and-sister than intense lovers, but it always seemed appropriate when their characters ended up together.  It would have been interesting, later in the 1940s, to have seen the Power/Darnell chemistry develop further, when both of their screen images matured after WWII, as they lost their youthful naivete and became darker, even seedier at times.  Unfortunately, they never worked together again, as Darnell had to relinquish the female lead in "Captain from Castille" (1947) to Jean Peters when its shooting schedule conflicted with the filming of "Forever Amber" (1947).

During her career, she worked with top directors (Ford, Mankiewicz, Sturges, Mamoulian, Sirk, Preminger, to name a few) but was always taken for granted because of her looks.  By all accounts, Darnell was well-liked but generally seen as light-weight material in Hollywood.  At Fox, she always seemed overshadowed by Anne Baxter (who was considered a better actress) or Gene Tierney (who was considered more exotic and mysterious).  During the height of the war, despite her popularity and visibility (especially in the movie magazines of the day) Darnell's career appeared to have stalled.  Some have speculated that this was due to Darnell's reluctance to acquiesce to the sexual advances of studio head Darryl Zanuck.  (Since the parties are no longer here to confirm or refute this rumor, I am inclined out of fairness to not give it credence.)  Others have opined that Darnell fell out of favor with Fox executives due to the meddling influence of her mother, whose eccentricities included bringing the family pet chicken to the studio. 

Whatever the reason, she was given thankless parts in "The Loves of Edgar Allen Poe" (1942) and "Sweet and Low-Down" (1944), was loaned out to Columbia for "City Without Men" (1943), given the second female lead in "Buffalo Bill" (1944), and was uncredited playing the Virgin Mary in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). The disapproval by Fox executives was exacerbated when, at age 19, she married cinematographer J. Peverell Marley, who was 22 years her senior.  Darnell kept herself busy during this fallow period by doing commendable volunteer work in support of the Allied war effort--selling war bonds, visiting military installations, working for the Red Cross, and volunteering in the evenings entertaining military personnel at the Hollywood Canteen.

However, by mid-decade, there was a turn for the better when Darnell, while on loan-out to United Artists, garnered good publicity for her femme fatale role in "Summer Storm" (1944) director Douglas Sirk's adaptation of Chekhov's "The Hunting Party."  This caused Fox to start paying more attention to Darnell, and better opportunities were on her horizon in the post-war years.  Darnell was one of the beneficiaries of the burgeoning noir genre, thanks to "Hangover Square" and "Fallen Angel" (both 1945).  Both her acting and screen image matured during this time, as she was no longer typecast as the sweet ingenue.   During this phase of her career, she appeared in such major Fox productions as "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946), John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" (1946), Preston Sturges's "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948), and "Forever Amber" (1947).

The last was meant to be her tour-de-force, based on Kathleen Windsor's best-seller, but it was plagued by production difficulties, a ballooning budget, inordinate audience expectations, and Otto Preminger's lifeless direction.  Darnell did not enjoy working with Preminger, and it's likely that his alleged contempt for her acting abilities made him unwilling to tap into her strengths as an actress (an underlying vulnerability and decency no matter what the role) while directing her in "Amber."  She capped off the decade with a pair of Joseph L. Mankiewicz dramas that constitute her best work, "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) and "No Way Out" (1950).  In contrast to Preminger, Mankiewicz recognized Darnell's virtues as an actress and her work blossomed under his tutelage.  Under Mankiewicz, Darnell's created characters whose outward cynicism masked a hopeful idealism for a better life for themselves.

However, this renaissance had its limits and was short-lived.  Despite the good critical notices for her performances during this time, she still had to struggle to land good parts.  After her triumph in "A Letter to Three Wives," Zanuck followed it up by dumping Darnell into "Slattery's Hurricane," an unchallenging melodrama where Darnell had to compete with Veronica Lake for screen-time with Richard Widmark.  Darnell had hoped to star in Elia Kazan's "Pinky," the story of a young African American woman who passes for Caucasian.  While, admittedly, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were the most appropriate candidates for the role, the brunette Darnell would have been arguably much more convincing than red-haired Jeanne Crain, whose fair appearance undercut her otherwise good performance and makes it difficult for contemporary audiences to take the film seriously.  By the early 1950s, her contract with Fox was not renewed and she went freelance for the next decade, doing TV and B features.  Her final film with Fox after over 13 years with the studio was the low-grade mystery drama "Night Without Sleep" (1952) where Gary Merrill spends 77 minutes trying to figure out if he really committed a murder, or was just imagining it.

She was plagued by drinking problems, three failed marriages (to a business executive and an airline pilot after divorcing Marley), and financial difficulties.  She reportedly had had a disappointing affair with her "A Letter to Three Wives" director Joseph Mankiewicz that further undercut her self-esteem.  It ended when she learned in the trade papers that the role he claimed he was writing for her in "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954), a movie she helped to inspire and counted on to revive her career, was going to Ava Gardner.  As a product of being under contract to Fox for so long, Darnell had not developed the survival instincts that it took to continue working in Hollywood without the mentoring and guidance of others.  Her most notable film in the late 1950s was "Zero Hour!" (1957), an airline disaster melodrama later remade in comedic fashion as "Airplane!" (1980).  Darnell had a decent part as Dana Andrews's estranged wife who plays a key role in helping him land the plane by manning the communications equipment after the flight crew is felled by food poisoning.  It was her last film for 8 years.  By the 1960s, she wasn't able to find any work in Hollywood and was doing summer stock, touring companies, and night club appearances.

She died from third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body sustained in a house fire while visiting friends near Chicago in 1965.  She had just completed her "Black Spurs," one of the many low-budget "B" westerns produced at Paramount by A.C. Lyles.  It was her first film in 8 years since "Zero Hour!" and the last she would ever make.  Lyles claimed that he was planning to hire Darnell for further "B" westerns with Paramount and, considering his sizable output of drive-in oaters during the 1960s starring veteran actors of the 1940s and 1950s, one could argue that Darnell was on the verge of another shot at gainful employment in Hollywood.  (I sometimes scan the titles of other Lyles westerns on IMDB and speculate which could have been the ones that Darnell was supposed to make.)  She could have parlayed that into roles in other "B" features and more guest-starring roles on television in the 1960s and would have been around to enjoy a potential resurgence in the 1970s when Hollywood classics of her era were being appreciated at revival theaters and college campuses.  With her career accomplishments, and the pedigree of her colleagues, she undoubtedly would have been a great participant in DVD commentary tracks and featurettes in recent years had she not died so soon. 

Obviously, this is the sort of idealistic speculation by someone who appreciated her work and wanted a better outcome for her life.  Unfortunately, none of this happened for her, but she left behind a more-than-respectable 40-plus film career that deserves better recognition, so I am glad TCM is giving her her due.  At the bottom is a link to their schedule for the day.  If you want a quick, short-hand tutorial on Darnell that day, the most notable films are "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) at 8 PM, "Star Dust" (1940) at 10 PM, and "No Way Out" (1950) at 1:00 AM. 

If you can, you should DVR these three films, but try and see any of the films airing that day to learn more about one of the most underrated stars of that era.  I have no doubt that, if you give Darnell a chance, you'll get hooked and want to see more of her.  She always had a touching quality, even when she played seedier characters, that made you want to root for her.  "A Letter to Three Wives" and "No Way Out" are generally considered her best performances.  In "Three Wives," she steals the show playing a sympathetic golddigger who finds true love in spite of herself.  She has the best part of all three female leads, and is the only one who appears in all of the flashback sequences in the film, which arguably makes her the de-facto main character in the film.  In "No Way Out," she has a gritty dramatic role as a car hop who instigates a race riot and later tries to make amends for it by preventing Sidney Poitier's character from being killed by racist Richard Widmark.  The movie itself is dated and heavy-handed, but Darnell carries the best portions of the story when it drops the social-reform posturing and diverts into straightforward suspense melodrama mode.  Her character is allowed to be more complex and nuanced compared to Poitier's clean-cut doctor, and Widmark's mannered thug.  It's a shame these films arrived towards the end of her Fox tenure, when Darnell had matured as an actress to effectively tackle more challenging roles.

"Star Dust," made early in her career, is particularly delightful--it is a semi-autobiographical story of a young girl discovered in the South who goes to Hollywood and, despite obstacles, becomes a movie star.  The irony is that, the night Darnell died, she and her friends caught "Star Dust" on the late movie and she watched this film, which was inspired by her own life, just hours before the fire that would claim her life.  The movie gives Darnell the happy ending that she should have had in real life. 


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