Classic Film Reading: Linda Darnell

Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream

By Ronald L. Davis

University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 1991.

ISBN 0-8061-330-9 (paper)

Most of the books that I own are (auto) biographies of movie stars and various people within the industry who were prominent during the Golden Age of Hollywood. When choosing a book for the Out of the Past Summer Reading Challenge, I immediately went for a biography of Linda Darnell that I had bought a couple of months beforehand but had yet had the opportunity to explore.

This is the second book that I have read by author Ronald L. Davis, a now-retired Professor Emeritus of History at Southern Methodist University. The first was a biography on actor Van Johnson that was extremely well-written and researched. In fact, it was one of the rare books that I have literally not been able to put down. Hollywood Beauty follows a similar style, making it easy for you to follow along and hold your attention. Davis makes it so that his subjects are portrayed in a very neutral light without hiding negative aspects of their personalities and lives. If it happens that you are a fan of said person’s word, Davis’ accounts make you feel closer to them as well as more understanding of who they were as both private people and professional figures. By the end of Hollywood Beauty, Linda Darnell was a friend and Ronald L. Davis earned a solid reputation as a writer.

The story of Linda’s life is not wholly unlike others within the entertainment industry but remains unique nonetheless. She was a girl deprived of a real childhood in order to satisfy the failed aspirations of her own mother, who lived vicariously through her daughter’s achievements and success. Linda, then known as Monetta Darnell, appeared in beauty pageants, plays, and talent-seeking television programmes from the age of 11 before being offered a permanent contract at 20th Century Fox at the tender age of 15. It was not long before Linda was appearing alongside established players like Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Basil Rathbone, George Sanders, Rita Hayworth, and Dorothy Lamour, amongst others. Her status at Fox was threatened when she eloped with a man 23 years her senior, angering Darryl Zanuck enough for him to punish her with lacklustre roles for a while. She eventually overcame his grasp and starred in many quality pictures after that though, as if often goes, Linda’s professional life thrived while her personal life grew strained. Hard-drinking became the norm during her first marriage and soon she was accustomed to drinking liquor straight and in large quantities, becoming a full-blown alcoholic who was never able to fully kick the habit. Her films roles started to dry up in the early 1950’s before Linda was even 30-years-old. She struggled to keep working and continued to have a hard time with her ensuing marriages and financial state. Before she had a chance to fully redeem herself, Linda passed away at the age of 41.

Linda Darnell’s legacy will forever be remembered thanks to this book, which was largely compiled through interviews with her family and friends. They were candid and generous in their recollections, allowing Davis to paint the entire picture of her life. There was not a great deal of name-dropping in the book which follows suits with Linda’s generally down-to-earth personality and non-Hollywood way of life. Each person who played a role in her life was properly introduced and identified. The fact is that she had very few people on whom she could rely in her life, so her entourage was limited although the bonds were very strong. Despite Linda’s tragic death, you get a sense of completion and satisfaction from the book, having many of your questions answered without the feeling of always thinking “what if?” in the back of your mind. The only criticism that I can offer is that there is a lack of dates (months/years) so it can sometimes be tricky to remember how old Linda was and where exactly she was in her career.

I recommend this book without hesitation and truly hope that future generations will remain interested in Linda and be happy to discover this excellent memoir of her life.