Retro Actor Spotlight: Linda Darnell

Giving Classical Cinema’s players another chance to shine in the limelight

Now Featuring: Linda Darnell

The first film that I ever saw with Linda Darnell was Fallen Angel. She played a waitress named ‘Stella’ who worked in a small, run-down diner and who longed to find a way out of her miserable town. Her character was outwardly selfish and behaved like a floozy though underneath that shell, Stella was emotionally vulnerable and lived a sad existence. It was a remarkable performance that added tremendous appeal to the film as a whole. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Linda was only 21-years-old when she played Stella, a role which required a great deal of maturity and range to give it justice. How could someone so young be able to so convincingly play a woman with a coloured reputation and hardened demeanour, particularly since the real-life Linda was far from having this type of persona? The answer is quite simple: talent.

Linda looking a lot like Ann Rutherford.

Monetta Eloyse Darnell was born on 16 October 1923 in Dallas, Texas, to Roy and Pearl Darnell. The cherubic dark-eyed, dark-haired baby girl was the second child born to the couple who would go on to have two more children together. Additionally, Pearl had two children from a first marriage who had been adopted before she met Roy. From the very start of Monetta’s life, Pearl was certain that her daughter would be a star and fulfil all of the dreams that she had herself had as a child. So began a rigid process of being groomed for stardom from the age of 4, filled with beauty contests and talent shows, robbing Monetta of a normal, tranquil childhood and putting the pressure on her to always strive to be the best. When Monetta was around 14 years old, she was signed by RKO to appear on a talent search show called Gateway to Hollywood. She had previously tested at 20th Century Fox studios and though executives were interested in signing her, they deemed that she was too young. After her RKO stint was completed, she was officially added to the Fox roster in April 1939 at a rate of $75 per week (approximately $1,370 today). Monetta was 15 ½ years old.

Her arrival at the studio was highly publicised and she was officially introduced to the public as 17-year-old Linda Darnell. (Fox President Darryl Zanuck chose the name and the Publicity Department altered her age.) The Darnell family all moved to Hollywood at the time that Linda started working for the studio with the exception of father Roy who would join them later on. They initially lived in an apartment though it was not long before they could afford a home in the Brentwood area. Linda had managed to polish her outward appearance so that she always looked like a glamorous movie star, even on her days off. She even attended parties and tried mingling with the Hollywood crowd although she never really enjoyed it, feeling terribly out-of-place. Her family was even more uneasy about fitting in as they essentially country bumpkins transplanted into this upscale city. Their transition was not as funny as it was for the Clampett family in The Beverly Hillbillies. Nonetheless, they stayed on to support Linda though for mother Pearl, she was essentially profiting from her daughter’s success and ensuring that she would not have to go back to an ordinary life in Dallas.

At a time when most teenagers are going to school, spending time with friends, and maybe even going steady, Monetta Darnell was a working actress in Hollywood. She was immediately put to work in the 1939 film Hotel for Women and it became her first success, prompting her to be put into starring roles. Later that year, she played Tyrone Power’s spouse in the film Day-Time Wife. Linda was not yet 16 years old while Power had recently turned 25. In 1940, she played in a biopic that was written especially about her life called Star Dust and went on to co-star in three more successful films with Tyrone Power, including Blood and Sand. Her Hollywood debut had exploded into a string of box-office hits which was exceptional considering that most actors and actresses got their starts doing supporting and even unaccredited roles. Perhaps it was too much, too soon for Linda as by the end of 1942, her luck seemed to have changed.

15-year-old Linda playing wife to 25-year-old Tyrone Power in Fox’s 1939 film ‘Day-Time Wife’.

Things at home were also getting very complicated around this time, to the point of being unliveable. Pearl had already been completely banned from the studio premises for overstepping the line as well as for her erratic, exhibitionist behaviour. She had wanted to continue playing a part in Linda’s professional life and continued coming to the studio whether she had been invited or not, upsetting the personnel. The rest of the family also had their qualms with their sister’s celebrity status. It became so that they would not publicly associate with her for the fear of people’s reactions, which were more commonly bad than good. Linda eventually moved out from her parents’ home and into her own apartment, taking her younger sister along with her. She could no longer bear that rapidly deteriorating relationship with her mother and the nearly non-existent one with her father.

In 1943, Linda married seasoned cameraman Pev Marley after a whirlwind romance. Few people were thrilled for the new couple mostly due to their large age difference: Linda was 19 and Pev was 42, already twice divorced. Darryl Zanuck was most incensed about the union and took it out on Linda by offering her only secondary/bit roles in average pictures as well as loaning her out to “unglamorous” studios. At first it did not bother her but as time went on, she became worried about facing the end of her career at Fox. Her fortunes would change the next year when she was cast in the 1944 Douglas Sirk film noir Summer Storm, in which she played a provocative and sexual young woman. The film would change Darnell’s image to moviegoers as she transformed from an innocent, mousy housewife into a sultry vixen. Zanuck was both surprised and intrigued, putting Darnell back into leading roles at Fox. During this second leg of her career, she got two big breaks. The first occurred when she was cast in John Ford’s 1946 western My Darling Clementine, a film that has since earned a luminous reputation in Ford’s filmography and the western genre alike. The second happened in 1947 when Linda was cast in Fox’s biggest budged film to date, Forever Amber. Though the film fared far worse than expected at the box-office, Linda was finally back to being a major star and, to many, would go on to do the finest work of her career including: The Walls of Jericho (1948), Unfaithfully Yours (1949), A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and No Way Out (1950).

Linda Darnell, all grown-up.

As the popularity of television grew in the early 1950’s, Hollywood studios started to scramble because there were less people going to the movies and profits were decreasing. Studios were ending exclusive contracts with some of the biggest and longest-standing stars in a bid to save money by freeing themselves from contractual obligations. Linda’s status at Fox was in peril and in 1953 at the age of 29, she was released from her contract and suddenly without a stable income. Like with so many other contract movie stars of the time, Linda was unprepared for life sans being a part of a studio that catered to her needs. For the first time in 14 years, she was jobless and in a precarious financial situation. After divorcing Pev Marley in 1952, she would go on to marry twice more but never found lasting happiness. Moreover, she drank heavily, a habit that she had developed from Pev’s urging to “calm her nerves”. By the time that Linda was in her mid 30’s, she was drinking liquor by the bottle and it had drastically decreased both her health and her looks.

Linda started taking any job that she could find and continued appearing in films but they were generally low budget, foreign productions that received poor critical acclaim. Her last major film was Paramount’s 1957 film Zero Hour!, which was heavily panned. She eventually turned to acting in stage productions, a change that she welcomed with open arms. Despite continuing to drink considerable amounts of alcohol, Linda remained professional and found moderate success on-stage. In 1964, she was offered what would be her last film role in Paramount’s Black Spurs, released the following year. Tragically, Linda was killed at age 41 in a house fire on 10 April 1964. Her star shone bright for a relatively short amount of time but she made her mark on the world of Classic Cinema. To me, she will never be forgotten.

Linda in the early 1960’s with third husband, Merle Roy Robertson.

   

Here’s looking at you, Linda

  • Nickname was “Tweedles”.
  • Had a half-brother and a half-sister, Robert & Evelyn, and 2 sisters and 1 brother: Undeen, Monte & Cal.
  • Adopted a baby girl with then-husband Pev Marley, a daughter named Charlotte Mildred (Lola), born 1948.
  • Maintained excellent grades in high school, even when being schooled on-set.
  • Was fluent in Spanish.
  • Had a terrible habit of biting her nails so badly that her fingers would bleed. She wore false nails in her films and in public.
  • Owned a pet rooster called ‘Weedy’ who was treated like one of the family and even came to Los Angeles by train to live there with them.
  • Was best friend to actress/dancer Ann Miller who was just her age and who also got started in the business at a very young age.
  • Conducted notable love affairs with Howard Hughes and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which in itself last over 6 years.
  • Starred in 4 movies directed by Otto Preminger: Fallen Angel (1945), Centennial Summer (1946), Forever Amber (1947) and The 13th Letter (1951).

 

Linda’s segment starts at 16:20. She was actually quite good at stumping the panel! I don’t think I’ve seen an episode where they did not correctly guess the celebrity guest. 🙂