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.
The 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 important Darnell films, including the Jerome Kern musical Centennial Summer (1946) and her famous costume drama Forever Amber (1947), are not yet available on DVD. Here are some key Darnell films which can be seen on DVD; 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 fall-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.
(Still from The Walls of Jericho, 1948 with Cornel Wilde and Kirk Douglas which is not yet on DVD)
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).
No Way Out (1950) - This is another Mankiewicz film which is the only film on the list I haven't yet seen myself, but I include it because of its fine reputation. Darnell stars with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier in a crime film which tackles racial issues.
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. Directed by Hall Bartlett.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.