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Starring Linda Darnell
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Linda Darnell - 8/27

Linda Darnell was touted by Hollywood wags as "the girl with the perfect face", and for once the description fit. Her cameo-cut china doll face was enough to ensure stardom in glamor-obsessed 1940s Hollywood; surely Darnell could easily fit into the top ten most beautiful women the screen has ever known. And as she matured, her voice deepened into a torchy throb that added intensity to the eventual siren image.

The product of a relentless stage mother, Darnell was a star by age 15 at Fox, where she was a contract player for 14 years. For a while she coasted on her looks alone, playing sweet young things (Selznick chose her to embody the Virgin Mary in 1943's "Song of Bernadette"), before her career took a more interesting turn. Darnell was hampered by being under contract to Fox, which specialized in escapist fare and wasted her for seven unremarkable years.

United Artists cast Darnell on loan-out for a Chekhov adaptation, "Summer Storm" in 1944. She wasn't ready, but the publicity--with Darnell lolling about a la Jane Russell, combined with that face--launched a transformation beyond pin-up to apprentice love goddess. The rest of the decade found her often in interesting roles that displayed her as willful, sometimes venal, smouldering trouble. Memorable portraits in the Darnell catalog include the strangled (and left to burn) music-hall trollop in Hangover Square (1945), the floozy waitress of Fallen Angel (also 1945, in which she acted circles around reigning studio queen Alice Faye), the ill-fated concubine in "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946, in which Darnell dies prophetically by fire), A Letter to Three Wives (1948, hilariously stealing the show from Jeanne Crain and Ann Sothern), and a gangster's moll on the lam with Robert Mitchum in Second Chance (1953).

But Darnell's big bid for superstardom went awry: taking over the starring role in Kathleen Windsor's bodice-ripper "Forever Amber" (1947) when Zanuck bounced Peggy Cummins. The movie received monumental publicity but censorship and the heavy hand of Otto Preminger produced dull results. Her scenes during The Great Fire of London produced a paranoia that caused her director to literally drag her before the cameras. Fire was becoming a lifelong fear.

After Letter, the parts Darnell was ready for weren't offered to her. She received good notices for No Way Out (1950), a race relations drama ahead of its time, but as happened with Rita Hayworth, Hollywood tended to treat mature beauties in nonglamourous roles as if they were finished commercially in the business. The combination of a stormy personal life and alcohol dependence dogged her as she sped through the predictable downward spiral of summer stock, television and cabaret.

In 1965 Darnell was visiting a former secretary in a suburb of Chicago and fell asleep with a lit cigarette after watching a late show of Star Dust (1940), wherein she played a young Hollywood hopeful. Her hostess and her daughter escaped the blaze, but Darnell suffered burns over eighty percent of her body. Some accounts had her escaping the fire only to re-enter the house, thinking her friend's daughter had not escaped; others alleged she went back to retrieve her mink coat---the last vestige remaining from her glory days. She died two days later, rallying into consciousness only once, when her adopted daughter, Lola, visited her. Linda Darnell, the woman called "almost too beautiful", left behind an estate of only $10,000, which went to her sixteen-year-old girl. Today Darnell is not remembered as well as many of her less-talented contemporaries, but an examination of her career reveals a gifted beauty whose steamy noir persona made her a tragic, unforgettable entry in Hollywood history.

* Films in Bold will Air on TCM in August

Biographical data provided by TCMdb

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