Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream by Ronald L. Davis tells the story of the shy, sensitive and gorgeous actress from her Texas working class beginnings to her tragic death in a fire at 41. Davis, a professor and fellow Texan, documented conversations with Linda’s friend for an oral history project but ended up interviewing with her brother, sisters, adopted daughter and friends. This book is respectful and avoids gossip, even though it begins in a dramatic and risky way, on an afternoon 1965 that finds Linda drinking and looking back on her career, bitter over Hollywood phoniness and emphasis on her looks. Davis then takes us through the night of the fatal fire, documenting every step and decision that led to Linda being downstairs so badly burned when she was already near a safer second floor escape route. Her injuries and death are revisited again at the end, and both parts are frank and graphic but not distasteful or sensational. That’s the overall approach of this book, which is nice because aside from that tragedy, Linda also had her share of sadness, disappointment and complications and it’s all treated respectfully.
Linda’s mother Maggie Pearl gets much coverage here as typical stage mother figure. Pearl resolved that little Linda would be a star, aimed her toward Hollywood, then followed, with her eccentric attention-seeking ways. Pearl was complex: troubled childhood, first husband vanished amid rumours of murder, first two children “lost” when temporarily left at an orphanage, second husband a kind and mild postal worker, Calvin Roy Darnell. Around the time Monetta (Linda) was born, the family ended up living close by Pearl’s first two kids and their adoptive family, which led to strange and explosive situations. She took the kids to view Bonnie Parker’s bullet ridden body, she got barred from the Fox lot, she drank heavily, collected a menagerie, was embarrassing and garrulous at public events, and got arrested for shoplifting.
By contrast, Linda was unspoiled, a quiet, caring, easygoing loner. She was a preteen model taking all kinds of lessons and looking up to her idols Tyrone Power and Loretta Young. A Fox scout arranged for a screen test, but was two years too soon and she was sent back home for more experience and polishing. Luckily her first celebrity sighting and photo op in Hollywood was none other than Tyrone Power. It was worth waiting a few more years to get to make movies with him.
Davis details Linda’s early movies and her buildup as Fox’s great new beauty. She felt homesick, stressed and pressured, has family came out to live with her, and on her first film she met cameraman J. Peverell “Pev” Marley, with whom she’d elope when she was 19 and he was 42. Darryl Zanuck struggled to find her ideal projects. She was almost in Drums Along the Mohawk and Johnny Apollo, she worked like mad, got mobbed in public, did artwork to relieve stress, and won the admiration of everyone she worked with, for example, director Henry Hathaway who said “a sweeter girl never lived.”
There’s tons of evidence along those lines, that Linda was talented, warm, beloved and respected, but it seems she wasn’t able to take it to heart and was burdened by the cruelty and dysfunction around her. At 18 she had a high salary but a downhill career. Her first marriage was strained and went through several separations, she started drinking and slowly acquired some of her mom’s tendencies toward outbursts and coarseness. Frustrated with her inconsistent career and her image as “always beauty, never talent,” she said, “you have to get Hollywood quick, or Hollywood gets you.”
Post-WW2, her professional peak was mixed with personal misery. Linda’s shift to bad girl and vixen roles was a winner: Hangover Square, Fallen Angel (the first of four with Preminger). She was at one point the most killed actress in movies, and had several scary close calls with fire. There was a courtship by Howard Hughes, romance with Joe Mankiewicz, the ordeal and disappointment of Forever Amber (almost nothing about My Darling Clementine though), and her “tour de force,” A Letter to Three Wives (which was originally written for five wives). Some fascinating facts: She had sessions with Carl Jung, did few westerns because she was allergic to horses, had terrible stage fright, dreamed of playing Lola Montes, and was crushed to lose The Barefoot Contessa.
With a new adopted daughter and little money thanks to divorce, “dream house” construction and being dropped by Fox, Linda worked freelance, often in Europe, and was frequently ill and depressed. But she was still optimistic about future, worked hard and was increasingly satisfied with roles on stage and TV, which Davis does a super job documenting. The range of plays she did and the mostly rave reactions to them really have you wanting see a recording (Dial M for Murder, Tea and Sympathy, Janus, to name just a few). Things seemed to be steady when, five days before her death, she got a letter from her brother which told of the nightmare he just had, about her being trapped in a burning building.
Davis has put together a well researched and highly readable account of Linda’s life and career, and if I had any complaint, it’s that it goes too fast and feels a bit distant and clinical, like observing her under glass, tracking her activities but not connecting to her personally. Part of it is the inescapable shadow her early death casts over her whole life story, part is that she was unhappy most of the time. It’s depressing when everybody loved her yet she often felt alone, unloved, and beaten by Hollywood or failed relationships. However she felt, it’s a testament to her character that practically everyone interviewed called her fun and easygoing, the consummate worker, the sweetest, nicest, most generous, vulnerable and marvelous human being. About her movies, a comment her fans will agree with: “she never gave a big performance, but she never gave a bad one.”
There’s a very nice credits and sources section about 20 pages, plus 20 pages of photos and an index.
This review is part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past