Book Review: Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream

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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.

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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.  

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Challenge

This review is part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream”

  1. Excellent review! It was a sad read, but I was impressed with the author’s primary source research. I’m glad he spoke with so many people in her life while they were still here to be interviewed.

    It really makes one sad that sweet, lovely women like Linda and also Gail Russell were so good on screen but lacked confidence and were ultimately unhappy and died young…

    Looking at Linda’s filmography I’m always struck by how solid it is. She was in an awful lot of good movies, and I realize more and more what she contributed to them.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. Yes very well researched, liked all the interviews and I’d much rather feel that the subject was a bit “distant” and want more, than have a gossipy, trashy book which this easily could have been, considering some of the strangeness in her family. Overall a good read though. You’re right about all the good movies, as a big fan I wish it was more detailed, some movies could have had a lot more attention. Thanks so much!

  2. Enjoyed your book review, but it sounds like the definitive biography is still t be written. I love Darnell and it’s a shame that she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. She did the impossible. She stepped into the lead role in Forever Amber, an almost impossible situation, and she pulled it off with great success. Her performance in A Letter To Three Wives should have brought her better roles (and an Oscar nom) and more fame. But life in Hollywood, just like life everywhere else, isn’t always fair.

    1. Totally agree, and the stories here about Amber are interesting, I wish there was a lot more! The irony was that she seemed a lot tougher and more resilient than maybe she knew. She bounces back again and again and works out a new phase of career every time she has a setback. Her stage performances sound great in this too. Sad that she couldn’t seem to get the same joy that all these people (and us fans) got from her. Thanks for reading!

  3. While not quite one of those Hollywood tragedies along the lines of being used up and tossed aside, her story seems to come close at times.
    Her beauty really was truly breathtaking.
    I also know another dark haired lady who would have loved a photo op with Tyrone Power. hmmm, I wonder who that could be.

    1. Beautiful lady inside and out seems like, only she had obstacles. So talented and creative too. But what a break to meet Ty right off the bat like that, it was meant to be!

  4. I love Linda Darnell, thought she was a talented and underrated actress , and one of the great femme fatales of noir. It seems that after a point, she was, like so many other actresses getting older, not getting the complex parts she deserved (she’s terrific in the Joseph Mankiewicz film No Way Out, probably her last notable film). Wish she could have had a longer, more rewarding career. Thanks for highlighting this biography of her.

    1. She really was underrated, always a joy to watch and absolutely did prove that she was more than a beautiful face. No Way Out was fantastic work, I agree.Thanks!

  5. I’m really intrigued by her close calls with fire and her brother’s nightmare before her death. Wow! Linda Darnell is definitely someone I want to learn more about. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough review.

    1. I know, that was eerie. And regarding her death, it’s valuable that they also busted some myths about it here. Very respectfully done book considering how it could have been sensationalized. Thank you!

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