With only five more days to go in their month-long Summer Under The Stars celebration of some of Tinsel Town’s biggest and brightest stars of days gone by, TCM showcases the films of Linda Darnell, born October 16, 1923.
As a child, Linda‘s mother was the epitome of a stage mom, pushing her daughter into beauty pageants and modeling very early in Linda’s life. In 1939, when she was only 16, Linda was signed to 20th Century Fox and landed her first film, Hotel for Women starring alongside Ann Sothern. That contract made history as Darnell was the youngest star with leading lady status to be signed to a major studio at the time. She remained signed to Fox for the next 14 years. While under contract with Fox, she starred in what is likely her most-remembered film, A Letter to Three Wives, again co-starring Sothern and also featuring Jeanne Crain, Thelma Ritter and Paul Douglas.
Among her post-Fox films was 1953’s Howard Hughes-produced Second Chance, co-starring Robert Mitchum and Jack Palance. The movie is notable mostly because it marked RKO‘s first-ever 3D feature film.
During her twenty-five year career, Darnell starred in more than 40 films and a dozen TV roles. Darnell‘s personal life was plagued with three failed marriages, and alcoholism. In 1965, at the age of 41, Darnell died as a result of injuries sustained in a freak house fire.
While she may not have the immediate name or face recognition of other young stars whose careers were also much too brief, like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or even slightly older Montgomery Clift, Darnell‘s legacy of films, including: Star Dust, My Darling Clementine, Blackbeard the Pirate, Forever Amber and the now-prophetically titled Fallen Angel have stood the test of time and proven to be worth watching.
For their first selection honoring Darnell, TCM has chosen 1957’s Zero Hour!, airing at 6am/5c. Based on an original work by Alex Hailey, the story was first produced as a teleplay on Canada’s CBC. Later, McDonald Carey, in the years before he played Days of Our Lives patriarch, Tom Horton, starred in an American TV version. By the time it became a film, the cast of characters included: former WWII Air Force PilotTed Stryker (Dana Andrews), his soon-to-be ex-wife Ellen (Darnell) and air traffic controller Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Haden). When the pilot and others become ill from food poisoning, it’s up to Stryker to land the plane safely.
1944’s Sweet and Low-Down is next at 7:30am/6:30c. A romantic musical directed by Archie Mayo, in which a young boy steals Benny Goodman‘s clarinet and leads the famed bandleader and his friend (Jack Oakie) to Johnny (James Cardwell), a talented young trombone player . Darnell plays Trudy Wilson, daughter of a wealthy businessman with musical ties. Johnny and Trudy don’t exactly gel at first, but as with all 1940’s musicals, eventually boy gets girl and a gig with Goodman to boot.
Lighthearted co-ed silliness is next with 1941’s Rise and Shine at 9am/8c. Jack Oakie‘s Boley Bolenciecwcz, a scholarly-challeneged football player, gets moved into a professor’s house in an effort to improve his grades and be eligible to play in the big game. Darnell plays Louise Murray, said professor’s daughter. There’s a kidnapping, gangsters and and eccentric grandpa (Walter Brennan) who still thinks he’s living in Civil War days. While there’s enough nonsense on-screen, it’s quite laughable that Oakie was cast as a college athlete, considering the actor was 37 when this film was made.
Things get serious at 10:45am/9:45c when Darnell plays spirited frontierswoman Zina Webb in 1940’s Brigham Young. As the title implies, it’s Hollywood’s version of how real-life Latter-Day Saints’ leader Brigham Young took over as head of the church and lead his flock to Salt Lake City. Tyrone Power, who was Darnell‘s most frequent co-star, plays Jonathan Kent, a follower with doubts. Dean Jagger is cast in the title role, while John Carradine, Mary Astor, Vincent Price and Ann E. Todd also star.
By the time Darnell co-starred in 1950’s Two Flags West, she had already starred in the hugely popular western, My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda. This time, she’s cast alongside Joseph Cotten, Jeff Chandler and Cornel Wilde in a western set during the Civil War. Captain Bradford (Wilde) offers Confederate prisoners, including Colonel Clay Tucker (Cotten) freedom in exchange for joining the Union to protect their frontier forts against Indian attack. Along their journey, they encounter Henry Kenniston (Chandler) and his Mexican-American wife Elena (Darnell), with whom Captain Bradford has a history. Think of it as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon meets Gone With The Wind. Heck, the film even ends with a total rip-off of Scarlet O’Hara‘s famously hopeful “tomorrow is another day” scene. When Elena, after learning that Sherman’s march to the sea is complete and that Savanannah is surrounding, leaving the Confederacy cut in half, says to Colonel Tucker, something to the effect of “todo sera’ mejor manana.” Translation: It will all be better tomorrow.
The aforementioned Second Chance (1953) is next at 2:30pm/1:30c. As mentioned previously, the film was produced by RKO as their foray into the then-and-now-inexplicably popular 3D genre. Some scenes, including an early scene in which bad guy Palance fires a gun directly at the camera as exactly what 3D films should be. Darnell and Mitchum star as lovers on the run who end up in a resort town chased by Palance. In a plot twist reminiscent of Lucille Ball’s 1939 Five Came Back, when an unlikely group find themselves dangling high above the ground in a cable car with breaking cables, they must choose who will take the first rescue bucket to safety. The models used in the cable car sequence, including a now-obvious dummy hurled through the air when Palance is shot and falls over the edge, pale in comparison to special effects today, but considering the film is nearly sixty years old, I’m sure in its day it served its purpose to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Blackbeard The Pirate (1952) follows at 4pm/3c. Something tells me Johnny Depp must have seen this movie, as his Captain Jack Sparrow shares more than a passing resemblance to Robert Newton‘s Blackbeard. Darnell plays Edwina Mansfield, who is anything but a damsel in distress. Also on-board Blackbeard‘s ship is Robert Maynard (Keith Andes) who teams with the dastardly Blackbeard in hopes of bringing down Sir Henry Morgan (Torin Thatcher), a supposedly legitimate privateer, who is suspected of actuality being involved in piracy as well. Every time I see this film, I am temporarily puzzled trying to name the actress playing Alvina, the ship’s lady in waiting. I’ll save you the trouble. It’s none other than classically-trained actress Irene Ryan. Ryan would go on to national stardom a decade later, albeit in old lady wig, glasses and make-up, as TV’s Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies.
Darnell secured her rightful place as Hollywood Film Noir royalty in 1945. First she was cast as the victim of a homicidal composer in Hangover Square, then as a waitress dreaming of a better life in Fallen Angel. Alice Faye may have gotten top billing in the film, but its Darnell who’s the one to watch. Darnell‘s mega-star turn as Stella, a waitress at Pop’s Eats, who gets tangled up in a relationship, and eventually becomes the victim of, co-star Dana Andrews is mesmerizing. Director Otto Preminger was so impressed with Darnell that during filming, he continued to write more and more scenes for her. Legend has it, when the film was screened for its stars, Faye was so hurt that for every scene added for Darnell, hers were trimmed, prompting the blonde actress to walk out of the screening and all-but-quit acting for more than a decade.
Seeing as how TCM‘s Summer Under The Stars salute to Linda Darnell airs on a Saturday, her 1948 film A Letter to Three Wives is the featured film on TCM‘s weekly presentation of The Essentials, hosted by Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin, airing at 8pm/7c. In the film, as the title suggests, Darnell plays one of three women who, just as they are leaving on a day-trip with a group of orphans, receive a note from a woman who claims to have run off with one of their husbands. During their day away, with no way to communicate with their spouses, each woman thinks back on her marriage, wondering if it’s her husband who is unhappy. When the day ends, the women return home to ready themselves for the big social event of the season with the fear that one of their husbands will not be there.
If 1945’s Fallen Angel elevated Darnell to Hollywood royalty, 1940’s Star Dust , airing at 10pm/9c, proved she was already on her way. Only her third film, the movie was actually based on, not only Darnell‘s own quick rise to fame, but that of fellow young actresses of the day, Dorris Bowdon and Mary Healy. Healy even co-stars in the film as a Mary Andrews, who’s backstory is part Bowdon/part Healy. William Gargan stars as movie mogul Dane Wharton, a tongue-in-cheek characterization of Darryl Zanuck.
1945’sHangover Square, mentioned above, is next at 11:30pm/10:30c.
No Way Out, from 1950, airs at 1am/12c. Fully ensconced in Film Noir, Darnell stars as the wife of small-time thief Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton), who along with his brother Ray (Richard Widmark) are hospitalized in a prison infirmary after both suffer gunshot wounds during a heist gone bad. Sidney Poitier plays Dr. Luther Brooks, the first African-American doctor at his local county hospital, who is in charge of the brothers’ examination. While being treated by Brooks, Ray begins a barrage of racial slurs. Johnny‘s condition leads Dr. Brooks to believe he may have a brain injury and administers a spinal tap. Johnny dies, causing Brooks to question whether he was distracted by Ray‘s racial remarks, causing him to be careless. A refusal by Ray to allow an autopsy results in Brooks and his supervising physician, Dr. Sam Moreland (Stanley Ridges) visiting Johnny‘s widow (Darnell). Directed and written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay. That same year, Mankeiwicz won Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for his Bette Davis masterpiece, All About Eve. The film also won Best Costumes (Black and White) and Best Sound.
1949’s Everybody Does It, airing at 3am/3c, re-teams Darnell with her Letter to Three Wives male lead, Paul Douglas. It’s a comedy of errors when wannabe opera singer Doris Borland (Celeste Holm), who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, learns her husband (Douglas) not only has a great voice, but is being encouraged to go pro by pretty opera star Cecil Carver (Darnell). Charles Coburn (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ Piggy), Lucile Watson (Little Women’s Aunt March) and George Tobias (Bewitched’s Abner Kravitz) are among the film’s hilarious supporting players.
For their final film showcasing the beauty and talent of Linda Darnell,TCM has chosen to air the second film she ever made. From 1939, it’s Day-Time Wife, at 4:45am/3:45c, a romantic comedy that also marked the first time she would co-star alongside Tyrone Power. Only sixteen at the time, Linda‘s mother is said to have added a couple of years to her daughter’s age in order to get her work as a lead actress. In the film she plays newly married Jane Norton, whose husband Ken seems to have a wandering eye. Wendy Barrie plays Kitty, Ken‘s secretary, to where Jane suspects her husband’s eye is wandering. In a comical display of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, Jane finds employment with her husband’s office rival Bernard Dexter (Warren William). Binnie Barnes, as Blanche, Jane‘s best pal and confidant takes on the role of sharp-tongued wise-cracker typically played at the time by Eve Arden, Mary Wickes or Joan Davis. Speaking of Davis, she’s in the film, as another secretary, Miss Applegate, but sadly she’s relegated to little more than an afterthought.
TCM continues their Summer Under The Stars on Sunday, August 28 with a day-long look at the films of Carole Lombarde.
To find out how stars who worked alongside today’s honoree connect with other previously featured celebs, click through the hyperlinks included above.
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