(Buffalo Bill reminded the Siren of her soft spot for Linda Darnell. This is a thoroughly revised, full-length version of the Siren’s article that ran in Nomad Wide Screen last year.)
“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” drawled Jessica Rabbit, in an overquoted line the Siren should apologize for using, let alone leading with--except that it applies so perfectly to Linda Darnell. Nature drew her bad, all right, with opulent features and the sort of bombshell body that has almost disappeared from Hollywood. This was a beauty who could look depraved just grocery shopping or writing a thank-you note.
But Darnell was, by most accounts, a good egg, albeit one "with very terrifying personal problems," as Joseph Mankiewicz put it. (And don't we all have those, Joe, don't we all.) This wouldn’t matter much, except that Darnell’s sex appeal tended to land her in movies either as glorified set decoration, such as her teamings with Tyrone Power, or as a femme fatale. The latter was a type of part she did creditably in Douglas Sirk's marvelous Summer Storm and nailed in memorable fashion in Hangover Square and Fallen Angel.
Yet Darnell never did seem bad to the bone, even when the script insisted she was. Her sheer normality breaks through at odd, sometimes inconvenient moments. Trawling through the Net for photos of Darnell is something of a revelation. “You look better without all that gunk on your face” is one of those male observations that a lady can usually file under “yeah right, buddy.” For Darnell, it was true. Half the photos circulating seem to show her in towering hairstyles and bizarre outfits that look like what you’d get if Joseph Breen became CEO of Frederick’s of Hollywood. She was always divine to behold, but the more stripped-down and simple the look, the more Darnell dazzled. As an actress, it often worked the same way; the less you loaded Darnell with costumes and up-dos, the more she could loosen up on camera.
She was born in Dallas, Texas in 1923, and yanked away to Hollywood at the age of 15 by her fearsome mother, Pearl. Mother-driven actresses like Darnell always seem to approach their careers with a mix of yearning and weariness, pursuing better roles one minute, trying to pull out of the Hollywood crush the next. Darnell was adequate to the demands, if you can even call them that, of her parts in films like Blood and Sand and The Mark of Zorro. But for a long while she was stuck in a lower tier of stardom, never landing that huge breakout role. Then she did uncredited work in 1943 as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette, and to this day people snicker over Twentieth-Century Fox pinning a halo on a pin-up. Still, the Madonna was a good-luck charm; Darnell’s brief period of good parts as bad girls was about to begin.
As in Laura the year before, Darnell’s character of Stella has gone missing at the outset of Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945). Unlike Laura, this beauty doesn’t return to her haunts in innocent wonderment. Darnell lounges in like she’s back from a cigarette break, and she rips into Dana Andrews’ hamburger with a down-home enjoyment that wouldn't be out of place in State Fair. Nor does Stella possess criminal smoothness; she takes money out of the register with the furtive look of a child edging a chair to the shelf that holds the candy jar.
There’s something girlish to the way Darnell played all her bad-dame parts. My Darling Clementine (1946) cast her as lovelorn Chihuahua, who isn’t bad at all, not really even misunderstood. John Ford didn’t want Darnell for the part, but his lingering close-up of her dying face is as tender as anything in the movie. In Summer Storm from 1944, her femme fatale seems consumed by petulant yearning for the shiny toys that Father Christmas never brought her. When, all at once, the character does something unselfish, it seems the sort of whim this childlike temptress might indulge.
Darnell comes as close to pure evil as she ever did in Hangover Square (1945), a movie that would make an interesting double bill with Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, Darnell’s venomous Netta up against Joan Bennett as Lazy Legs. Bennett underestimates the danger from men; Darnell looks at Laird Cregar with a nagging suspicion of his madness. On the other hand, in Preston Sturges’ great Unfaithfully Yours (1948), Daphne de Carter is a study in flummoxed, wounded sincerity. Any doubts about Daphne are there only because, well, can a woman who looks like that be trusted to remain faithful, particularly to a conductor who’s an almighty pain in the neck?
In between, in 1947, Darnell played an ersatz Scarlett in Preminger’s Forever Amber, a plum part that turned out to be a withered prune. Should you go to an Oscar party this Sunday, here’s a fun game for your film-nerd friends. If they’ve seen Forever Amber, they make the quarter-finals. If they liked Forever Amber, they make the semis, and anyone arguing for its greatness wins the title of Most Auteuristest of Them All and a prize--say, a copy of Man’s Favorite Sport or Family Plot. Forever Amber is bad, and the Siren says that despite Leon Shamroy and George Sanders' brief-but-fabulous Charles II. On set, Preminger reportedly treated Darnell with the same gallantry that almost drove Jean Seberg to a nervous breakdown on Saint Joan, and it shows; no self-respecting sexpot should look as desperate to please as does Darnell in this movie.
It was 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives that marked Darnell's pinnacle. The character of Lora May Finney fit Darnell like no other, and helped by Mankiewicz’s writing and facility with actors, she was the sharpest, funniest thing in a very funny movie. (She may have had extra help, as she was having an affair with Mankiewicz during and after filming.)
Lora May wants out of the “Finney mansion on the tracks,” but what the character wants even more is respect, and respectability. Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas, never better) honks his car horn for her to come out of the house, like he’s delivering Chinese take-out. Darnell stands by the sink without so much as shifting her legs, until he comes to the door to escort her. Porter pulls up the car to the house after their date, and from the passenger seat Darnell casts one micro-glance at the door, her face immaculately cool as she counts out the beats that will force her date to get out and open it for her. Manners count, the formalities count, because a lady gets them from a man without asking. And Lora May will by god get some manners and formality out of this boor--because when she does, that will be the signal she has class.
The letter of the movie’s title is from Addie Ross, the town Circe who writes to tell the women that she’s run away with one of their husbands. For the self-made, proudly vulgar Porter, Addie is class, and he keeps her picture in a silver frame on a grand piano he doesn’t know how to play. To get the right expression from Darnell, Mankiewicz filled that frame with a photo of Preminger in full costume as a Nazi, neatly summarizing the actress’ feelings about her former director. And it worked. Darnell’s face would be aloof and ladylike, if it weren't for the hatred in her eyes and the hostile line of her mouth, as she tells Porter she wants to be in a silver frame on a piano one day, too.
Lora May makes faces at Porter the moment his back is turned, manipulates him, talks to him with offhanded near-contempt after their marriage. “Something tells me I’m gonna have a giant around the house,” is the little woman’s response to Porter’s talk of expanding his business. All that could add up to a gold-digger, but the signal that she isn’t comes during the flashback to their courtship. Lora May has no date for New Year’s Eve, and as Darnell leafs through a magazine and tries to listen to the radio, it’s obvious she fears Porter may never come. When he does, and proposes, it’s in a brutally unromantic fashion, and Darnell’s face as she turns around to look at him mixes triumph and hurt.
After A Letter to Three Wives, Darnell’s filmography flares up briefly with decent roles in No Way Out and The Walls of Jericho, before her sad detour into alcoholism and her grisly death in a housefire, age 41. The Mankiewicz movie shows more clearly than any other what might have been made of her--a woman who looked wanton, but was all the more dangerous because she wasn’t.
(Note: The Mankiewicz quote and information on the filming of A Letter to Three Wives comes from Kenneth L. Geist's excellent biography.)