Linda Darnell, dark-haired, long-legged beauty who bewitches hungry men in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel and anyone who has watched the film over the long years since. Sexy, sassy, fragile and doomed, she’s surely one of noir’s most memorable sirens. I met her for the first time just a few nights ago.
One of the (perhaps dubious) pleasures of watching old films, certainly those from the 1940s and 1950s, is when I see someone who grabs my attention and I wonder what other films they have been in. Sometimes it might be a face that seems familiar somehow from some other film, like Anne Revere in Fallen Angel. Sometimes it might be just be being struck by a performance (Ronald Lewis, or Laurie Zimmer for instance) or simply being taken aback by a woman’s beauty, as was the case of Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle. These are actors and their faces given some measure of immortality, and endless beauty, moments of their lives frozen in time on celluloid, with lives and careers that can be researched and reviewed in minutes, summarised in mere paragraphs. I’ve been here so many times before but its endlessly fascinating.
One sometimes forgets, in the ‘heat’ of being caught up in a thrilling or absorbing noir, that any given scene is something filmed, usually on a studio set, at a time incongruous to that being filmed- maybe its a Tuesday morning or a Friday afternoon, and when the director yells ‘cut’ everyone breaks and costumes are doffed and casual clothes are put on, Hollywood magic dispelled and real-life returned, whatever ‘real-life’ was back in 1944 or 1949, a reality as distant and foreign to us now as anything captured in Hollywood fantasy. Naturally working in Hollywood was rather more mundane than the magical spectacle the Hollywood spin-masters or tabloid gossip writers would have it, and careers harder and less care-free. Hollywood lives could be as noir as anything in its darkest thriller.
All these years later, of course, Hollywood and its denizens are like that of some other, alien planet. The music they listened to, the cars they drove, it’s not really something we can ever ‘know’ except, ironically, from the versions of that world that we see in those movies. We can’t ever really ‘know’ Linda Darnell, only glimpses through the filmography (fifty-six credits in films and television between 1939 and 1965) and the milestones of her personal life.
So Linda Darnell; born October 16th 1923, died April 10th, 1965, aged 41. Right there one is taken aback. That’s a young age, just twenty years after the film I’d just seen, Fallen Angel, in which she was just 21. It gets worse: in the tradition of all things noir, she didn’t die well: she died after being caught in a fire at a freinds apartment, painfully lingering for a few days having suffered horrific eighty-percent burns. Some accounts have it that a dropped cigarette on a downstairs sofa ignited the fire; one account claimed that Darnell was initially trapped upstairs but fire-fighters found her lying near the burning sofa. Its probably overly-dramatic hyperbole in accounts that describe her falling asleep on the sofa watching one of her old movies, reliving past glory before absently dropping a still-lit cigarette- that’s like something from that old Twilight Zone episode, or Sunset Boulevard, or a typically dark noir. A case of Hollywood life blurring into Hollywood myth?
It doesn’t get much better, the more I read. Her beginning was almost as noir as her end. Born to parents who were not happily married, Linda Darnell (originally Monetta Eloyse Darnell) was one of four children (plus two from an earlier marriage) but she was evidently the prettiest- her mother Margaret ‘Pearl’ Brown was a failed actress herself and decided, like the darkest of noir mothers, to succeed vicariously through her daughter, pushing her into a modelling career and later into theatrical work at a very young age. Darnell said “Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly, but Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” Pearl would later, unsurprisingly earn a bad rep in Hollywood for being pushy and domineering.
Marriages often offer a glimpse of a life beyond that captured by the camera: husbands were Paverell Marley (m.1943, div.1951), Phillip Liebmann (m.1954, div.1955) and Merle Robertson (m.1957, div. 1963). Three marriages, so very Hollywood: tempestuous affairs (Howard Hughes, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and numerous marriages spell a grim love-life to me (maybe I’ve never lived, but did Darnell live well?) Paverell was over twice Linda’s age; 42 to her 19, they’d eloped to Las Vegas. The second marriage was a loveless one, apparently- of all things, a business arrangement (a wealthy man’s trophy wife?) that proved a nightmare she couldn’t maintain, while at the divorce proceedings for her third marriage, Darnell accused her airline pilot husband of infidelity and fathering the baby of another actress. So love was something that didn’t go particularly well for her: an ironic price of beauty, perhaps?
Unsurprisingly, Darnell suffered from depression and alcoholism and a faltering film career full of what-if’s and maybes, finally released from her contract with 20th Century Fox in 1952 (just seven years after Fallen Angel). “Suppose you’d been earning $4,000 to $5,000 a week for years. Suddenly you were fired and no one would hire you at any figure remotely comparable to your previous salary. I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along. The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?” she would later ruefully comment, aware there was likely little unusual regards her career. How many other beauties suffered a similar fate in the noir reality of Hollywood’s dreamland? Well, not many of them are immortalised forever in something as memorable and iconic as her performance in Fallen Angel, certainly.