One of our favorite pictures from The Donald Gordon Collection is this one of 1940s star — and we do mean STAR — Linda Darnell. (That’s Donald above; a great guy but, alas, no star.)

We thought of her recently when we discussed the recent death of Tab Hunter (below left) and remembered that his breakout film (1951’s Island of Desire) starred him, a newcomer, with Linda whose career was then fading.  In those days when a female sex symbol turned 30 it was downhill until character parts.

Many years later Hunter wrote about how impressed he was with his glamorous leading lady. She was 20th Century Fox’s most alluring star (in the 1940’s). Sensual brown eyes, stunning face, sultry voice, sexy figure.

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During their screen test, the nervous tyro actor was instructed to embrace Darnell and plant on her a convincing kiss. (Linda plays a military nurse marooned on a South Sea Island with a Marine corporal. Nature takes its course.)

Don’t worry, honey, she whispered. Just relax. I’m good luck for newcomers.

Linda was certainly that for Tab Hunter.

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Some might say in retrospect that Darnell’s life off-camera often was far more interesting than many of the movies she made.

Gorgeous from birth (in Dallas, Texas), Monetta Eloyse Darnell was relentlessly pushed by an aggressive stage mother – tap dance classes at five, talent competitions at 11, beauty contests at 14 (she developed early) and an RKO screen test at 16.

But a 20th Century Fox talent scout had brought her out to Hollywood a year before.  The studio realizing she was just 14 sent her home to age a bit.  When Fox’s Darryl Zanuck discovered she was about to sign with RKO he exercised his prior claim.  She was still underage but appeared quite mature and Zanuck launched her career in a starring role (with co star billing)–opposite Tyrone Power.  She starred opposite him again in The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.

She was Zanuck’s favorite until she angered him by marrying a man old enough to be her father. After that he cast her in supporting roles.

But it turned out in addition to being virginal she could be sultry.

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Her career spanned some 50 films. Summer Storm,( Danish-born director Douglas Sirk’s second Hollywood film, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Shooting Party), showcased Darnell’s smoldering gaze and sexy physique in the role of a cunning, illiterate peasant girl who catches the eye of none other than George Sanders. (Summer Storm recently was reissued on DVD.)

She was superb in Hangover Square and“The Fallen Angel. She wasn’t a bad comedienne (see A Letter To Three Wives or Unfaithfully Yours). All four of these are classics.

Darnell had a torrid affair with Three Wives director Joe Mankiewicz,  which ruined her marriage.  After her Fox contract lapsed in the 1950’s, she appeared in an eclectic mix of American and European films. Darnell, who had problems with alcohol abuse, married and divorced three times Then she had to work in summer stock and dinner theatre to earn a living. Her comeback film was Black Spurs, a 1965 western released by Paramount and costarring Rory Calhoun and Scott Brady.

She might have had a career in character parts.  But tragedy struck.

While visiting her former secretary in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, a fire burned through the apartment while Darnell was sleeping. She died of burns at Cook County hospital in April 1965.  She was only 41.

About Donald’s photos above, he later said about Linda what most people who met her said: “She was even more beautiful in person than on film or in photographs.”

 

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