Born into a lower-middle-class family in Dallas, Texas, and driven into beauty contests and amateur theatricals by her domineering mother, Linda Darnell starred in her first Hollywood film at the age of 15. Promoted as “the perfect face,” Darnell lent her high forehead, wide eyes, and sculptural cheekbones to a series of Twentieth Century Fox period spectaculars, often opposite the studio’s leading, and no less beautiful, male star, Tyrone Power. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was said to be taken with her “Latin quality” (a great grandparent was said to be Cherokee), which he employed as a contrast to the famous “Fox blondes”—Alice Faye, Sonje Henie, Betty Grable, and, later, Marilyn Monroe—who dominated the lot.
But as she matured and movie fashions changed after the war, Darnell struggled to escape her purely decorative, glamor-girl image. A nuanced performance as a peasant femme fatale in Douglas Sirk’s independent production Summer Storm (1944) led to more complex roles at Fox in John Brahm’s Hangover Square and, supremely, as the hash-house Delilah of Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel. Darnell seemed poised for major stardom when she landed the juicy lead role in the big-budget bodice-ripper Forever Amber (1947), but when the troubled production failed to live up to expectations, Zanuck seemed to lose interest in her career and consigned her to a series of supporting roles—which turned out to be some of the best films of her career: Unfaithfully Yours, A Letter to Three Wives, Slattery’s Hurricane, and No Way Out.
Released from Fox, but burdened with a drinking problem and weight issues, Darnell found it difficult to function in a post-studio environment. She drifted through the ’50s in a series of forgettable indies and foreign productions, including the notorious 1957 Zero Hour!, which served as an almost scene-for-scene template for 1980’s Airplane! In 1965 she was staying at the Glenview, Illinois, home of her former secretary when a fire broke out and Darnell was severely burned. She died at the age of 41.
Organized by Dave Kehr, Curator, and Olivia Priedite, Senior Program Assistant, Department of Film.