Bartee Haile: Movie actress’ career and life go up in flames
This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
“New Screen Romance Involves Our Linda” was the headline the Dallas Morning News put on Sheilah Graham’s gossip column for Jul. 25, 1939 that dealt more with the real age of a young actress than her love life.
Born in Dallas in 1923, Monetta Eloyse Darnell grew up in Oak Cliff and attended Sunset High School. Her mother was determined to see one of her three daughters on the silver screen, and Tweedles — a family nickname — drew the short straw.
Mrs. Darnell had her little darling tap-dancing at four and seven years later pushed her into modeling for a Big D department store. By age 13, Linda had appeared in local theater productions and landed a job as a hostess or “Texanita” at the Lone Star Centennial.
The 14 year old entered the “Gateway to Hollywood” contest with a backdated birthday and finished first in the southwest region. As a consolation prize for her loss in the final round, she was given a screen test by RKO. The moviemakers liked what they saw but not enough to put the fresh face on the payroll.
Linda never forgot her less than triumphant return to Dallas. “It was hell to go home and have everybody ask how you were making out in Hollywood. I was just miserable.”
But a Twentieth Century-Fox talent scout remembered the beautiful brunette and in April 1939 persuaded studio executives to bring her back to Tinsel Town. Fox changed her name to Linda, bumped her age up to 18 and signed her to a seven-year contract with a starting salary of $75 per week.
Within the month and without any training, the inexperienced adolescent went in front of the camera. Hotel for Women was a very forgettable debut, and her second film was not much better. Linda’s co-star in the romantic comedy Day-Time Wife was matinee idol Tyrone Power, with whom she made three more pictures (Brigham Young, The Mark of Zorro, and Blood and Sand) in a year and a half.
Fox rewarded the hard-working starlet with a hefty pay raise that increased her weekly income to $750. But her meddling mother maintained tight control of the minor’s money and managed to funnel more than $100,000 into a “trust fund.”
Linda left home in 1942 and eloped the following April with the cameraman who shot her screen test and first three flicks. The twice divorced groom was 42, 23 years older than the bride.
In 1944, the year Look magazine chose her as one of the four most beautiful women in Hollywood, Linda appeared in her fourteenth film. The tight blouse and short skirt she wore in Summer Storm turned the “sweet young thing” into a “sultry vixen” resulting in mature roles that required more than merely looking pretty.
Linda played a music-hall Jezebel strangled by an insane lover in Hanover Square (1945) and a seductive waitress who met an almost identical fate in Fallen Angel also released at the end of the war. Nineteen forty-six featured two more doomed characters: a concubine burned at the stake (Anna and the King of Siam) and a saloon singer shot to death (My Darling Clementine).
The title role in Forever Amber, the costume epic that should have vaulted her into the big time, backfired on Linda. Critics crucified her for sleepwalking through the three million-dollar box-office flop, and Fox blamed her for disappointing ticket sales.
Linda kept plugging away in low-budget tear-jerkers like The Walls of Jericho, A Letter to Three Wives, and Wife, Husband, Friend. Then came her highly acclaimed performance in the 1950 film No Way Out, which according to a rave review in Look “raises her to a position as one of the screen’s top dramatic actresses.”
But in 1952, right after the breakup of her eight-year marriage, Fox let Linda go in order to devote their undivided attention newcomer Marilyn Monroe. Parts were scarce for a homeless actress in her forties, and she made only eight more movies — none worth mentioning.
Neither were her second and third rides on the marital merry-go-round. Linda’s marriage to a beer heir lasted less than two years, and a pilot sued for divorce after five.
In 1956 Linda tried her luck on Broadway in Harbor Lights, but the producers pulled the plug on the fourth night. She fared better on TV in shows like “Screen Directors Playhouse,” “Climax,” “Wagon Train,” “Playhouse 90” and the “Jane Wyman Theater” but failed to get her own series on the air.
On the evening of Apr. 9, 1965, Linda took a nostalgic walk down memory lane with her former secretary. They reminisced about the good old days in Hollywood and watched one of the Texas actress’ early movies on television.
Linda Darnell’s hopes of a comeback went up in flames later that night. Firemen rescued her ex-secretary and the woman’s daughter from the blazing townhouse, but their famous guest suffered burns over 80 percent of her body and died the next day in a Chicago hospital.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box
152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or firstname.lastname@example.org and invites you to visit his new web site at barteehaile.com.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.