Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Linda Darnell x 3

I did a piece here last year on Linda Darnell (see label) - that '40s beauty who was neglected for a long time, but - like Gene Tierney - is now recognised as one of the quintessential actresses and beauties of the era. Here are 3 of her major movies:

NO WAY OUT, one of Joseph L Mankiewicz's two 20th Century Fox films in 1950 (the other was some little trifle called ALL ABOUT EVE) is still a stunning drama; no wonder it is never revived or seen on television these days, it is a tough racist drama which does not pull its punches with all that racist language spewed out by Richard Widmark as the petty, mean hood who thinks black hospital doctor Sidney Poitier (one of his first roles) was responsible for his brother's death and he means vengance. Stephen McNally is the dependable head of the hospital and Linda is the down-on-her-luck girlfriend of Widmark's nasty hood - that roominghouse room they reside in looks all too real. Tensions escalate as the local racists gather for a fight, a scene illuminated with a flare gun; and it still shocks to see Poitier with the spit on his face from a bigot - Widmark gets more deranged and self-pitying as he launches his final attack on Poitier and then realises just what a hateful unloved mess he is .... Linda is admirable as she comes to her senses and realises where her loyalties lie. It is a good downbeat role for her after those 40s glamour roles in the likes of FOREVER AMBER and Preminger's FALLEN ANGEL. Prior to this the only NO WAY OUT I knew was the 80s Kevin Costner flick.

How can I convey how much I love A LETTER TO THREE WIVES - it is surely one of the most perfect 40s American movies showing that 40s dreamworld of plush suburbia where the women all have roomy comfortable homes, drive big estate cars and have domestic help (Themla Ritter!) when entertaining. It is just as good if not better than ALL ABOUT EVE (which really has the same format being about 3 women: Margo, Karen and Eve all with about equal screen time; it is though a more wittily acidic curdled cocktail of a movie). Each wife here represents a different type of the upwardly mobile post-WWII woman. Jeanne Crain is a pretty, stay-at-home type of modest background, grateful and anxious to fit in with the country club set. Ann Sothern is the married career girl both proud and worried that she makes more than her schoolteacher husband (young Kirk Douglas), as she writes for the radio soaps. Linda is the unrepentant social climber from the wrong side of town who plays the cards she’s dealt with masterfully, but can’t get over the golddigger persona she feels saddled with, as she lands the rich Paul Douglas who feels he has bought her.

Mankiewicz delights in pricking and celebrating the pride and pretensions of each woman, succeeding especially with Sothern and Darnell as they worry (when away on a day trip) over which of their husbands has run off with the town socialite Addie Ross who has thoughtfully had a note delivered to them advising that she is leaving town with one of their men! It remains visually expressive though of course the story would not work now in the modern world where people are never out of contact without their telephone! The first story with Jeanne Crain is the slightest, then there is the dinner party from hell with Florence Bates as the radio executive with much verbal wit with that amusing wordplay on Sadie the maid (Thelma) being saturated and penetrated by the radio ads - Gracias!; and then the story of how Linda's Lora Mae from the shack by the railroad (wait till the trains pass by..) snares her department store boss Porter Hollingsway (Douglas), she too can be a girl in a silver frame on a piano. The poor sap does not stand a chance as Lora Mae ladders her nylons to emphasise her legs and retorts "what I got don't need beads" when implored by her mother Connie Gilchrist to put on a necklace.

It climaxes nicely on New Year's Eve when Porter calls to capitulate and Lora Mae bitterly realises she has won, they do not find out they love each other until that nice moment at the end with her "you big gorilla"! This enduring classic (there was a rubbish television remake but who remembers that...or even saw it) and HOUSE OF STRANGERS made 1949 a terrific year for Mankiewicz (right), winning Oscars for writing and directing here, as he did again in 1950 with ALL ABOUT EVE, and also directing NO WAY OUT - just like a decade later Billy Wilder scored with SOME LIKE IT HOT followed by THE APARTMENT where he won his awards - as he lost out to BEN HUR the previous year). Mank of course is one of Hollywood's great writer-director-producers and he also romanced quite a few leading ladies: Darnell, Lana, Judy and so many others... as well as producing Joan Crawford movies and stuff like WOMAN OF THE YEAR where he made that remark that Tracy would cut Hepburn down to size ... I still have his FIVE FINGERS and PEOPLE WILL TALK to watch, and I always like seeing CLEOPATRA, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, THE HONEYPOT, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (which Linda was set to play, but then Ava was the bigger star).

I had been looking forward to Preston Sturges' UNFAITHFULLY YOURS from 1948 - I like Prestons's other films a lot: SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, THE LADY EVE, THE PALM BEACH STORY are all classics, I even like those Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton comedies of his - so UNFAITHFULLY YOURS looked like it would be a treat. However I did not like it all, I found the humour laboured as famous conductor Rex Harrison suspects his lovely wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) of infidelity. While leading his orchestra in three different pieces, he elaborately daydreams various forms of revenge, each one accompanied by a classical music piece. First, in a complex and ingenious fantasy to Rossini's music, he murders Daphne and plots to frame and convict Anthony Windborn (Kurt Kreuger), his own suspected young private secretary, for the crime.
While performing the second number, by Wagner, he fantasizes about writing Daphne a large cheque, forgiving the young couple, and allowing his wife to run off with her young lover. And while conducting the third piece - a Tchaikovsky overture, he sees himself challenging Daphne and Tony to a fatal game of Russian roulette. While the plans work perfectly in his mind, he stumbles and bumbles his way through the preparations in real life in a very laboured scene. Finally, realizing how deliriously silly he's been, he embraces and kisses his loving wife, who's never been unfaithful, and has no idea that he has been plotting against her. Was this really funny in 1948? Did audiences lap it up? The scene where he fantasises about killing his wife with his razor just off camera is simply not amusing. Nice though to see that 40s high life, the furs and jewels for the women, the plush bathroom with the leather strap for sharpening an open razor ... but it is all very dated and just does not work now, even though Dudley Moore did a remake, which thankfully passed us by. Rex is as sharp as ever here but for me he did not come into his own until the '50s; Harrison though was the ideal actor for Mankiewicz, headlining 4 of his movies, including that waspish Caesar in CLEOPATRA.

Linda's great era was the 1940s of course - she still had some successes in the '50s, I like SATURDAY ISLAND or ISLAND OF DESIRE where she is on a desert island with young marine Tab Hunter (looking like a go-go dancer in his sawn off shorts), and as per review at Linda Darnell label, I love her 1954 melodrama THIS IS MY LOVE, also directed by Stuart Heisler [thanks to IMDb pals Melvelvit and Timshelboy for that one].
Linda would have been perfect as the diner owner in the Steinbeck THE WAYWARD BUS in 1957 but Fox gave it to their new import English Joan Collins! Linda alas died in a fire in 1965, aged only 41.
Linda and Mank's 40s films have that recognisable plush late '40s 20th Century Fox look, as does Negulesco's neat little '48 noir thriller ROADHOUSE where Widmark plays another deranged role opposite the very hard-boiled chanteuse Ida Lupino - more on that later, it cries out for a re-view.

"Hollywood Beauty" is a biography on Linda by Ronald L. Davis; the blurb reads: "In 1939, at the age of 15, Linda Darnell left her Texas home and ordinary world to live the Hollywood dream promised by fan magazines and studio publicity offices. She appeared in dozens of films and won international acclaim for BLOOD AND SAND, FOREVER AMBER, A LETTER TO 3 WIVES, and the original version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. Driven by her mother to become rich and famous but unable to cope with the real nature of Hollywood, Darnell soon was caught in a downward spiral of drinking, failed marriages, and exploitive relationships. By her early twenties she was an alcoholic, hardened by a life in which beautiful women were chattel. By the time of her death in a house fire aged 41, she was struggling for recognition in the industry that had once called her its "golden girl". Its one of Hollywood's sadder tales.

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