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Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Linda Darnell felt like a star-struck fawn when she began working
with her acting heroes. Little did she know that she would
 in due time become one of the inspirational elite.

Just as the integration of sound in film created an uncomfortable tension between the silent generation and the studio era, so too would the invention of Television topple Golden Era Hollywood's ivory tower. Changing fads, younger audiences, and this new feat of technological competition would-- along with age-- humble many of cinema's greats. The more business savvy Gods and Goddesses immediately hopped on the gravy train, such as Loretta Young who starred in her own TV show. Other, older curmudgeons found it difficult to acclimate, like Clark Gable, who let his MGM contract run out and then sought semi-retirement. Linda Darnell became one of the many who was left to walk a crooked line between sudden, grateful independence from studio control and complete and utter bafflement at what to do next. Like many of her generation, too young to retire and too old to appeal to the new method-acting trend, Linda did a little of everything: the occasional, poorly made film, some television, and most importantly the stage. It was on the stage that Linda believed she truly learned to act and to carve out characterizations that went beyond simply hitting marks and giving good face to the camera. The various plays she did-- A Roomful of Roses, The Children's Hour, Critic's Choice, etc-- were sometimes successful and sometimes flops, but the experience was still an enriching one for her. With mostly positive reviews, her confidence was bolstered, and with younger cast members looking up to her, she gained a self-respect that had been absent from her film work. Many upcoming thespians and later film actors would get a chance to perform opposite the fading but still radiant icon, whom they came to respect and admire for her kindness, generosity, and under-appreciated talent. And so, it was on the stage performing Tea and Sympathy in 1956 that one of the gentle guiding hands of Old Hollywood would help usher in New Hollywood when Linda performed opposite a future leading man... Burt Reynolds.

After years doing stage and television work, Burt Reynolds takes his place
 in film history in Deliverance.

Another, earlier transition in the entertainment world came with cinema's first appearance. Suddenly, the world of the stage was broadened and audiences were introduced to another form of passion plays in flickering lights. Of course, as with all new "fads," many stuck their noses up at film and film actors, thinking it a cheap imitation of true performance. While half the population held tightly to the boards of the stage, another half embraced the possibilities of stories in pictures, resulting in an exciting and contentious era in our nation's past. While film actors endured the shame of ostracization and prejudice from a society that deemed them not only artistically by morally inferior, the actors of the stage dealt with an impending paranoia that the burgeoning new medium of movies was going to shake them out of the business. In time, movies did come to override the theatre as the mass favorite, but the prestige of the stage remained. Yet, with film's new success, attributed in part to the actors and actresses who helped elevate it above the mundane and superficial, respect between the two groups followed. One such example of this can be seen in the tribute one of the stage's greatest actors paid to one of cinema's. Turns out John Barrymore (left) had a bit of a crush on Lillian Gish. Not only did the notorious lecher certainly find her beautiful, but he was apparently in awe of her emotive talents, which he deemed "superlatively exquisite." He was moved to such a degree that he was uncharacteristically too embarrassed to approach her with his compliments. Instead, he used notorious director D.W. Griffith as a go-between. He wrote Griffith a letter full of plaudits, and asked him to pass on his ardent respect to Lillian after seeing her performance in Way Down East: "I wonder if you will thank Miss Gish from all of us who are trying to do our best in the theater." Of course, Jack would later arrive in Hollywood himself and start making his own impression on the cinematic world, but had it not been for his respect for actors like Lillian and their work in the medium, he may well have simply continued treading the boards on Broadway.

D.W. Griffith's "soul," Lillian Gish, apparently reached
John Barrymore's as well.

Another olive branch was extended by none other than Olive Thomas (right). She was at the height of her career when she started filming The Flapper. Life was good, work was steady, and she was quickly solidifying her place as a qualified leading lady. This certainly only served to heighten Olive's perpetually high spirits. Always a generous, free-spirited person, her charm was infectious and endeared many of her colleagues and collaborators to her. One such person was Norma Shearer, an up and coming ingenue who was breaking her way into the tough world of Hollywood through bit parts and extra roles. A fiercely determined girl herself,  Norma-- who landed her first, uncredited role in The Flapper alongside sister Athole-- most assuredly watched every move Olive made with great acuity. Here was a woman she wanted to emulate: charismatic, sensual, talented, and powerful. Never the haughty type, Olive and Norma must have struck up some sort of casual, working relationship while filming, for when Olive learned that the struggling actress had fallen ill, she was deeply concerned. As was her nature, she offered assistance without giving it a thought and wound up forking the dough for Norma's medical bills. It was a debt for which Norma remained eternally grateful and sadly never got to repay, due to Olive's untimely death. But, having indeed learned from a pro, she put this bit of kindness in her pocket and "paid it forward" in her later career, where-- after she became one of MGM's top attractions-- she often lent a hand to other up-in-comers in need, (such as Janet Leigh and Tyrone Power).

Norma Shearer grew to wield her hard-won fame
 energetically and gratefully.

Another type of world that consistently seemed to collide with Hollywood was that of the gangster. The stories of underworld debauchery made their way into cinematic stories as soon as prohibition put a bitter thorn in America's side. While we did not enjoy the truth behind the myth of the booze-pushing mobster-- the man-handling, threatening, and murdering-- we could not help but idolize him in some respect, because at least he was giving us something good to drink! Gangsters too were drawn to the glamorous allure of Hollywood for business and pleasure, and thus our nastiest ne're-do-wells started rubbing elbows with our creme-de la-creme, (see more in a past article here). Linda Darnell's mother, Pearl, would in time come into close, friendly contact with none other than Mickey Cohen (left). After Linda had moved her entire family to Los Angeles and bought them a home, Cohen happened to move in right around the corner. Due to his menacing reputation, many of the neighbors were understandably unhappy. Pearl, a tough cookie, hardly paid his presence any mind. After all, she had been causing a ruckus of her own. More than one neighbor raised an eyebrow at the unconventional Darnell home, where chickens ran amok, snakes were treated like fuzzy bunny rabbits, and Pearl fed her horse through the kitchen window. For classy Los Angelenos, this was the epitome of redneck malfeasance. For a time, Mickey distracted the neighborhood's attention from Pearl-- particularly after a bomb was thrown into his home! Now reasonably frightened, the block started a petition to have the hood ousted, but Pearl refused to sign. She believed him to be the "perfect" resident: he was quiet, had no parties, and kept up his home. When Mickey learned that Pearl had stood up for him, he called personally to thank her. I guess the only person more terrifying than Mickey Cohen was Pearl Darnell. 

Desi Arnaz (right) had his own relationship with the mob, and not just through his television production "The Untouchables." Desi's family escaped the violence and upheaval of Cuba during the revolution of 1933 and settled in Florida. His father, an ex-politician who had been incarcerated for his loyalties, wanted to start fresh in American and went about establishing himself as a businessman. Living in Miami as a teen, the charming and mentally ambidextrous Desi was also interested in business and thus had no penchant for education. Yet, at his parents' insistence, he attended St. Patrick's Catholic High School part time. The one spot of good luck was meeting the boy who was to become his closest friend at the time: Sonny Capone. Desi was aware of who Sonny's father was, but out of courtesy never brought up the fact that ol' Al was doing time in Alcatraz. He would never meet the notorious thug in the flesh, but he did have a bit of a shock one day. As per usual, Desi called the Capone household to chat with Sonny and make plans to meet up and get into the usual boyish hijinks. However, a strange, male voice answered the phone. Desi was thrown at first... and then became even more thrown as he put two and two together: Al was out on parole at the time, and must have traveled to meet with his family. Holy Moly! He was talking to Al Capone! Desi would play it cool at the time, but years later he would have a good chuckle over it. However, after he had found success in Hollywood with wife Lucille Ball, he was surprised to hear from his old friend Sonny, who was deeply insulted by "The Untouchables" due to its subject matter-- an insult to his father. "How could you do it?" Sonny asked. "Why not?" Desi retorted. "Somebody else would have anyway." Sonny's ego was not soothed-- he served Desi with a million dollar law suit. Sometimes, old friendships die hard.

Al Capone: one character not even Hollywood could make up.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE: Nothing's Black & White

Though an obvious casting choice for Julie in Show Boat, Lena Horne missed out 
on a role that finally matched her skin tone... because of her skin tone.

Quick challenge: name five studio-era African American stars. The first name served is Sidney Poitier, next Hattie McDaniel, then Lena Horne... Maybe one is able to recall the comic efforts of the heavily stereotyped Stepin Fetchit... Kind of gets hard to tack that last digit, doesn't it? While no one can argue the continuing spell that classic Hollywood casts over us-- the beauty, the allure, the glamour-- when one is being realistic, there are many flaws in Tinsel Town's handsome face. Hence, cinematic racism: a painful subject and a continuing saga of human failure and regeneration for every generation. The great thing about being a student of film is having this tangible ability to witness human beings in action. Since the advent of this medium, we have been able to literally watch history unfold and effect change before our very eyes, though we are rarely aware of this phenomenon as it happens. The social motivations that compel us to tell certain stories-- and audience reactions to these documentations-- in turn, become artifacts of our ever malleable culture.

Evaluating movies of the past, wherein racial slurs or sexist statements make a modern audience wince, can often result in the ostracizing of certain films. Ashamed of past blunders, we bury our past, but this too is a failure on our part. In not permitting certain films-- which fail to live up to our current politically correct standards-- to be seen, we miss out on the talents that paved the way toward a more understanding, comprehensive society. Gone with the Wind, a movie that changed the possibilities of movies, was also built on the perpetuation of the "happy slave" myth, as portrayed through the characters of "Mammy," "Pork," and "Prissy." Yet, even in the controversy, there lie the performances, the epic love story, and the scope of filmmaking as yet never before reached. Then there is the presence of strong black actors McDaniel, Polk, and McQueen in strong and sympathetic roles. Balancing the bias with the progress can make the head spin. The film's ultimate success was in allowing Hattie McDaniel to pave the way to the future with her brilliant and heart-wrenching portrayal of Mammie, which garnered her the first Oscar awarded to an African American. As always, one small step for man, one giant step for mankind. 

Through cinema, we embarrassingly watch man commit his prejudices and slowly unlearn them. While one's sense of decency may be pained at certain unconscious unconscionable slights from the past, one shouldn't be afraid to watch us trying, however clumsily, to make these steps, nor rob oneself of the intrigue of literally watching it happen. And so we move from Birth of a Nation, to Cabin in the Sky, to Gone with the Wind, to Malcolm X, etc, and this is just dealing with one branch of our multiple minorities.

In the Romeo & Juliet tale of West Side Story, the interracial romance between 
a white Jet and a Puerto Rican Shark was made savory by casting the 
Caucasian Natalie Wood as Maria.

With that overly lengthy introduction being said, I can now press on to the matter at hand, which is how the racial issue has been investigated in our cinematic storylines in one particular fashion. While the burden of racial tension almost consistently fell on Mr. Poitier's shoulders, producing in his career one of the most profound and effective bodies of work in perhaps all film history, the female element of the African American race was very rarely given voice. When it was, it was normally stereotyped through the role of the sassy servant or house maid. Howecer, there too was a strange mutation in which a black woman was given opportunity to reveal the prejudices under which she suffered through a character with true depth and feeling. Unfortunately, in this case, she had to be half white. The final clincher, she had to be played by a Caucasian actress. (Harrumph). While this shoddy choice at casting was taken as a slap in the face to the many black actresses dying for a chance to give credit to their race and prove themselves as genuine talents, the choice was just as much about business as it was an unhealthy dose of racism. Due to the production code, there could be no interracial romance or miscegenation on camera, which meant that a black actress could not indulge in a romance with a white actor (this is the same stipulation that caused Anna May Wong's career to suffer). In addition, famous, white actors were considered the real stars and money earners, which led to some impressively forward-thinking plots with backward-thinking casting. Nonetheless, these films are worth a glance, as they are yet one more step forward from our segregated past. I have three films (and multiple versions) to discuss today: Show Boat, Imitation of Life, and Pinky.

~     ~     ~

To begin with, we have Show Boat, based upon the book by Edna Ferber and the following smash musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and adapted for the screen thrice in 1929, 1936, and 1951. (Unfortunately, the following racial angle was suspiciously absent from the 1929 silent version, so I have had to drop it from the discussion altogether). The plot of the story varies little from film to film and involves the generational saga of a family of show boat performers: Cap'n Andy and Parthy Hawkes, their daughter Magnolia and her husband Gaylord, and in time their daughter. On the outskirts of these tales of love and loss, performance and reality, there is another character-- one who is not of the family. The "other." Julie, played by Helen Morgan in 1936 and Ava Gardner (left) in 1951 (and Alma Rubens in 1929), is a songstress on the boat and a good friend of the blossoming Magnolia. The interesting thing about this woman is that she is biracial, but "passes" for white. However, the Hawkes family knows the truth and does not shun her for her accidental heritage. In addition, Julie is deeply in love with her husband Steve-- a white man. As Magnolia is a bit younger and as yet untouched by love, she is fascinated by Julie, whom she looks to for guidance. Julie communicates her character's deep, unshakable love through the show-stopping "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." During the number, we see Julie as a woman of spirit and warmth: a big sister to Magnolia, a devoted lover to Steve, and, underneath it all, a sad little girl who can't believe that her dreams have come true. This sadness will be broadened when the authorities threaten to arrest her for her interracial marriage to Steve-- which is indeed illegal-- at their most recent, unfortunate port. Reluctantly, the Hawkeses are forced to let Julie and Steve go from the show, and the romantic duo are thrust head-first into an unforgiving world with only each other as comfort.

Fast forward to a few years later, and we find Julie alone without her man. Steve, her one true love, has left her, most probably due to the societal pressures of being married to a "negro girl," but also there are hints at infidelity and the other hard-knock financial pressures that any entertainer must endure. Julie mourns him, singing her heartbreaking "Bill" to the drunken crowds at The Trocadero, a gigantic step down from the homey and classy show boat. Julie too, it is discovered, is a drunk who has taken to the bottle to cope with her heartbreak. Surprisingly, Magnolia is brought back into her life and, just like Julie, she has fallen on hard times with her husband, Gaylord, whose gambling has cost them their home and eventually each other. He too has walked out on his wife, and so the two spurned women are reunited in song, for Julie overhears Magnolia auditioning for a spot at the club. Her audition piece is, of course, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Just as she had several years prior, Julie performs her act as guardian angel, watching out for her younger soul sister, and ensuring that she will not have to suffer the same pains as herself. She leaves her job at The Trocadero, seeing to it that Magnolia takes her place. Here we encounter the first example of the chosen sacrifice of the lower race. In all areas, Julie and Magnolia are fairly interchangeable. Though Magnolia was fortunate enough to be born to more prosperous and white parents, they are both destitute, abandoned, and lost. The one defining difference is Julie's mixed race. For this, she is irredeemable and she knows it. Julie committed the mortal sin of thinking she could climb above societies' restraints and enjoy the high life-- aka the white life-- but fate surely and swiftly reminded her of her place in the caste system. Though the Civil War has ended, her breeding still makes her a slave. She knows her place, and she accepts it. Her giving heart, which gave all to Steve, now continues to give to her friend who, of course, goes on to become a great star.

This same goodness eventually works to reunite Magnolia with the wayfaring Gaylord, whom a drunken Julie encounters some time later. Ava Gardner does some of her best work in this scene in the 1951 version when she all but shames and begs Gaylord to give up his scandalous, cowardly ways and return to Magnolia. If she can bring one man back to the woman who loves him, it will have made her martyrdom worth it. All of the suffering she has endured as an outcast will be won back if she can prove that true love does exist, and her karmic injustice will be paid in full-- as the other, she delivers the true rights of happiness to the true white race that deserves it. Forgiven for sullying the waters of purity, this last sacrificial act may give her peace. Gaylord does return to Magnolia, and the Hawkes family floats on their boat to better things on the ever-flowing river of life. Julie, we are left to assume, will be kept warm for the remainder of her days with the knowledge that she has done some good. As is her fate, she should expect nothing more, right?

Julie is not the only person of "color" in the story, with various other helping hands along the way being portrayed by Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson ('36), and William Warfield ('51), the latter two of whom perform with great pathos and gut-wrenching gusto the famous "Old Man River." As is usual, these authentically black characters are treated with a sort of condescending affection that is elevated only by the performances of the actors. They are kind-hearted but most importantly unambitious. They know their place and do not seek to escape it. It is Julie's ferocious beatings against history's iron cage that eventually victimize her. This is why she is not carried to heaven on 'Old Man River' with the other, allegedly smarter members of her race. While these themes today irk the conscience, the films are at least successful in painting sympathy for the African American population, though they are still forced to suffer. The fact that a white woman was chosen to play the mixed Julie is somewhat forgivable in the restraints of the time, as an onscreen romance between a black Lena Horne-- one original choice for the role in 1951-- and a white actor was a definite no-no and far too shocking for an America still in the midst of racial segregation. Lena in fact was asked to coach Ava Gardner in her singing for the role, which was an additional slap in the face to both women. In the end, Ava's singing would not be used but was dubbed by Annette Warren. The only happy ending there is that Lena and Ava were actually good friends. Ironically, Lena had performed the song "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the biopic of Jerome Kern's life, Till the Clouds Roll By, in 1946. The time had not yet come for a black woman to have a romantic leading role, even a supporting, romantic leading role. Women of color were still resigned to character roles and bit parts. Yet, the film industry was able to inch the door open ever so much wider, and through the superb performances of its actors, audiences at least subliminally could begin to empathize with a dark race-- though sadly by giving them a white face.

~     ~     ~

The story for Imitation of Life further showcased this other racial archetype when brought to the screen in both 1934 and 1959. Overall, these films are about the relationships between mother and daughter, but the most striking aspect of both was the choice to introduce a "light-skinned" black girl as a supporting character. In accordance with the whole production code stuck-uppedness (new word), the character of Peola ('34)/Sarah Jane ('59) had-- as described by her black mother Delilah/Annie-- a very light-skinned father. While this strange extended storyline is meant to occur outside the main plot-- which concerns the sudden prosperity of working girl Bea Pullman/Lora Meredith (Claudette Colbert/Lana Turner) conflicted with her mothering of Jessie/Susie (Rochelle Hudson/Sandra Dee) and her romantic life with suitor Steve Archer (Warren William/John Gavin)-- Peola/SJ and her disdain for her skin color becomes the most fascinating part of the movie. Her rejection of her true race results in harsh penalties, and by existing in a counterfeit "imitation of life"-- in which she tries to pass as a white girl-- she suffers heavy consequences.

Both films are essentially the same in plot, but where the '34 version is more poetic and sentimental the latter version is overly melodramatic but bold. In both, the white matriarch encounters the black matriarch by accident, and as they are both mothers struggling along, Bea/Lora gives Delilah/Annie a job as, basically, her housekeeper. The most obvious difference in the films occurs through the Bea/Lora character, who in '34 is a widow who essentially bogarts Delilah's pancake recipe to start a restaurant and later a thriving pancake mix enterprise. Of course, as she is a tolerant, open-minded individual, she considers Delilah an equal partner, but when she offers Delilah her financial freedom, the latter doesn't want it: "Please don't send me away..." It is the contemporary equivalent of the "happy slave"-- after being freed from imprisonment, the convict is far too unaccustomed to life on the outside, and thus opts to remain incarcerated. The two women get along well, are "friends," though from time to time it is obvious that Bea enjoys mocking Delilah's lesser intelligence. Though this is seemingly the epitome of a romanticized, segregated, separate-but-equal existence, the distinction between the two women in levels of "class" is brilliantly observed when they go off to bed: Bea climbs the spiral staircase to her glamorous bungalow, while Delilah descends the steps to her simple room in the basement. With Louise Beavers giving the character of Delilah light touches of comedy and innocence, and Claudette bringing her equal emotive skills to the table, both women remain likable despite the itchy subject matter. The one character who isn't fooled is Peola (Fredi Washington, a genuinely light-skinned African American woman), who clearly recognizes the difference between her mother and Bea and soon enough decides that she too wants to be white. And why wouldn't she? Who wouldn't prefer wearing elegant gowns and throwing hot-to-trot soirees to massaging the boss's feet? (The "happy" family, left).

Equally, Sarah Jane in the '59 version (Susan Kohner) recognizes her limited life choices as a black girl. In this version, white heroine Lora Meredith is a much more determined albeit conscientious character. As much as she loves her daughter Susie or the wooing Steve, she wants to be an actress most of all and nothing is going to stop her. The severity and danger of Lana Turner works perfectly in the role, who is clearly crawling out of some hole that she refuses to ever re-enter (unlike Colbert, who was simply a single mother trying to survive the depression). Glamour matters, fame matters, money matters-- thus, in this film, it is clearer that Lora too is engaging in an "imitation of life," one that the magazines have taught her is the truth. Sarah Jane has apparently been reading the same articles and looking at the same pictures-- all with smiling, white faces. Her mother, Annie, is not offered an independent way up in the world, as Delilah was in '34, but instead is put to work for Lora with no argument or other ambition. In both films, it is the black matriarch who is not playing games, who embraces her true position in life and does not try to combat it. Yet, the performance of Juanita Moore as Annie in '59 makes this character much more believable and integrous. Her warmth and honesty make daughter Sarah Jane's treatment of her all the more painful to witness, especially as she is the pure, moral compass of the story. While one can fault her for not pushing for a better life, she is too smart, too savvy, and too full of character to make such an error. She accepts who she is, her color, and her heritage, and when SJ tries to reject these same things, Annie tells her plainly and sternly, "It's a sin to be ashamed of what you are." SJ, of course, won't have it. (Annie tries to reason with Sarah Jane, right).

In both films, the black daughter has no qualms about expressing her disdain for her race nor resenting her mother for it. Out in the world, she easily passes for a white girl, and she can tell the difference in the way that she is treated. She ignores her mother when she comes to see her at school, so the other children will not know that she is truly black. When the truth comes out, she becomes hostile and flees. As she ages, her antipathy only increases. In '34, she runs away from school-- "one of those nice, black, southern schools"-- to get a job as a white girl at a restaurant. Where '59 has an edge on '34 is in how far it takes Sarah Jane's own attempts to escape her racial shackles. As a child, SJ doesn't want to play with the black doll, she wants to play with the white doll. As a teen, her rebellion becomes more intense. While Lora and her mother get along, she's no fool. She knows that Lora, while supporting Annie, too looks down on her-- a point made when Lora shows surprise that Annie has other friends, and thus another life outside her employ. SJ shows her contempt for Lora's feigned liberalism by mimicking a black servant in one particular scene, leaving Lora appalled and embarrassed. Whereas Peola's outside confrontations are merely implied, we clearly witness the tension of Sarah Jane as she permeates the wall between the black and white races. This most blatant example is that SJ starts dating a white boy, whom she intends to run away with and marry. In the most powerful and shocking scene of the film, she is confronted by her young lover, who mercilessly beats her when he discovers that she is "a nigger." Sarah Jane runs away, using sex as her only weapon of defense, and takes jobs as a showgirl at various clubs (left). If she can seduce a white man and get a ring, perhaps she can at last achieve salvation; at the very least, as a sexual being, she can garner as much attention as a white girl. In both stories, the Peola/SJ character finally breaks from her mother, who in the end dies of a broken heart. The black daughter is thus left to carry the guilt of her neglect and the personal shame of abandoning her roots. The white mother-daughter pairs, on the other hand, learn from these tragic mistakes and are able to avoid them, walking off into the distance untouched by such injustice.

While Peola/Sarah Jane may at first seem atrocious to audiences, her fury at her enforced situation is incredibly telling of current societal pressures, especially through Kohner's performance in '59. Her Sarah Jane is sadistic, masochistic, and brimming with rage. Yet, her character gains sympathy in her occasional softness with her mother, under whose gaze she finds it difficult to froth. Her desperation to run away with her boyfriend too engenders affection-- she so much wants to live the white, picket fence fantasy that she is willing to commit the biggest white lie to do so. To some, she appears an ingrate-- living in the Meredith family palace with her mother, Lora, and Susie-- who is her friend. But the naive bliss of Susie paints a stark (annoying) contrast to her own life, which is always one step below. Everyone tries to pretend that the two girls are the same, but they're not. They're different, just as Julie and Magnolia were not the same in Show Boat. The protective fortress of Lora's home is nothing compared to the cold outdoors. Why would SJ not want to carry the fantasy further? The audience has to forgive her for trying. Yet, she cannot be forgiven for denying her roots and turning a cold shoulder on her mother, (Peola turns on Delilah, right). In the rat race of life, all one has is one's kin, one's people, one's blood. The Delilah/Annie character bore all the burdens of a subordinate life to give her daughter a slightly better one, only to be shunned for her sacrifice-- the ultimate degradation for a mother. The black mother figure accepted the slow progression of life; the black daughter tried to jump too many hurdles into the future. She suffers the loss of her mother as a result-- the only person who truly loved her for who and what she was.

~   ~   ~

The most groundbreaking offering to this limited genre comes from none other than Elia Kazan. Elia was was known for his envelope-pushing films, especially in the opportunities they gave to actors. Each of his offerings seemed to crank the wheel of human progress a bit further, simply because he directed films with human honesty. No social issue, no dark crevice of the human soul was out of bounds. Under his guiding force, the female sex particularly had more of a voice with better roles and more compelling stories. Thus, it was no surprise when he was placed at the helm of Pinky in 1949 to tell the story of a biracial woman whose southern homecoming forces her to definitively choose an identity-- black or white. Starring in the film is Jeanne Crain-- everyone's favorite apple blossom girl with grit-- who is about as far from black as one can get. Again, Lena Horne would be dismissed as a leading lady, as would Dorothy Dandridge. Another possibility was Linda Darnell-- herself a half-breed of sorts, as she carried within her Cherokee blood. But, due to the usual studio stipulations and societal prejudices, Jeanne snagged the role. It is at least a testament to her that she was able to handle it with such grace and conviction.

"Pinky" is a young woman who has been away at college in the north studying to be a nurse. While there, she has been passing for white and too has fallen in love with a white doctor who knows nothing about her contaminated heritage. Her grandmother, Dicey-- played by Ethel Waters (with Jeanne, right)-- fills out the role of the moral compass of an earlier generation, one who holds onto the integrity of her roots while bearing the burden of a life that was bereft of even fewer opportunities than Pinky has been afforded. Elia Kazan paints vivid pictures of the stark difference between living life as a young, beautiful white girl and a young, beautiful black girl in various scenes, such as one in which the police interfere in an altercation between Pinky and a "colored" woman. At first, the officers are on the innocent, harassed Pinky's side, until they learns that she is actually half-black, and thus all-black, at which point they quickly turn on both parties. Pinky, though torn between her love of her grandmother, respect for herself, and disgust of the bigoted white race, cannot wait to return to the north and resume her life as a white woman. But cutting ties with her true self is not as easy as that, especially after she befriends and takes care of the ailing, wealthy Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). Em leaves Pinky a hefty inheritance when she passes on, and immediately the town interjects, thinking it-- I suppose-- unconstitutional that a woman of color be given such a privilege when the money should go to Em's family-- family that had no care for the dying woman when she was alive. A court case ensues in which-- much to her surprise-- Pinky triumphs and receives the inheritance. Her fiance asks her to return with him to the north where they can go on pretending that Pinky is a wholesome, Caucasian girl, but Pinky refuses. She decides to stay and turn Miss Em's home into a clinic and black nursery school. She embraces her roots-- the antithesis to Peola's decision-- and makes a life for herself as her true self.

Pinky defends the right to her inheritance (in the arms of her white lover) in 
this lobby card.

In this film, we see an atypical success on all counts of the biracial woman. Just as Julie in Show Boat, Pinky at first wants to escape the constraints of her skin color and "live the dream," as it were-- the white dream. Like Peola, she wants to ignore her roots and pass as a white woman to do so. However, she finds a success that these two women did not. The end cases for both Peola and Julie were negative in that, despite their comeuppances and martyrdoms, they always maintained the bitter pill of guilt for their choices. They rebelled only to be struck down and forced to live with regret. Why? Because they denied half of their identities. Julie did not try to deny her blackness so much as she tried to ignore it. When she was severely reminded, she went about punishing herself, and never again tried to push for a better life.  Peola completely rejects her blackness so that she may live this self same hypothetical life of privilege and too is castigated. Pinky may begin with the same intention, resenting her mixed race-- or at least half of it-- but in the end she comes to an acceptance of self that elevates her from a place of shame and remorse. She refuses to live a lie with the man she loves, and thus embraces the roots that society tells her she should shun-- the fatal error that Peola committed. Yet, she refuses to live as a victim to this, the fatal error that Julie committed. Instead, she becomes an entrepreneur, starting her own school, running her own business, and thriving in a society the way a white woman could-- Hell, the way a white man could! She will not be shackled by racism nor any of man's bigoted laws. She marries her pride in her African roots with the benefits that a full white woman of the time was expected to enjoy, and in truth she does better. She succeeds because she possesses no self-denial.

What makes this last film an even greater historical success is that this mixed race character is the main character. She is not the sad, supporting character that the leading lady is meant to learn lessons from. There is no angelic white girl to contrast with or dominate her. She is the one learning lessons, she is the one triumphing under adversity, she is the one on whom the entire pendulum of the plot swings. While it is true that she suffers under the weight of her race, while she must sacrifice true love and thus not emerge an outright winner as a white female character may have, her abandonment of love is not necessarily a loss in that her love was not real to begin with. It was based on a lie and a denial of her true self. Thus, in letting go of her white lover, she is able to live free and clean with dignity. Her strength is her gain. What is interesting is that, despite the fact that this film was made prior to the '51 versions of Show Boat and the '59 version of Imitation of Life, these latter films should still be made, taking a step backward after Kazan made such a great step forward. Though, I suppose this can be attributed merely to the fact that they were remakes. Yet, Hollywood would have to wait such a long time after this comparatively early contribution to see such another leap from cinematic prejudice-- one step forward and two steps back.

In Saratoga Trunk, Ingrid Bergman plays the biracial daughter of a white, Creole 
aristocrat and a light-skinned "woman of color" who returns to New Orleans 
to enact some vengeance... and make love to Gary Cooper.

What can be said of the white-woman-in-a-black-woman's-role scenario is complicated to say the least. While these films have solid messages and great performances, the unorthodox or rather ignorant casting remains a strike against them. However, when placed firmly within their own distinctive timelines, they make more sense. In the history of America, we may like to believe that the swift hand of justice can come slamming down and shake the world up so violently that rightness may finally have its way... but this is not the truth, is it? Monumental change is only ever effected in baby steps, and so these films, by being plopped into the human pool, enacted a ripple effect that would in turn engage further human discussion and brotherly comprehension. This is what makes the medium of cinema so great, particularly in a world heavily populated by visual learners. You can tell man "how the other half lives," for example, but until he sees it with his own eyes, he won't get it. What he sees, he shall believe. It takes a long time for human beings to wear down a path into a road; a long time for these various roads to meet each other and connect us all on our various quests. So, these films, as prejudiced as they may be in retrospect, were still solid, firm footprints in the dirt, leading a way to understanding that the writers, directors, and actors could only hope the rest of society would follow and, hopefully, improve upon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: Art Imitating LIfe

Linda Darnell's too good to be true life story was the inspiration 
for one of her biggest films.

I have referenced multiple times in the past the fascinating mirror effect of reality and fiction. One such article, The Blurring of Violence, dealt with the way life has appeared at times to imitate art-- or at least claim to. Today's turn will examine the way art has imitated life in the movies, or more particularly how it has directly imitated the lives of its stars. Of course, there are a string of biopics about our celebrity favorites, from the Good, to the Grand, to the Ugly, (aka Man of a Thousand Faces, Chaplin, and Harlow), but while these direct tributes of celebrity life are fascinating-- a movie about a movie star making movies-- there too are examples wherein filmdom more indirectly borrows stories from stars' lives to spice up their scripts. Here are some occurrences when art has imitated the lives of its artists:

Linda Darnell's rise to fame and celebrity stature was just the sort of Cinderella story that made Hollywood the dream town of youths all over the nation. While "overnight success" is not really achieved overnight, the hard work and persistence that Linda put into her dream would pay off suddenly and shockingly to the 15-year-old when she signed with Twentieth-Century Fox in 1939. Suddenly, a switch was flipped-- Monetta Darnell was off, and Linda Darnell was on. After her breakthrough roles in Hotel for Women and Daytime Wife, Darryl F. Zanuck and company decided to capitalize off Linda's sudden appeal and "road to super-stardom" story. Thus, by the age of sixteen, a script was already being penned for the new starlet by Jessie and Ivan Kahn about her up-to-now life story... sort of. While the film did tell the tale of a small town girl turned movie gem, the old Hollywood spit and polish made things much more palatable to a glamour loving public, thus Linda's eccentric mother Pearl, for example, was not included in the plot. However, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star-- as it was originally titled-- did include some facts in its fictions. When Linda first came to Fox, she rode on the train with two fellow discoveries: Dorris Bowden and Mary Healy. In the film, later titled Star Dust, these two supporting characters were rolled into one, and Mary herself took on the role of "Mary Andrews." In the film, Mary's character was made to be a flop in pictures who finds happiness in the real world. This made Linda's light shine a little brighter as character Carolyn-- one of the few lucky, "chosen" ones. (This plot point was somewhat premonitory in that Mary's career never did take off like Linda's, and she made few feature films). Director Walter Lang also replicated Linda's original Fox screen test of "Two Nuts on a Sidewalk," even using her same wardrobe, though Linda admitted that the fake test was better than her original one. John Payne was added into the mix as another movie hopeful and love interest-- with a constantly broken nose-- to give the film a little romance, though Linda had no such beau upon her Hollywood arrival. Strangely enough, she was falling for cinematographer Pev Marley behind the scenes on this project. When the film premiered, Linda's name was above the title, with Fox declaring that Linda was a star before she'd had any real time to prove her mettle. In a little twist of life imitating art, Linda would immortalize her hand prints outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre after the film's premiere on March 18, 1940, just as her character had at the end of Star Dust. For one so young, it was totally unprecedented and a living dream come true. (Ironically, the movie that declared Linda a star was the same one she watched the night she suffered the fire that claimed her life. Linda is with Mary Healy and John Payne, left).

Katharine Hepburn (right) was superbly represented by another Kate, Cate Blanchett, in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator in 2004, but Kate actually brought a little of her true life to the screen over 60 years prior in the film Stage Door. When still a struggling thespian, Kate had performed in the play "The Lake" in the early '30s. It was a critical disaster that resulted in one of her most scathing reviews a la illustrious drama critic Dorothy Parker: "Hepburn ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." The negative reviews were certainly devastating to the young actress, who took her work very seriously. Having had previous raves for "The Warrior's Husband," the sudden change in mood was hard to swallow, especially since "The Lake" was basically her Broadway debut. Director/Producer Jed Harris was little help, having pushed her in his direction against her natural instincts, thus instigating a flawed performance. He too blamed her for the play's failure. As per usual, Kate took the lumps and pressed on chin up. Fast forward 4 years to Kate accepting the role of the socially oblivious but goodhearted actress Terry Randall in Stage Door. Kate would poke a little fun at herself, and perhaps at Dorothy as well, during an important plot point. Having snagged a role in "Enchanted April" from another actress, Terry finds herself underwhelming in her performance and unable to deliver the following lines with conviction: "The calla lillies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower. I carried them on my wedding day. And now I place them there, in memory of someone who is dead." These were actually the self same lines that she delivered on stage in "The Lake!" However, in Stage Door, as in her life, she was able to prove herself. After learning that the actress she had inadvertently wronged had killed herself, her performance in "Enchanted April" became jaw-droppingly honest and poignant. Terry could act after all! So could Hepburn. In later years, Dorothy Parker would recant her earlier assessment, saying that she believed Hepburn to be one of the finest actresses in the biz and that her original, infamous quotation had been a "joke." Good recovery, Dot. (Use of the play "Enchanted April" was another inside joke, as a film of that name had been an RKO failure a couple of years prior.)

Kate's co-star in Stage Door, Ginger Rogers, also indulged in a little game of live and tell. After Ginger won the "Texas State Charleston Competition" at the tender age of fourteen, she and her mother, Lela, rode across the enormous state in a continuing performance circuit. Immediately after this, she began an engagement working with bandleader Henry Santrey, which meant that she and Lela would continue traveling all over the United States. Needless to say, there were a lot of train rides. Because the dough needed to maintain one's career-- affording hotels, wardrobe, and food-- often made the cost of living higher than the rate of pay, the dynamic duo had to find ways to cut corners and save cash. One way was train fare. Mother and daughter came up with a scheme pretty early to have Ginger pretend to be two years younger, making herself twelve and thus eligible for child rates. To complete the illusion, along with her acting skills, Ginger carried a large Egyptian doll named "Freakus" around to both cover her face and make herself appear physically smaller. The plot worked like a charm until, fortunately, Ginger got far enough in her career to afford lawfulness and avoid a life of little white cons. However, she got a pleasant surprise when Billy Wilder sent her the script for The Major and the Minor, since Ginger's character pulls the exact same stunt as in her youth: she pretends to be a child in order to afford cheaper train fare only to find herself trapped in the illusion after meeting the handsome Ray Milland. Freakus, however, was substituted with a balloon (see left). Though feigning an eighteen year age difference was more difficult than a mere two year one, Ginger still pulled off the feat flawlessly. If it ain't broke... don't grow up.

Hollywood storytelling is not always a laugh, as our continuing subscriptions to rag-mags and website tell-alls can attest. The poster boy for movie star breakdowns in 1923 was America's favorite playboy, Wallace Reid (right). Having just lost his battle with morphine addiction, Wallace was cremated and put to rest at Glendale Forest Lawn cemetery, but his memory and untimely passing remained quite palpable in the public. His sad end would inspire a film, spearheaded by his grieving widow Dorothy (Davenport), about the devastating effects of drug abuse on family. Left alone with two young children, Wally Jr. and Betty, Dorothy became totally devoted to educating the nation about drug use. She equally wanted to finance a hospital in her husband's name that would care for addicts seeking mental and physical redemption. Wally's mother, Bertha, was opposed to the idea, not wanting her son to be remembered for the way he died, but Dorothy was adamant. She joined up with Harold Lloyd in forming the "Anti-Narcotics League of Los Angeles," which she too hoped to finance with profits from the movie, which was originally titled The Living Dead

Compiling a screenplay with C. Gardner Sullivan and signing on friend Elinor Ince as a producer (wife of Thomas), the movie got underway with the acting talents of luminaries such as James Kirkwood, Bessie Love (shooting up, left), and Dorothy herself. Jesse Lasky and the boys at Paramount had no hand in the film, which is perhaps emblematic of their guilt-- they were at least partially responsible for Wallace's dependence on morphine. Despite all of the intention, the plot was a bit over-dramatic and convoluted, involving the corruption of a taxi driver who becomes a substance abuser and, thereafter, a thief to support his habit. He then inexplicably pulls his lawyer down into the bowels of addiction with him, and the families of both men suffer as a result. However, while the lawyer finds absolution, the taxi driver does not and is killed in the end. The film was imperfect, but few critics would throw stones knowing that it was a legacy of love for Dorothy and a commemoration of one of their favorite, fallen soldiers. Some did argue that Dorothy was simply trying to profit off Wally's name-- in the film's opening she had credited herself as "Mrs.Wallace Reid"-- but with two kids to feed, who could blame her? Ironically, while the film was meant to save lives, it nearly ended two. Actors Harry Northrup and George Hackathrone were nearly killed in a collision when they had to jump from a car before being hit by a speeding train, (Oh, the days before special effects). While the end product of Human Wreckage had little to do with Wallace's life, it was a testament to what he had suffered and was notorious for its honest depiction of drug use, down to the painful realizations of withdrawal. If the story was able to save even one life, Wally certainly would have been proud.

Norman Maine (Fredric March) tries to balance his love of his wife, Vicki Lester (Janet Gaynor), 
with his jealousy over her career, as Adolphe Menjou looks on in 1937's A Star is Born.

There has been a great amount of controversy surrounding the back story of A Star is Born, a film that has been made thrice ('37, '54, and '76). The plot varies little between the different versions and involves-- similarly to Star Dust-- the meteoric rise of a young ingenue in the film business, as her lover/tutor/husband's career crashes and burns. The character of "Vicki Lester" is coached into her career by fading idol "Norman Maine," whose decent into alcoholism in response to his jealousy over his new wife's career leads him to suicide. Even today, rumors abound in Hollywood, but just who the true source of this tragic tale is remains a hot debate. Many pinpoint MGM's silent leading man, John Gilbert (right), as the inspiration for Norman Maine's tragic hero. This is somewhat understandable when one compares the downward slide of Gilbert's career with that of Maine's--  in addition to his unfortunate taste for alcohol. However, many differences suggest otherwise. Gilbert was much more a victim in reality, whereas on screen the Norman Maine character is pretty much assumed the culprit of his own downward spiral-- a mixture of changing audience tastes, his addiction, and self-loathing. Some too may draw comparisons between the relationship of Norman and Vicki and Gilbert and Garbo, but Gilbert's kind guidance of Greta during her early studio days is vastly different from Maine's complete metamorphosis of and public campaign for Vicki in the film. Too, Gilbert did not commit suicide but suffered a heart attack, so the two characters there also have a divide. Yet, the method of Maine's self-annihilation-- drowning himself in the ocean-- does bring to mind a story as told by Marion Davies. Apparently, John-- who would occasionally fall into bouts of despair-- once fell under the spell of his own melancholia while at one of Marion's beach parties. Dramatically and drunkenly, he declared to all within ear shot that he was determined to kill himself. Some onlookers called his bluff and dared him to drown himself in the ocean. In defiance, Jack dove headfirst into the waves. A worried Marion called after him to stop, but the less sensitive wisecrackers assured her that Jack would not complete the task. When he was indeed washed back ashore not much later, he began weeping at his own cowardice to the jeers of onlookers. Marion's heart went out to her deeply disturbed friend, and she balled the jesters out. Since John's life is still causing inspiration, as seen in the latest The Artist, it is possible that A Star is Born also absorbed some of his tragic tale. 

But these likenesses between John and Norman are not the only bases for the film. Another popular lovers' feud often referred to with Star is that between Barbara Stanwyck and her first husband Frank Fay (together left). Babs was a struggling young actress of twenty-one when she married 36-year-old vaudeville comedian Fay in 1928. Under the more popular entertainer's protection and guidance, Babs was able to kick-start her own career and soon had movie offers. This story alone has spawned rumors, including those that allege the marriage was one of appearance only. There is argument that both Barbara and Frank were homosexuals who wed to cover their sexual preferences and protect their careers. However, if this was the case, it makes the situation that followed somewhat nonsensical. Almost immediately after the nuptials, the young bride went to Hollywood where she began working at United Artists, while funny man Fay continued on the road. Eventually, he made the move to Hollywood and was signed at Warners, but he failed to catch on with movie audiences like his wife had. This led to envious arguments that often turned physical. Friend and neighbor Joan Crawford was witness to more than one brawl. Allegedly, Frank wanted Barbara to give up her career and join him on the road when his contract was canceled in 1931, but she refused. After the duo adopted son Dion, Fay's drinking only increased.  The battling couple was a well-guarded secret in the press, but the bruises that Babs often sported were common knowledge around town. When an inebriated Fay threw son Dion into the family pool, Babs decided enough was enough and pulled to plug. They finally were divorced in 1935. Barbara would go on to become one of the most beloved and acclaimed actresses of her generation, and Fay's name would slowly disappear from the limelight. The sadistic nature of the relationship-- with the male as the dominating force-- could well have been one more bone in the spine of the Star story, especially as the inverted careers of the man and wife were the same as in the film.

Yet, there is even another story that could have served as source material: that of everyone's favorite flapper, Colleen Moore and producer husband John McCormick (together right). Colleen was an old-fashioned but ambitious young woman when she decided that acting was "the thing" for her. However, even as a youth, she was business savvy, and she understood that her atypical looks and somewhat boyish figure did not make her the symbol of female eroticism the guys usually went for. Still, there was something about her--including the fact that her eyes were two different colors--that caught the attention of John, who met her one night when the duo went dancing with Mickey Neilan and Blanche Sweet at the Sunset Inn. Not used to flattery and a wise little thing herself, the cynical Colleen merely raised an eyebrow when John asked her to marry him after three measly dances. But, before she knew it, she was head over heels as well, and the two were wed a mere day before her birthday. At first, life seemed grand. With John's support and her own ambitious spirit, Colleen's career started gaining steam, but as in the case of Babs and Frank, John's jealousy of her rising star and taste for alcohol impaired what had at first seemed a match made in heaven. Colleen kept the facts of her personal misery a secret for many years, never being one for gossip, but she did finally unleash the truth. John had been physically abusive, once nearly throwing her out a window, and finally-- when she told him she was going to leave him-- nearly choking her to death. His angry words, "You can't leave me. You're nothing without me! I made you a star!" would echo in her ears for years to come... and quite possibly in the script of Star

Mrs. Norman Maine ( Judy Garland) takes a hit from her alcoholic husband 
(James Mason) in 1954's A Star is Born.

One particular factor that ties the factual and fictitious versions together is a phone call that Colleen made while still married to John. At the time, Colleen's career was thriving, but she received word that her husband was about to be fired from their home studio. Though the marriage was troubled, Colleen was loyal. She called up top dog Richard Rowland and stated loud and clear, "This is Mrs. John McCormick. I just called to say 'hello." The message apparently was heard, and John's job was temporarily saved. The marriage was not, and Colleen finally left John and never looked back. History did, for in A Star is Born, the famous ending line uttered by the grieving widow/superstar, which she delivers to fans, is: "Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine." (Strangely, this is not dissimilar from Dorothy Reid's credit as Mrs. Wallace Reid in Human Wreckage...). Whether the tragic romance of Vicki Lester and Norman Maine was based in part on one or all of these tales is still uncertain. It is quite possible that the age old battle of the sexes and the conflicts that arise when gender roles are eclipsed (in her case) or failed (in his) are enough of a starting point for any good screenwriter. In any case, the elastic nature of the silver screen continues to give and take with its stories and its stars, giving audiences a little truth mixed with the fiction. As long as the material is good, the pond from which writers reel in ideas doesn't matter. Keep 'em comin'.

(A friend just tipped me off to the story of John Bowers as well, who may very well have been a significant source in the A Star is Born story).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

STAR OF THE MONTH: Linda Darnell

Linda Darnell: the "Glory Girl."

Linda Darnell was just a regular girl from Texas, but most importantly, she was just a girl. Scooped up by Twentieth-Century Fox when she was just 15-years-old, her adolescent, romanticizing mind would become both awestruck at her good fortune and dumbfounded at the illusion it turned out to be. Her dream-come-true turned out to be a malfunctioning nightmare that clipped her young life short after robbing her of her youthful innocence. Linda Darnell was a beautiful, fresh creature forced into an environment that didn't suit her naivete nor cater to her vulnerabilities. Like a tortoise without a shell, she would come to seek refuge where she could find it: in her work, in her dreams, in alcohol, in denial... But nothing could protect her from her own violent fate-- when the living Hell of her life and torment came to claim her, suffocating forever the little girl hopes that had promised a castle in the sky and brought her instead face to face with the Big Bad Wolf. But shed no tears for this casualty: she was a tougher cookie than you think...

How is it that we all start out on the same end of this yellow brick road, but wind up in different places? A great many on their travels decide to turn around, for "there's no place like home." Others get lost in the seductive poppy fields; others' routes are cut short by their own personal wicked witch. Very few make it to the Emerald City. Linda was one of those who thought she had arrived only to realize that she had landed somewhere else. The "witch" of her life, as is too often the case, was her mother. Oh, mother... What a complicated relationship. The love and support of good parenting seems to be at the backbone of nearly every success story, while every Hollywood victim seems to be plagued by the lack of it. For every Ginger Rogers there are a dozen like Harlow, Lake, Flynn, Bow, and Gilbert. So it was that Linda by bad fortune was born to Maggie Pearl Brown. This is not to say that Pearl was a wholly bad parent, bereft of maternal instinct, nor that she did not truly love her children. Certainly, the woman had her good qualities. Her flaw, however, was a fatal one in that she projected all of her own dreams and desires onto her daughter Linda's back. What she failed to accomplish for herself, she vowed to vicariously triumph through her second born-- the most beautiful of her children, the most talented, and also the one most like herself. To understand the life of Linda, you have to understand Pearl.

Linda with her mother, Pearl.

Pearl was the daughter of Mary York and Thomas Gaugh Brown. Her father passed on his half-Cherokee blood to his tempestuous daughter, whose restless unruly spirit yearned for an exciting life outside Clifton, TN. A beautiful young woman, she enjoyed and craved attention, but was loathe to settle down in the conventional way and start a home and family like the other girls. Inside her beat the heart of a wild thing, and her "otherness" shirked convention and jumped into the arms of Lawrence Ketroe after her father's untimely passing. At 14, she was married, and soon she had birthed two children: Richard and Evelyn. Larry's ambitions were ill defined, and after the family ran out of cash, Larry ran out on them. Her dreams dashed, Pearl now found herself a lone mother of two living in Texas. But the grief that resulted from her youthful impetuosity was coupled with an iron will. For all her faults, she wanted to provide for her children-- she may be temporarily beaten, but broken she was not. Forced to put Richard and Evelyn in temporary care at an orphanage, Pearl went into a rage when she learned that they had been adopted by new parents and were forever out of her reach. Here, the last tether of tenderness in her heart seemed to snap. Completely alone, Pearl obsessively embraced religion to keep her sanity. Her luck changed when she made the acquaintance of a bashful and soft-spoken postman, Calvin Roy Darnell. Intoxicated by her energy, he married her. The two moved into a modest house in Oak Cliff and had four children together: Undeen, Monetta, Monte, and son Calvin, Jr. (In an ironic twist, Pearl also discovered her two eldest children, Richard and Evelyn, living mere blocks away). At first, Pearl put more focus into pretty, eldest daughter Undeen, hoping that through dancing and elocution classes the younger party could finish what her mother had started. Undeen was not an entertainer, however, and proved both un-gifted and unwilling in the realm of performance. But Monetta, who was born with her mother's same dark, intense features, too seemed to inherit her eager gift for the stage.

Linda at about 14, dressed to the gills for one of her talent shows.

The question remains, did Monetta truly want to become a star, or was she brainwashed from her earliest memories to think that was what she wanted? A natural talent, Monetta's soft beauty and amiable nature made her easy prey for Pearl's ambitions. While Linda would inherit a temper to match her mother's, it was not as intense nor as frequent in its eruption. Monetta was "sweet" and well-liked whereas her mother was erratic, or as son Calvin put it, a "fire-breathing dragon." Monetta did not argue Pearl's wishes, wanting to please her and hoping that in doing so she could earn the love and affection that she had always craved. Monetta was thus crafted into a sensitive soldier: obedient, focused, and constantly stressed. So adamant was she that she had to become a movie star that she never stopped to ask if that was what she truly wanted. She found little time to play with the kids at her school, where she was well-liked but a bit ostracized for her impeccable appearance, far too mature for her years. Most of her time was spent at home, studying, learning piano, performing skits, or cavorting with the multiple animals that were housed with her family: chickens, turtles, rabbits, etc. It was a wild life, indeed. Monetta proved a model student who balanced her good grades with daydreams of stardom. She began performing in talent shows, usually singing "Alice Blue Gown," modeling, dancing, and even performing in some minor theaterical productions. As she was only a young-un when she really started making the rounds, she was coached by Pearl to tell judges that she was older. Despite her self-effacing nature, Monetta could be determined, which is what caught the attention of scout Ivan Kahn. Charmed by Monetta, he was shocked to learn that she was only 14! A screen test was scheduled, and though Fox was interested, Monetta's age posed a problem: too young for an ingenue, too old for child roles.

Linda stars opposite her childhood crush Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro.

Undeterred, Monetta diligently kept in touch with Fox while concurrently landing a short-term contract at RKO for their "Gateway to Hollywood Contest." The competition intrigued Darryl F. Zanuck, who decided that he wanted Monetta at Fox after all, with a couple of stipulations-- she change her name to Linda, and she leave the finagling Pearl behind. By now convinced that this was her own dream and determined to escape Pearl's clutches, the new "Linda Darnell" made no objections and made her big debut in Hotel for Women. Life was good. Living with Undeen in her early Hollywood days, Linda quickly became accustomed to the long hours, publicity gamuts, and the art of film acting. Suddenly, the little Texan girl was being cast in films opposite her crush Tyrone Power: Daytime Wife, Brigham Young, The Mark of Zorro, and Blood and Sand. In most of her early roles, she portrayed the young, virginal figure-- American as apple pie and sweet as candy. Yet, the flash was not enough to alter her sensibilities. Linda did not become a party girl, but preferred to stay at home and read or prep for the next day's work. Still a teen, Linda may have been intoxicated by the freedom-- something that she had never experienced under Pearl's control-- but she was still impressionable and uncertain on her own. Since her parents' marriage was long since one in name only, and Calvin had preferred life outside the home, Linda too was longing for the paternal figure she'd never really had. For this reason, she quickly fell under the spell of the attentive cinematographer, Pev Marley. With a 22 year age difference, few in the community saw it coming when they eloped on April 18, 1943.


Linda shocked fans and critics with her sultry, stunning turn in Summer Storm.

Pev provided the shoulder Linda needed to cry on, the support system that bulked up her confidence, and the sounding board that advised her in her career. Despite this, the marriage was a rocky one. With Linda's insecurity and tender age, arguments and misunderstandings were imminent, and Linda's personal pain was only deepened when she discovered that she could not bear children. The result, adopting daughter Lola, brought some light into her life, but constant threats of divorce and reconciliations made her private life a hazard, especially after she moved her entire family out to California and had to contend with Pearl's jealousy and constant implications of ingratitude. Ironically, Linda's career was soaring. Growing sick of her sweet girl roles, she turned the tables by showing up as grown woman with an edge in films like Summer Storm and her greatest triumph A Letter to Three Wives-- which incidentally ignited a passionate affair between herself and director Joseph L. Manckiewicz. She hoped the hot and heavy film adaptation Forever Amber would be her true star-making turn, but it failed to draw in the expected business. A success it was; a legend of filmmaking it was not. The experience nearly killed her, as she was on a strenuous diet that induced multiple collapses on the set. Her unfortunate crutch during times of woe was the bottle, a habit taught her by her husband. Under the influence, the normally kind and sweet-natured Linda became angry, unmanageable, and filthy of tongue. As her marriage finally crumbled, Linda found herself on her own once again, especially after her contract with Fox was cancelled-- a result of the new-fangled invention known as television that was picking off stars one by one. Suddenly, the phone stopped ringing, parts were few and far between, and Linda was left to face herself for the first time.

Linda's role in A Letter to Three Wives was her favorite and her most 
remembered. Who can forget the line: "What I got don't need beads." 
(With Ann Sothern and Jeanne Crain).

Having grown up on dreams of film and then later on film sets, life outside the movies was unfathomable. Suffering too much too soon, Linda had developed into a lost child of sorts. She was raised as an adult and had matured into a disconcerted infant. Once a star, she was already out of work at 28. Linda took jobs in television and found herself to be a natural actress on the stage-- an experience she found more gratifying than any of her film work-- and she too sought comfort in love, marrying twice more to Phillip Liebmann and Merle Roy Robertson-- both unsuccessful. To cleanse her soul, she devoted herself to charity, opening up "The Girls Town of Italy" and working with "The Kidney Foundation," but it did not salve the pain of her own disintegrating relationship with her daughter Lola nor the pain of discovery that her long time lover's latest film-- The Barefoot Contessa, which Mankiewicz had penned for her-- had gone to Ava Gardner and not herself. Unsuccessfully freelancing, Linda landed roles here and there, but after Zero Hour! in 1957, she would be off the big screen for seven years. Stage roles and nightclub acts became the main sources of her income. After her third marriage collapsed, she tried to commit suicide multiple times via overdose, but was fortunately saved. Her home and belongings were auctioned off, and Linda was right back where she started: nowhere. Linda suffered through a bout of alopecia areata, the death of first husband Pev-- with whom she had remained friendly-- and unemployment, but still she would accept help from no one. She was determined to build herself back up on her own terms, as she had never done before. The process strangely brought her closer to Lola, and friends started seeing the sweet girl that they had always known re-emerging from a cocoon of bitterness and cynicism, which for years had become her only protection.

Fox had hoped the Forever Amber would be the equivalent of Gone with the Wind 
for their studio. While a financial success, it was not a windfall, and it was a 
bitter disappointment for Linda. (With Cornel Wilde).

Life seemed to be turning in the right direction again when Linda was cast in a cameo role in Black Spurs, and she was a hit with the cast and crew-- all who delighted in working with a legend who was as kind and down to earth as they had always imagined. Staying with longtime friend Jeanne Curtis in April of '65, Linda was determined to fix her finances and get back on track. Late on the night of the 8th, she saw that Star Dust, one of her earliest films, was playing on Television. As a lark, the group, including Jeanne's daughter Patty, sat watching the film, then everyone went off to bed-- except for Linda, who as always was suffering from insomnia. Some time in the night, the house caught fire. The three women were able to reach each other, and through the smoke and flames Jeanne managed to get Patty out an upstairs window, but when she turned behind her for Linda, her friend had disappeared. Jeanne made it outside and waited for the appearance of her friend, but Linda's charred body would not emerge until the fire department arrived and barely saved her life. With ninety percent of her body covered in burns, Linda held on for thirty-three hours as friends and well-wishers flooded her room with flowers. At 2:20pm on April 10, 1965, Linda Darnell made her final exit at the age of forty-one. The news was kept from Pearl, who passed on less than a year later.

Linda's beauty was always mixed with a wholesomeness that 
made her castable as the girl-next-door or
 man's most dangerous threat.

A shooting star is here and gone, seen only by a lucky few before it disappears into the dark recesses of space. So too was Linda's short life a "blink and you'll miss it" affair; her stardom a phenomenon so brief that attempting to catch it out of the corner of one's eye is certain to result in a sort of existential whiplash. Too much of Linda's life was built upon a fable-- a dream that stardom would bring her happiness and fulfilment. Hollywood became a religion to her, one she practiced devoutly, until her faith was pulled out from under her by time, circumstance, and perhaps simply the cruel hands of fate. In her later years, though still young years, Linda would for the first time discover herself as a human being, question her desires, and attempt to clean up the mess that a lifetime of delusions had made. Just as she started to embark on her second chance adventure, all hope was snuffed out. Luckily, Linda did not fade away with her last breaths. Her memory is still cherished by those who knew her-- friends like Ann Miller who recall the friendly, old-fashioned girl with a love of animals and a generous spirit. The innocent girl who was tread upon and manipulated by a corrupt business too remains gorgeous and unaltered in the films that gave her the only peace she ever knew. Whether one prefers the doe-eyed Linda or the femme fatale, her films are there to satisfy. With the best of her left on the silver screen, even the savage ending of her life cannot tarnish what we hold dear. As Keats said, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever./ Its loveliness increases; it will never/ Pass into nothingness." And so it is that Linda's "Star Dust" lingers, and we remain mesmerized.