WEIRDLAND: Linda Darnell: Star Dust

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Linda Darnell: Star Dust

Star Dust (1940) starring Linda Darnell, John Payne, Roland Young, directed by Walter Lang

A very young Linda Darnell is unearthly in her loveliness; always a true beauty, she looks stunning and also gets to play a more innocent type than she would later become known for. John Payne is also strong, surprisingly so; he comes across very well in it. Mary Healy scores with her beautiful voice, and Charlotte Greenwood is a delight as the motherly drama coach. William Gargan also deserves credit for his amusing Zanuck imitation. ~ Craig Butler, Rovi

A somewhat realistic--though not without the usual Hollywood gloss--treatment of a young girls attempt to make it as a star in the motion picture industry. Darnell, in a portrayal not too dissimilar from her own experiences, is given a chance at a contract by talent scout Young. She gets to Hollywood only to be turned down by studio boss Gargan (in an obvious impersonation of Darryl Zanuck), under the pretense of being too young.

Instead of heading back home, she meets and falls in love with Payne who pushes her along until she eventually lands a spot. Darnell injected her assignment with the needed charm to pull it off. Source:

At sixteen Linda was already starring in an autobiographical film, her name alone above the title. Her studio contract had been revised so that she was making $200 a week, with bigger increments on the way. Much of her fame still seemed unreal.

"When I wake up in the morning," she told a columnist, "I keep my eyes closed as long as possible. I'm afraid it will all fly away when I properly awake." They quickly devised a treatment, based not only on Linda's story, but on Dorris Bowdon's and Mary Healy's as well. In the initial draft of Star Dust the girls' first names were even used. Eventually Darryl Zanuck suggested the writers drop Dorris and combine her character with Mary's. Originally everybody in the story wound up happy, but Zanuck felt that didn't ring true.

Mary Healy as Mary Andrews, John Payne as Bud Borden and Linda Darnell as Carolyn Sayres in "Star Dust" (1940) by Walter Lang

"One of the characters, Mary probably, should be a flop in pictures," Zanuck urged, "yet find happiness elsewhere. Only Linda emerges as a hit." Eventually Linda's name was changed in the script to Carolyn, while Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, the working title, was shortened to Star Dust. Shooting on the picture began early in 1940, with Mary Healy playing her own part and John Payne as Linda's love interest.

Lang decided to duplicate Linda's actual screen test in the film. She even wore the same clothes. "I had a little less accent and a little more poise," Linda said. "I think I was dazed when I played the [original] park bench test, but I was almost as scared in the Star Dust one, because by then I knew how much depended on it." Variety found Star Dust entertaining and reported, "Miss Darnell displays a wealth of youthful charm and personality that confirms studio efforts to build her to a draw personality." Ultimately the film received a top B rating, playing not the major houses in most cities, but first-run theaters a notch below.

On March 18, 1940, Linda preserved her hand and footprints in cement in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater, just as she had at the end of her autobiographical film. Eventually her inscription would be surrounded by those of Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, George Burns, and Al Jolson. Later that month she received the first annual "Seein' Stars" award as the most promising actress of the year, a presentation the studio celebrated in grand style.

It's a remarkable indicator of how big a spell Linda Darnell had already cast on the American movie-going consciousness that her third film, Star Dust (1940), was semibiographical. 'Star Dust' is actually based on the early careers of Darnell, Dorris Bowdon, and Mary Healy. Bowdon acted in a handful of films in the late 1930s and early 1940s before retiring to have a family with husband Nunnally Johnson, while Healy acted in more movies and television and also has a part in Star Dust as Mary Andrews, a composite character based on herself and Bowdon.

Darnell, Bowdon and Healy all went to Hollywood after being discovered by talent scouts, but Darnell, who was only thirteen at the time of that initial trip, was told to return when she was older -- which is exactly what happens to her character in this movie. At one point in Star Dust we see a screen test for Darnell's character -- an exact recreation of Darnell's actual, original screen test on a park bench a few years earlier.

The New York Times called Star Dust "unlikely to stem the westward migration of youngsters with hallucinations of swimming pools and a six-figure apotheosis to stardom.... Miss Darnell, in the leading role, is not only well behaved, but one of the more comely starlets. Mr. Payne is refreshing and breezy." Variety called the picture "a top B that will deliver as an A attraction in the majority of spots." After the release of Star Dust, her salary rose to $500 a week.

Late in January 1945, Linda learned her next studio assignment would be Fallen Angel, with the Viennese tyrant Otto Preminger directing. Linda would play Stella, a mercenary waitress eventually killed by a blow on the head. Dana Andrews was cast as the male lead, and Darryl Zanuck coaxed Alice Faye out of retirement to play a dramatic role with no singing. Fallen Angel was the first of four pictures Linda would make with Otto Preminger, whom she learned to dislike intensely. The director had scored a huge success with Laura the year before, but Linda found him stubborn, humorless, terrifying on the set.

She played the tramp with gusto, and almost everyone agreed it was her finest acting yet. "Linda Darnell was the best thing in the picture," said costar Dana Andrews. "The scene I had with her was at least showy." There was even talk of her receiving an Academy Award nomination. David Raksin, who wrote the score, vividly recalled seeing Linda on the set: "My impression was that she was learning her profession as she went along. She had a sexy beauty. There was something lusty about her without any overt attempt to seduce."

Linda's role in A Letter to Three Wives was easily the best of the trio of leads. She had risen in Darryl Zanuck's estimation after Forever Amber, and perhaps for the first time he felt she was a solid gamble in an earthy part.

A Letter to Three Wives was shaping up into a script of quality, which Zanuck was confident would also be good box office. Although Zanuck privately found Joseph Mankiewicz an "arrogant bastard," he had faith in Mankiewicz's genius, both as a writer and as a director. Even in the first draft Lora May, the part Linda played, was viewed as a masterful portrait of a hard-boiled, cynical gold digger with a tender heart.

Linda Darnell, Kirk Douglas and Paul Douglas in "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) directed by Joseph L. Mankiewick

Paired with Linda was veteran radio actor Paul Douglas, making his screen debut after a huge success in Broadway in Born Yesterday. They matched each other scene for scene, with Linda revealing a remarkable sense of comedy. Lora Mays classic line came in response to an older friend's suggestion, "If I was you, I'd show more of what I got. Maybe wear somethin' with beads." Linda replied, "What I got don't need beads." The part quickly became Linda's tour de force.

When A Letter to Three Wives was completed in August, Linda was back at the Amalfi Drive house, although her relationship with Joe Mankiewicz would continue for another six years. She assured Jeanne Curtis and others close to her that he was, and always would be, the great love of her life, referring to him later as her "back street affair." Old enough to be a father figure, dashing enough to be a lover, cultured and intellectual enough to serve as mentor, Mankiewicz represented the perfect combination Linda sought in a man, and she was willing to risk everything. Joseph Mankiewicz never talked about Linda, except to say that he "adored" her and that "she was a marvelous girl with very terrifying personal problems." He had a record of persuading women who fell in love with him that they were in serious need of psychiatric treatment.

"After she got involved with Mankiewicz," director Henry Hathaway recalled, "she became a little exotic. I think he was the one who turned a simple girl into what came damn close to being a neurotic." When 'A Letter to Three Wives' was released early in 1949, it brought Linda the most unanimous acclaim she ever received, providing her with the undisputed triumph 'Forever Amber' failed to deliver.

'Two Flags West' was shot near the San Ildefonso reservation, some fifteen miles northwest of Santa Fe. Linda hated making westerns, particularly since she was allergic to horses. Gradually the crew came to refer to the picture as "Two Fags West," as tempers began to flare. "Cornel is seemingly trying to be halfway decent," Linda wrote, "but I still avoid him as much as possible. Joe Cotten is an awfully stuffed shirt, and a lush to boot, but Jeff Chandler is a dreamboat, good actor, and a real down-to-earth guy."

"She was an excellent cook," said Lola (her adopted daughter). "I think it was something she could do privately that was productive. And Mother hoarded food! I think it came from the days when she was poor growing up." Although Linda would buy her daughter several dresses at a time, she always bought them a size or two too large. "I never had anything that fit," said Lola. "I had to grow into everything. It was just another of Mother's quirks." At an early age Lola was made aware that she was the daughter of an exceptionally beautiful woman whom everyone treated as somebody special.

When 'Second Chance' was released in July, it received favorable notices, with Linda, Robert Mitchum, and Jack Palance all awarded their share of acclaim. Critics agreed that the screenplay was tense and exciting, building to an effective climax. The suspense was brilliantly photographed, and director Rudolph Maté used the cumbersome 3-D process more skillfully than most. There was a spine-tingling fight between Mitchum and Palance on top of the cable car, culminating in Palance's being knocked overboard.

Linda met an American Airlines pilot named Merle Roy Robertson, whom she began dating. A likeable, soft-spoken man, Robby was strikingly different from any of Linda's other offscreen romances. He was handsome, debonair, a giant of a man. "Robby had the body of a Greek Adonis," Dick Curtis assured, "with a very dry way about him. He was the epitome of what a man in the movies should be. He had the women drooling over him." Linda soon became a major conquest. Although she never forgot Joe Mankiewicz, she clearly fell in love with Robby Robertson. "I mean he was a big, grand passion," said Yvonne Wood. "He was a handsome guy and dashing, and she fell for him." Before meeting her he had had an affair with Jayne Mansfield. Suddenly Linda found herself in a romantic involvement like none she had ever experienced. Robby was affectionate, sexually experienced, suavely aggressive.

Before long he asked her to marry him. He had never been married and made Linda feel like a desirable woman. He seemed to love her rather than her image. They had great times together, and Linda even promised him she'd stop drinking, although she never did. "At first theirs was a fun, happy, good marriage," Richard Curtis observed, "but what happened was that Robby was flying all over the country and Linda was doing her stage work, so that they wound up only seeing each other between performances. Then Linda started to go into a deep depressive shell."

''She adored Tyrone," Maria Flores said. "He had been so nice to her. When he died, she was absolutely devastated.'' Around the time of Power's death Linda began sinking into a depression, a mood that deepened over the next seven years. She reached the point where she even disliked Christmas, since the holiday reminded her of her estrangement from her family. Robertson convinced Linda to give up her business manager and let him handle her career. "Honey, you don't have to worry about the bills anymore," he said. "I'm going to take care of everything." They hoped for a television series, but when that fell through, a nightclub act seemed the only solution. Linda knew she couldn't sing anymore, couldn't dance, and was terrified of appearing before an intimate crowd without a play for protection. In February 1961 they were playing a month's engagement at the Drake Hotel in Chicago.

Linda was really hitting the bottle, and she and Robby were fighting viciously. She jumped up, ran to the window, and threw it open. She started to leap, but Tom Hayward grabbed her and pulled her back. By then Linda was hysterical. The two men put her in the shower, with Linda crying, "I want to get away from everybody." They checked her into a hospital for treatment of alcoholism. Linda and Robby legally separated on Valentine's Day 1962. Shortly before moving from Bel Air, Linda met and began dating Philip Kalavros, a Greek doctor. Kalavros did his best to keep Linda from drinking and tried to build her stamina.

"He picked her up when she was in her mentally depressed low end," Richard Curtis claimed. "She couldn't seem to face the position she was in. He was a means of escape for her. I don't think she had the ability to face the reality that she was no longer a power." Linda very likely suffered from cirrhosis, and Kalavros began giving her doses of vitamin B to reverse her liver damage. Linda opened in Houghton Lake, Michigan, to a standing ovation in August 1964. "Mother lit up in front of an audience," said Lola. "It was like turning on a light bulb. She was so beautiful, and her smile was incredible.

Black Spurs was Linda's first picture in seven years, and it would be her last. The actress reported to Paramount Studios for a wardrobe session on September 2, taking Lola and Jeanne and Patty Curtis with her. She would play a New Orleans madam in the picture, a role almost any veteran could have walked through with ease. Linda received third billing after Rory Calhoun and Terry Moore. She loved working before a camera again and all the fun and gags that went with it. Linda finished her part in less than two weeks, and had no delusions about the quality of the film, aware it fell into the "oater" category.

"You know, I never felt accepted in the movie world," the star confessed. "I think that's why I resent my family so. I would never have been an actress if it hadn't been for Mother's insisting. To think I paid a psychiatrist $25,000 trying to work through all that before he finally gave up on me!"

The cause of the fire was never determined. An ash or a lighted cigarette dropped into the living room sofa may have been the culprit, although Linda was always careful with cigarettes, and Jeanne Curtis recalled carrying ashtrays out to the kitchen after the movie and setting them in the sink. Jeanne also denied that Linda had been drinking heavily that evening. They had sipped coffee while they watched Star Dust, something Linda rarely did. Relatives and friends denied categorically that Linda's going into the fire was a subconscious suicide attempt. Jeanne and Dick both claimed their friend was simply afraid to jump from the second-story window and felt she could make it out the front door. -"Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream" (2001) by Ronald L. Davis

"Darnell died in 1965 after a fire broke out in a Chicago area house where she had just been watching Star Dust on television in the middle of the night. The cause of the fire was never determined, though it may have been a stray cigarette. Darnell suffered extreme burns and smoke inhalation and died a few hours later. She was 41. Source:

Known as the "girl with the perfect face," irony followed her. She played the TV character of Dora Gray (female for Dorian Gray) in two episodes of Wagon Train in 1958, and, also ironically, appeared in a 1957 episode of Climax entitled "Trial By Fire." Her last movie was Black Spurs, in 1965. On April 10 of that same year she visited a friend in Chicago who had once been her secretary, and fell asleep while smoking in bed, causing a fire that killed her. For yet more irony, at the time she had been watching a TV rerun of her own film, Star Dust. But although Linda may be gone, cruel fate will not be permitted to have the last laugh. Thanks to DVDs and the internet, her memory will now electronically live forever. Source:

“At first, everything was a fairy tale come true. I stepped into a fabulous land where, overnight, I was a movie star. In the pictures your built up by everyone. On the set, in the publicity office, wherever you go, everyone says your wonderful. It gives you a false sense of security. You waltz through a role, and everywhere you hear that you are beautiful and lovely, a natural-born actress. You believe what people around you say.” -Linda Darnell


  1. I didn't know anything about "Star dust" movie. But Linda Darnell is one of my favourite artist. Cheers.

  2. thanks a lot for stopping by, Marcos! I've always considered Linda an underrated actress and a tragic (in the sense she couldn't cope with Hollywood's pitfalls) beauty. Cheers!

  3. Anonymous7:33 AM

    She was the most beautiful woman alive and she resembled my mother so I loved watching her movies when I was a child.