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Linda Darnell, The Youngest Leading Lady in Film History

Updated on July 19, 2016

Linda Darnell

Take a look at the woman on the right. She is only 15 years old and she is starring in her first film, Hotel for Women in 1939 with James Ellison who was 29. Are you kidding me? How did this happen? Well, first of all she claimed she was 17 and the studio claimed she was 19. The fact remains that Linda Darnell starred in a film as a leading lady when she was a kid!

Look at the second photo of Linda and Tyrone Power. This is her second film, Day-Time Wife released in November 1939 just one month after her 16th birthday. Therefore, while making the film she was still just 15 and playing the wife of 24 year old Tyrone and yes, there are kissing scenes as illustrated in the third photo. How on earth did the studio get away with this?

Linda was born on October 16, 1923 in Dallas, Texas and attended Sunset High School for a short time. She had been modeling and performing from a very early age and had aspirations of becoming a stage actress. She had a part in Murder in the Cathedral in the Dallas Little Theater when she was only 12 and also worked as a hostess at the Texas Centennial Exposition that same year.

A talent scout came to Big D and noticed Linda when she had just turned 14 and invited her to Hollywood for a screen test. Encouraged by her mom, living vicariously through her daughter, Linda arrived in Hollywood a few months later, but was soon sent home by the studio because she was just too young.

The next year, 20th Century Fox signed Linda to a contract and she moved into an apartment in Hollywood all alone. Here is a 15 year old girl living alone in Hollywood with the world at her feet. Was this young girl mature enough to handle all this without family? Interesting question. Take a look at the fourth photo. She looks very mature to me. This is a photo of Linda at 15. Amazing! I watched her early films and never dreamed she was that young. Life Magazine stated that Linda Darnell appeared to be 22 and was the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood.

Here is Linda at 16 in the 1940 film, Stardust which was released in April of 1940, six months prior to Linda's seventeenth birthday. There are several articles out there that say she is 17 in this film. They did not do their homework and strictly went by the 1940 film date.

In the film, opposite 28 year old John Payne, Linda plays a girl not unlike herself in a familiar storyline that equals her real life story. Payne does an impersonation of real life studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck. This is said to be the story of Linda's beginnings in Hollywood and the attention paid her by the studio head.

In May of 1940, Linda still 16, costarred once again with Tyrone Power in Brigham Young. There had been so much press about the two in their first film together, Day-Time Wife that Zanuck added several more romantic scenes to this film.

Here she is in the huge hit The Mark of Zorro released in the summer of 1940 and again opposite Tyrone Power. She filmed this while still 16 years young and Tyrone was then 25. I remember how much I enjoyed the two together and how wonderful the movie was with its dashing masked man and the lady in waiting all to eager to be his lover. I never once thought this star was a little girl of sixteen. The film received great reviews and secured Linda's stardom.

Again in 1940 while still 16, Linda was paired with Henry Fonda who at the time was 35, old enough to be Linda's father in Chad Hanna. It is simply amazing to me that the censors allowed this. This was linda's first Technicolor film.

This would be the last of her "sweet sixteen" films.

Now, at 17, Linda made another film that would define her career, Blood and Sand in 1941 opposite Tyrone Power for the fourth time and including Rita Hayworth. Again, Linda won critical acclaim for her performance. However, the star began to lose its glow after this film. She was put into lesser quality films and seemed to be spiraling downward. She was constantly passed over for roles that she sought and things were just not going her way.

It was not until 1948, Linda now in her mid 20's, that she made another highly regarded film, 1949's A Letter to Three Wives. She received the best reviews of her career. However, her career would slide once again. She would make one more quality film in 1950 with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier in No Way Out.

Linda was not part of the Hollywood local scene. She thought it was all pretty disgusting. However, she did have a very eventful personal life that was full of men and had its share of husbands. This personal life included drinking alcohol regularly and Linda began to gain weight. Her life was in turmoil and roles were not coming her way.

Finally, she turned to the new media, television and made several appearances on various shows over the next eight years. Meanwhile, her final film was Black Spurs in 1965.

She had a very diverse collection of men in her life such as Mickey Rooney, Jackie Cooper, George Montgomery and Eddie Albert to name a few. She married four times and adopted one child.

On April 9, 1965, a night that the film Stardust was showing on local television, Linda was staying with a former secretary in Glenview, Illinois while preparing for a stage show in Chicago. If you remember, Stardust was the film that did an analogy of her real life. A fire started in the home in the early hours of April 10th. Her friend's daughter jumped to safety from their second floor room. Linda refused to jump and ran downstairs only to find the doorknob far too hot to handle and was burned over ninety percent of her body. She died several hours later.

Linda Darnell, the screen's youngest leading lady, a beautiful and sweet person according to most was gone at just 41.

This video is the full length version of Linda's second film, Day-Time Wife with Tyrone Power. Linda Darnell is 15 years old.

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    • Lizam1 profile image

      Lizam1 4 years ago from Victoria BC

      huh who knew - thanks for writing about this actress. Wonder what she would have done if she had lived. Sad.

    • discovery2020 profile image
      Author

      discovery2020 4 years ago from TEXAS

      Yes, she may have been a great character actor in her later years. Thanks for your comments.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      What an extraordinarily talented young woman. I've just been enjoying some of the movie. Thank you for this lovely hub. Such a tragic ending to an interesting life. Voted up +

    • discovery2020 profile image
      Author

      discovery2020 4 years ago from TEXAS

      Appreciate your comments!

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