The Many Escapes of Linda Darnell

‘Most stars need a good, sound spanking once a month,’ remarked movie queen Loretta Young to the Hollywood gossip columnist Erskine Johnson in the summer of 1951. Johnson then spent the rest of the interview trying to induce her to name names, while Loretta tactfully dodged the questions. These grew progressively more rococo, from ‘Would you say that Shelley Winters needed a paddling?’ through ‘What about Ava Gardner in the spank-spank line?’ to ‘How does Linda Darnell fit into the hairbrush-poised-over-the-backside picture?’

Well, since the question was asked, how does Linda fit in?

Very well indeed, I’d say.

And at least one newspaper editor seemed to agree when, in 1944, he ran a story headlined:

Linda Darnell Spanked Toward Success in Films

But the truth is that Linda’s place in the history of movie spanking is at best a marginal one: she was never spanked onscreen and didn’t spend her Hollywood career with a hairbrush poised over her bottom like the Sword of Damocles. Yet her story is also one of narrow escapes, several times over, before nemesis finally struck – offscreen!

Linda made her first screen appearance playing a small-town girl in the big city in the Gregory Ratoff-directed comedy, Hotel for Women, based on a story by Elsa Maxwell – the oversized, conservative lady pundit who also appears in the film as a benevolent high-society hostess, weaving through the action dispensing wise counsel. Linda landed the role after the actress whom Twentieth Century-Fox wanted had asked for too high a fee – and that actress happened to be none other than Loretta Young.

The movie was released in August 1939 to great acclaim, by which time Linda was making Day-Time Wife with the same director, playing the title role, who gets back her unfaithful husband by going to work as a secretary for his business rival. Again, she wasn’t the first choice for the part: that was, you guessed it, Loretta Young, who pulled out because she didn’t want to take second billing to Tyrone Power.

But Linda’s success in Hotel for Women led to a rethink of her career. She had been due to appear next as a minor character in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, but that was now considered to be a waste of a rising star. Fox wanted a better vehicle for her, and one was indeed being scripted that fall, to go into production in the spring of 1940. It too was based on a story by Elsa Maxwell, and it too was to be directed by Gregory Ratoff.

In short, the Linda Darnell showcase was going to be Public Deb No. 1, costarring George Murphy…

and featuring a very prominent scene in which…

Putting it another way: not spanked to success but spanked because of it!

And that was Linda’s first lucky escape. In the event, she was cast instead as Tyrone Power’s female lead in Brigham Young: Frontiersman, which was in production at the same time as Public Deb, and the latter’s epic spanking went instead to Brenda Joyce.

Forward now to 1944, and we turn back to that newspaper story, which concerned an incident on the set of the Douglas Sirk movie Summer Storm, in which Linda plays a sexy Russian peasant girl.

The story is often told of how Linda was having trouble with a scene, and a lot of film stock went to waste as the number of takes mounted into the teens. An interesting telling appears in Sam Stagg’s account of Sirk in his book Born to Be Hurt (2009), which includes a section entitled ‘Spanking the Actor’:

Finally Sirk ordered, ‘Everyone take a breather.’ putting his arm around Linda’s shoulder, he said, ‘Now I want you to relax.’ Suddenly, he yanked her across his knee and spanked her hard. ‘Now you go out there and do that scene right!’ The spanking so shocked and infuriated her that she went back on the set and made the scene one of the best in the picture.

There’s a slight authenticity problem with that version of the story that will become apparent if we read how Linda Darnell herself described the event, shortly before the movie was released:

‘That spank hurt and it utterly surprised me. We were doing an important scene in a greenhouse. I couldn’t seem to hit the right mood. We had made about eleven takes and I was getting very weary and stale trying to get the true note into the action. Mr Sirk, whom I regard as a really great director, suspended work. he came over to me and led me off the set. He spoke to me very gently and kindly, put his arm around me sympathetically. His attitude was so nice, understanding, thoughtful as he talked. And then – wham, he hit me an awful crack!

‘I think I must have jumped about three feet, and done a double-take besides. I didn’t know what had happened to me, but it brought me to life and I went into the scene and did it immediately. After that, too, everything just sailed along, and this is one picture on which I am setting much store for the future.’

Add to this Douglas Sirk’s version, also told in 1944:

‘It made my blood boil to see all of Linda’s terrific talent remain buried beneath her repressions, and I could see her and the picture headed for trouble. So, before I knew it, I had grabbed her and administered a few sound swats!’

There are a few minor discrepancies between the two quotes, such as you expect to find in witness statements, the most pertinent of which concerns the number of times he slapped her. But on one point they are in complete agreement: neither of them mentions him putting her across his knee – and she wouldn’t have been able to jump three feet if he had! In short, he didn’t spank Linda; he only smacked her bottom. Stagg’s enjoyable visualization of the scene in OTK terms is a reasonable inference from her imprecise use of the word spank, but it has no basis in reality.

I don’t know whether we should count that as an even narrower escape than Linda had in 1940, since the incident was never a spanking in the strict sense of the word and wasn’t misrepresented as one until decades after her death. But we’ll be on firmer ground if we move forward to 1946, when she finally got to work with John Ford on his version of the O.K. Corral story, My Darling Clementine.

Linda plays the saloon singer Chihuahua, Doc Holliday’s girl, who develops a tense relationship with Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda): their first encounter ends with her slapping his face and him rolling her into a water trough. When Holliday’s former girlfriend Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) arrives in town, Chihuahua becomes jealous and quarrelsome, and the situation comes to a head when Earp comes to Clementine’s room and witnesses Chihuahua’s efforts to force her to go. His reaction is to tell the singer,

‘You want me to take you over my knee and spank you?’

It doesn’t get any further because a plot complication takes over concerning a jewel Chihuahua’s wearing that was stolen when Earp’s brother was murdered, and by the time that’s sorted out, she has been shot – sustaining a wound she later dies from. So her misfortune is the foundation of another lucky escape for Linda Darnell!

So Linda made it all the way through her 1940s screen career without suffering the indignity of being put across anyone’s knee and soundly spanked. Not a major achievement, since one could say the same about many another actress of the period. But even so, there was still a good spanking awaiting her in her future, and it was administered by her third husband, Merle ‘Robby’ Robertson, whom she married in 1957.

This takes us into her years of decline: she began drinking heavily, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1963. It was well into its acrimonious phase by February 1961, when she was performing a variety act at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. The moment is related by her biographer, Ronald L. Davis:

The last night there Linda struck Robby during a squabble in their hotel room, and he turned her over his knee and spanked her.

Her reaction was to try and jump out of the window (Davis doesn’t say which floor they were on), but she was pulled back in and dumped in the shower to cool off.

It’s not a happy story, but at least it means that the Hairbrush – or, more probably, the Hand – of Damocles had finally descended on her rear end. Linda Darnell: spanked at last!

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