Seventy-four years ago this month, Kathleen Winsor’s 972-page historical novel Forever Amber, a well-detailed and highly sexy novel about a 17th-century courtesan’s rise from an orphaned country girl to a glittering lady of means and manners under the reign of England’s King Charles II, was published. It would go on to be the literary sensation of its decade, selling an eventual three-million copies despite its being condemned for indecency by the Catholic church, banned in 14 states and, despite some erotic badinage in her prose (the heroine Amber St. Clair remarks: “Adultery is not a crime, it’s an amusement.”), Winsor told an interviewer about the book on which she worked five years: “I wrote only two sexy passages, and my publisher took both of them out. They put ellipses instead. In those days, you could solve anything with an ellipse.” Cinematically speaking, the 138-minute film adaptation of Forever Amber (1947), which opened 71 years ago today following large expenditures in money, time, talent, production difficulties and promotional hoopla that outpaced the efforts that forged the book’s success, contained its comparable share of “ellipses” due to its wickedly indelicate subject matter, but audiences made it a popular hit anyway, earning $1.5 million of its eventual $8 million box-office take in its first two weeks of release thanks to its brand appeal, starpower, ravishing Technicolor and hugeness of scale.
At its center was Twentieth Century Fox contract player, the lovely Linda Darnell, installed in the title role after the original choice of British import Peggy Cummins was deemed unsuitable in the part after four months of shooting. There was a change in directors, too, with Leave Her to Heaven (1945) helmer John M. Stahl being removed in favor of the more highly regarded filmmaker Otto Preminger, who’d scored high marks with the essential noir classic Laura (1944) and had guided Darnell to a spot-on performance as a calculating, seductive siren in the thriller Fallen Angel (1945). Converted from brunette to blonde for the character and, in the telling of biographer Ronald L. Davis in his 1991 tome Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, “surrounded by more publicity than she had ever received in her life,” the ambitious actress would face punishing demands, both physical and psychological, that blended into her hectic personal life, which included a sincerely pursued marriage to cinematographer J. Peverell Marley and a flashpoint but ill-fated affair with billionaire studio mogul Howard Hughes. Davis reports: “Most of the top journalists wanted to interview her, and her portrait in Amber’s costumes appeared prominently in all the fan magazines. Esquire artist Alberto Varga painted her in a Grecian gown, while publicists assured the public that ‘Kathleen Winsor herself could scarcely have picked a better person for the intriguing character of Amber than talented Linda Darnell.’ Articles outlined how Linda’s career paralleled Amber’s, coming as they both did from humble backgrounds and working their way up.’ When asked about her relationship with Howard Hughes, Linda refused to comment. Since their separation, she had been seen out with Pev Marley, and she now told reporters that the chief source of their difficulties was that she and her husband didn’t have time for each other because of the demands of her work. With Forever Amber in preparation the studio wasn’t unhappy over her current talk of divorce. Since Linda was to play an immoral character, the last thing the Fox publicity office wanted to have was a star happily married. A slightly bad reputation at the moment could even help out at the box office.” The problem-plagued production took its toll on her health, and even unintentionally put her in mortal danger when its sequence recreating the 1666 Great Fire of London slightly singed her when a soundstage roof unexpectedly caved in. (It would prove to be an eerie premonition of the actress’s 1965 death in a Glenview, IL, fire.)
The Production Code-mandated effects of those durned “ellipses” would blunt any positive critical reaction when the film debuted. Davis comments: “Bosley Crowther found Kathleen Winsor’s ‘remarkable harlot’ considerably cleansed on screen, her lovers reduced in number, and the details of her affairs less boldly told. ‘It doesn’t spare the innuendos,’ The New York Times critic conceded. ‘You have to be awfully innocent not to gather what’s going on…. Certainly a more becoming Amber could hardly be conceived than the firm, luxurious creature that Linda Darnell makes,’ the critic concluded. ‘Costumed in a wealth of brilliant dresses and perilously low-cut gowns and armed to the teeth with makeup, she parades herself in truly sensual style.'” Regrettably, Amber did not catapult Darnell to legendary heights of superstardom, but it did fuel a newfound respect in Hollywood and kept her working in quality movies for several years afterward, like Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and No Way Out (1950), and, again with Preminger, The 13th Letter (1951). Also starring Cornel Wilde, Richard Greene, George Sanders, Glenn Langan, Jessica Tandy, Richard Haydn, Anne Revere, Robert Coote and Leo G. Carroll, Forever Amber remains a diamond in the rough with an enduring fascination. Shot by the great Leon Shamroy and outfitted with a towering, Oscar®-nominated score by David Raksin, Forever Amber shines on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, which features a marvelous Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel documentary that fills in some of the tantalizing ellipses in the life of an underrated movie great.