What is the most upsetting sequence in Gone with the Wind (1939)? There are a lot of dramatic set pieces in that famous movie, but the scene that I immediately flash on is the one where Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is working in a soldier’s hospital and gets caught between a doctor and a patient. “This leg’s gotta come off,” says the doctor, and the wounded soldier sits up in bed and cries, “No, no, leave me alone!” in a thick, throbbing voice. They’re all out of chloroform; the doctor says that they’ll have to operate without it. “No, no, leave me alone!” the soldier cries again, but we don’t see him; his words are played on Leigh’s affronted, almost guilty face. “You can’t do it, I won’t let you do it to me!” says the voice, his words running together. It’s the kind of resonant voice you don’t forget, even if you try very hard, a nagging, deeply unsettled, almost non-human voice, or a voice that is so humanly scared that it ceases to be human.
Scarlett is told that she’s wanted in the operating room. She goes to the door, then stops short. “No, no, leave me alone, no, I can’t stand it!” moans that voice again, as we see the room where the leg is about to come off; the words are stretched like taffy now, several syllables where there should be only one. We see Scarlett’s face, and she looks like she’s about to be sick as we hear the voice cry, “Don’t cut! Don’t cut! DON’T CUT! PLEASE!” That “PLEASE” is pulled so far to pieces that it’s barely a word anymore. Scarlett leaves the hospital. She’s had enough of pain and death, but that soldier’s cries have marked her, like a rape. The voice belonged to Eric Linden, a Swedish-American actor from New York. No one who has seen Gone with the Wind can forget his voice in that scene. We only see him briefly, and he’s wearing a mustache, so audiences of the time might not have recognized him as an actor who had played lead roles in films in the early and mid-thirties.
As a boy, Linden was a newsie on Tenth Avenue. As a young man out of high school, Linden got a contract with the Theatre Guild, playing small roles in some of their most prestigious productions, like Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. In 1931, Linden tested for and got the lead in an RKO movie, a cautionary tale, with story and direction by Wesley Ruggles, called Are These Our Children (no question mark). “You’re makin’ a sissy outta me!” he cries to smothering Grandma Beryl Mercer, and he’s so worried over this incipient sissification that he succumbs to hootch, hot dancing and even murder, cashing in on publicity when he’s on trial, then reciting The Lord’s Prayer before execution.
On screen, Linden is always a high-strung misfit of some kind, a whiner, a patsy, a slacker, a hysteric, and his unsteady presence destabilizes every film he is in. From the right, he could look conventionally good-looking, even cute, but from the left, he was hard to place; his small features didn’t quite add up, and he had a very oddly shaped head. Linden in his first movies is a little like a defective, unfinished version of James Cagney, and in his second film, Young Bride (1932), Linden offers a full-out Cagney imitation, then was cast as Cagney’s brother in Howard Hawks’s The Crowd Roars (1932). Producer David Selznick demoted him to a second lead for Gregory La Cava’s clinical The Age of Consent (1932), another “this is our youth” picture, but that same year, Linden made his three best films in lead roles, two on loan-out to Warner Brothers and one on loan to Universal. All of them are barely known and all of them deserve rediscovery.
In the intense hospital drama Life Begins, he played a nervous father married to convict Loretta Young, sweeping the whole little movie into a spiral of nervous intensity when he has to choose between her life and the life of his unborn child. Big City Blues is an inventively written (by Ward Morehouse) and directed (by Mervyn Leroy) tale of a young innocent from the sticks, played by Linden, who is taken advantage of in every way possible when he reaches Manhattan; it allowed Linden to show some range with his projection of naiveté in all the film’s increasingly fraught situations. Over at Universal, in Afraid to Talk (also known as Merry-Go-Round), Linden is a victim of political corruption, a man seemingly made to take a beating unto death by police for a crime he didn’t commit. In his first scene, Linden undresses in a locker room and the guys around him razz him for wearing boxer shorts with flowers on them: “Well, if it isn’t Mabel!” cracks one of them. In so many of his movies in his brief career, Linden is forced to defend his masculinity from such taunts with a nasal Noo Yawk, “Lay aw-f-f!” It’s as if his films know that something is indeed off about him and gayness is only one of the possibilities.
In 1933, back at RKO, his roles got smaller; he’s barely in an Irene Dunne movie, No Other Woman (her co-star Charles Bickford manages to put him down as unmanly in his first short scene), and he doesn’t get much screen time to make a case for his layabout son to Lionel Barrymore in Sweepings, but he has a nicely rueful moment when his character, who has fallen on hard times, talks about himself to an acquaintance in a bar; the writing is a bit threadbare, but Linden makes it work by delivering this small speech in a slow, exploratory way, like he’s discovering things moment by moment. Linden believed that Selznick didn’t like him, and that could be, for his most striking performance in any movie is also a performance guaranteed to attach a stigma to any actor: he was cast as the hypnotized, effeminate son to Laura Hope Crews’s seemingly unstoppable beast of a mother in The Silver Cord. As Rob, or Robin, Linden spends most of that film being cradled in his mother’s bosom and wondering if he’s “the marrying kind.” In real life, he had dated Frances Dee. In The Silver Cord, he is separated from her by his incestuous mother (“You’re a queer one,” Dee tells him) while his brother Joel McCrea looks on, obliviously. After the finish of shooting, McCrea married Dee.
This humiliation on screen, however well played by Linden as an actor, had its effect on him personally (Katharine Hepburn had turned him down for the role of Laurie in Little Women, which was a hit for the studio, feeling he was wrong for the part, too peculiar, probably). When his RKO contract was up, Linden went away for a while. “I was 23 and felt like 40,” he said later. Post-Code, he was signed to MGM, where he played the lead in an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s rather wholesome Ah, Wilderness! (1935), then had a role in the first Andy Hardy movie with Mickey Rooney, A Family Affair (1937). Linden found some success on stage in London in the lead part in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, and he toured with that play in America, but by 1939, he was reduced to that memorable bit in GWTW (his soldier apparently had a scene with Leigh, but Selznick cut it).
By 1943, Linden fell further to a role in the Grade Z programmer Criminals Within, at the lowest rung of the studio system, PRC, and after that he played on stage some more and served in World War II. By the 1950s, he was a road inspector, then a radio dispatcher. He married, had three children, divorced his wife in 1985, and died in 1994, under the care of one of his kids. Surely he could have played Elisha Cook, Jr. parts in film noirs, and surely he could have been terrific in the horror genre. This is a truncated career, clearly. But Eric Linden made his misgivings felt, both in probably the most famous Hollywood movie of all time and in a series of lesser-known Pre-Code films that deserve some more attention to his Jekyll and Hyde face and his correct assumption that the world is against him. Linden’s mismatched face knows, or guesses, that if a limb needs to come off, there won’t be any chloroform left to dull the pain, but he doesn’t know that no amount of shouting can make any difference.
by Dan Callahan