Rhonda Fleming: An Appreciation on her 90th Birthday

10 Aug

Rhonda Fleming turns 90 today, August 10, 2013. It gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to someone who is still, happily, with us. Fleming acted regularly from 1943 to 1980, with one more credit in 1990. She was one of the Technicolor Queens of the 1950s, along with two other redheads, Maureen O’Hara and Arlene Dahl (both of whom are also still with us, as of this writing), and she acted in a great run of westerns, crime dramas, globetrotting adventure films, swashbucklers, comedies, and film noir. She was a particular favorite of the Paramount-based Pine-Thomas production team—William H. Pine and William C. Thomas, collectively known as the Dollar Bills because of their skill at squeezing the most production value out of a dollar—and starred in several of their adventure films set in third world countries, with such titles as CROSSWINDS, HONG KONG, TROPIC ZONE, and JIVARO. (O’Hara and Dahl also worked for Pine-Thomas, but not as often as Fleming.) Her co-star in three of these films was Ronald Reagan. She’s particularly good in the Universal costume adventure, YANKEE PASHA (1954), in which she played Yankee pioneer Jeff Chandler’s New England girlfriend who gets kidnapped while on her way to France by Barbary Pirates and sold into Lee J. Cobb’s harem in Tripoli, ca. 1805, and has a catfight with her fellow harem girl, Mamie Van Doren(!). She even co-stars with Dahl in the James M. Cain adaptation, SLIGHTLY SCARLET (1955), giving us two redheaded divas for the price of one, a film I wrote about here on May 28, 2012, on the occasion of the centennial of the film’s male lead, John Payne.

I’m not sure what film I first saw Fleming in, but it would have to have been a television broadcast from the early 1970s like the film noir classic, OUT OF THE PAST (1947), in which she had a key supporting role as the duplicitous Meta Carson, whose job is to lure Robert Mitchum into a murder frameup. In her initial meeting with Mitchum in her San Francisco apartment, in which he’s not quite aware of what’s in store for him, she makes small talk about San Francisco tenements and how quaint and charming they are and he responds, “I grew up in a tenement in New York, only it wasn’t very charming,” a line which got a big laugh when I saw it at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in Manhattan around 1975. Most of the Fleming films I saw were first introduced to me on television, particularly WOR-TV, Channel 9, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after I’d bought my first color TV. I’ve seen her in 24 films made from 1945 to 1960, starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND, in which she had a memorable supporting role as a mental patient (not so subtly coded as a nymphomaniac, if I recall correctly) in the hospital where Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman work, and ending with THE CROWDED SKY, an airplane disaster film that’s 95% melodramatic flashback and 5% airplane catastrophe. (She did mostly television after that.)

Fleming was beautiful, voluptuous, and often quite sexy. She played a number of strong, forthright, proactive characters, but alternated them with craftier but equally proactive femme fatale roles. She was big-boned and moved well, but wasn’t particularly suited for athletic action, so she wasn’t often given swashbuckling female roles like O’Hara. She posed dramatically and gave us powerful closeups. She also danced frequently onscreen, rode a horse and cavorted with animals. One of her more unusual films is the Africa-set comedy-drama, ODONGO (1956), in which she plays a veterinarian who goes to work for a big game hunter who captures animals in Africa for zoos and circuses. I reviewed it on IMDB and here’s a quote about her performance:

The film mixes location scenes of the actors in Africa with shots of them in studio recreations. One unconvincing bit has Rhonda in the studio covering her eyes and ducking as elephants stampede around her in rear projection. Her hair and makeup never even get mussed. Still, she does interact often enough with actual wildlife, including a lame elephant, a rowdy chimpanzee named “Ugly Puss,” and various lion cubs to earn props for the kind of fearlessness that few Technicolor glamour queens of the time would have displayed.

Here’s a still of her from ODONGO:

And the link to my review:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049568/reviews

While I like her in a number of films, I want to write specifically about two of my favorite films of hers, one of which I’ve re-watched within the last four years and one of which I re-watched this morning. In GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957), directed by John Sturges and co-starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Fleming plays a lady gambler named Laura Denbow, who insists on sitting at the men’s card table in a Dodge City saloon until Marshal Earp arrests her against the protest of the mayor. He works out an arrangement with her allowing her to gamble in a private room in the saloon and is soon escorting her around town and taking her out riding. They get engaged and he plans to retire from law enforcement until an urgent cable from his brother Virgil in Tombstone requests his help in routing the Clantons. When he insists he has to go to Tombstone, Denbow breaks off the engagement and he rides off without her, accompanied on the ride to Tombstone, finally, by Doc Holliday.

What’s important here is that the budding romance between Earp and Miss Denbow is between two independent adults who negotiate like grown-ups. She’ll marry him if he agrees to give up being a lawman. They make a deal. Fleming’s Denbow is an equal in every way to Lancaster’s Earp. She even uses a sharp tongue on him when she’s arrested. As she enters the jail cell, she tosses him the coins that she’d won at the gambling table, telling him, “Why don’t you buy yourself a new halo? The one you’re wearing is too tight.”

After he’s gotten the wire from his brother, he tries to persuade Denbow to allow him to first help out in Tombstone before they get married. She protests that he’s not living up to his end of the deal.

Here’s the key exchange from that scene:

“Wyatt, when I first met you I told you I wouldn’t follow you from town to town, sitting in the darkness, waiting for someone to bring the news you’d been killed. I won’t live that way. We’re not gonna start a life together with a gun in your hand.”

“I swear to you, Laura, I’m through after Tombstone.”

“You’ll never be through. Your reputation will follow you wherever you are.”

“But Laura, he’s my brother–”

“And I’m to be your wife.”

“Don’t ask me to let him down.”

“Don’t let me down. I’ll give up anything, I’ll go anywhere for you, I’ll work beside you in the fields, but you’ve got to meet me halfway.”

“I must go to Tombstone.”

“All right, go. Clean up Tombstone. There’s a hundred more Tombstones on the frontier, all waiting for the great Wyatt Earp. Go on! Clean them all up. Go on!”

“I love you, Laura.”

After he’s gotten on his horse and ridden away, safely out of earshot, Laura says, “I love you, Wyatt.”

Which is an interesting reversal of the usual trope in which the lawman hero is reticent to express such emotions. It’s her last scene in the film, which then shifts to Tombstone and the buildup to the title gunfight. (Laura Denbow was an invention of the screenwriter, Leon Uris, and doesn’t appear to be based on any of Earp’s actual relationships.)

JIVARO (1954), which I re-watched this morning, was the last of eight films Fleming made for Pine-Thomas from 1947-1954 and my favorite of the bunch. It’s set in a trading post on an unspecified river in an unspecified South American country (but one presumably close to Jivaro territory) and Fleming plays Alice Parker, an American girl from a wealthy family who comes down seeking her wayward fiancé, who’d taken a job in the region two years earlier and written back letters boasting of the plantation he’d built, while secretly drinking himself into oblivion and pursuing dreams of finding a cache of gold in an elusive site of lost Spanish ruins. Fernando Lamas plays Rio Galdez, a boat captain and owner of the trading post, who frequently trades with the Jivaro headhunters and deals with all sorts of seedy Americans passing through in hopes of striking it rich. When Alice arrives, her fiancé, Jerry Russell (Richard Denning), has already left on another attempt to find the lost city and Rio has to keep a protective eye on her while shielding her from the truth about Jerry. One of the Americans, Tony (Brian Keith), who works a mine in the area, has his eye on Alice and succeeds via a ruse in getting her alone far from the village until Rio shows up to effect a rescue. In several highly-charged scenes, Alice and Rio come closer and closer to acting on their mutual attraction. Eventually, word of Jerry’s possible fate reaches the village and Rio and Alice opt to try to find him themselves to settle the issue conclusively. They head out through the jungle with Tony and his obsequious sidekick (Morgan Farley) and several native helpers to find the legendary “Valley of the Winds,” where Jerry was headed. From then on, it’s one peril after another, culminating in a running battle with the Jivaros.

It’s all done in the style of a men’s pulp adventure of the era, as illustrated in the French poster above. There’s a hint of sex (more than a hint, in fact, in one late scene), lots of smoldering and a general hothouse air of impending danger that keeps things interesting until the real action starts in the film’s half-hour, preceded by a knockdown, dragout brawl between Rio and Tony, something that was in the making from their very first confrontation early in the film. But what strings it all together and gives it a more powerful-than-usual emotional core is the relationship between Rio and Alice. Again, as in GUNFIGHT, we’re dealing with two independent adults who bond and quickly earn each other’s respect. After Rio first picks up Alice as a passenger in the nearest town, they spend two days and one night together alone on his boat and they talk, smoke, drink beer, eat the food he cooks, and get to know each other. She talks about her relationship with Jerry and everything he’s written to her about his “plantation,” while Rio listens and humors her, deliberately avoiding the truth about Jerry. These are charming scenes and the two actors shine in them. There’s even quite an erotic charge as Rio sleeps on deck, stripped to the waist, while Alice stirs in the heat in her little nighty in the cabin below. But the two restrain themselves, behaving like adults, a pattern set for the next several sequences.

Alice is like a fish out of water in this jungle outpost, surrounded by natives who are not far removed from the Jivaros. She encounters jealousy from Jerry’s native mistress, Maroa (well played by Rita Moreno seven years before WEST SIDE STORY), and soon guesses their relationship. It gradually dawns on her that Jerry’s letters were not quite accurate and there really is no plantation. As Rio slowly makes it clear that he has feelings for her, it becomes a matter of urgency to find Jerry or at least determine if he’s survived his quest or not. In the course of the expedition, the band of travelers suffers heavy downpours, a collapsing rope bridge, and attacks by Jivaros. It all culminates in Rio and Alice, armed with rifle and pistol, holing themselves up in a cave with a makeshift wall of rocks providing a barrier against Jivaro spears and arrows. As they wait for the impending attack, they express their feelings, embrace and kiss and…fade out. It’s pretty obvious what goes on during the fadeout.

(L-R: Fernando Lamas, Morgan Farley, Rhonda Fleming, Brian Keith)

Rio is that rare adventure hero in the 1950s who is played by a Latino actor, Argentine-born Lamas (who married Arlene Dahl not long after this film came out). The white Americans he deals with are not the most admirable characters. Two of them are greedy sots, eager to make a quick buck, and show little respect to the natives and to Rio. Jerry, Alice’s fiancé, had evidently had some promise earlier in his life but is a pitiable figure now and Rio is clearly disappointed in him, moreso after meeting Alice.

The film was all shot in Hollywood, either on soundstages or the Paramount backlot, with second unit scenes shot somewhere resembling a South American jungle river and stock shots of jungle wildlife interspersed on a regular basis. It was originally shot in 3-D, although I’m not sure it was ever shown that way. But you can see traces of it in some of the action scenes where characters throw things at the camera. It’s the kind of adventure film that was once a staple of Hollywood, mixing exotic settings, multiethnic casts, problematic racial politics, sex, violence, and high adventure, with actual locations employed when the budget allowed. As the world’s gotten smaller, these films have been harder and harder to pull off, giving way to fact-based dramas torn from recent headlines or farcical comedies set abroad.

I’m a big fan of many other Fleming films, including the low-key, not-quite-noir crime drama, CRY DANGER (1950), with Dick Powell; the Bob Hope comedy, THE GREAT LOVER (1949), in which she invites Hope to her cabin on a cruise ship with the line, “I need you to thread the needle”; INFERNO (1953), a 3-D desert drama in which an injured Robert Ryan is left to fend for himself by his scheming wife (Fleming) and her lover; PONY EXPRESS (1953), which co-stars Charlton Heston as Buffalo Bill and Forrest Tucker as Wild Bill Hickok; Fritz Lang’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956), a sprawling all-star newspaper drama about the hunt for a serial killer; as well as the rest of the Pine-Thomas films, especially TROPIC ZONE (1953), in which she plays an independent banana grower fighting to get her bananas to market in the face of skullduggery by a competitor seeking to monopolize. She recruits Ronald Reagan, as a freelance troubleshooter, to help her. (Years later, as President, Reagan would, in real life, aid the major fruit companies in taking over the small banana growers in Central America and consolidating their domination of the market. Life does not imitate art.)

There are still several Fleming films I haven’t seen, most notably LITTLE EGYPT (1951), in which she played a famous belly dancer, and SERPENT OF THE NILE (1953), in which she played Cleopatra(!) opposite Raymond Burr as Mark Antony(!!). Others I’m eager to see include her very first Technicolor film, ADVENTURE ISLAND (1947), the first of her films for Pine-Thomas; THE GOLDEN HAWK (1952), the only film in which she played a swashbuckling role (as a lady pirate); THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956), a late film noir by Budd Boetticher; and the Italian epics, QUEEN OF BABYLON (1955) and REVOLT OF THE SLAVES (1960).

Finally, here’s a shot of her from my still collection from a film I’ve never been able to identify:

P.S. A helpful comment below informs us that this still is from THE BUSTER KEATON STORY (1957).

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2 Responses to “Rhonda Fleming: An Appreciation on her 90th Birthday”

  1. Jeff September 14, 2013 at 8:21 PM #

    that still that you could never identify. I bet if you email it to her, she’ll identify it for you.

    info@rhondafleming.com

    • Sheila Simpson July 28, 2015 at 11:00 AM #

      The Buster Keaton Story

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