Tuesday, April 30

Gorgeous: Fleming & Dahl

We've been lingering a bit in my favorite decade, the 50s, and let's continue here with two more dazzling women who marked their territory then.  I call them gorgeous and anyone who is aware of them would surely agree.  They had some things in common besides faces that brightened the earth.  They were both redheads, they were multi-married, they were mainly dramatic actresses who could sing and dance a little and perhaps most interesting is that neither became part of the Hollywood super-structure.  And I've always wondered why that is.  Both were good actresses.  Could no one else see beyond the beauty?   Were they not all that interested in making it really big?  Who could they be?

They are Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl, both of whom, I might add, are alive today.  So those good genes must have been more than surface ones.

It was probably destined that they would one day work together.  It was unlikely that would have occurred when Dahl worked for MGM and Fleming was mainly at Paramount.  But by 1956 both had struck out on their own and wound up playing sisters in RKOs Slightly Scarlet.  It must have been a fun set because they were reunited with John Payne who had been the romantic lead opposite both ladies in numerous movies.  Slightly Scarlet was the story of a kleptomaniac (Dahl) who is remanded to the custody of her sister, a girlfriend of a political candidate.  Let's assume things get a little bumpy.  It was based on a novel by James M. Cain, who had a great facility for writing about strong women considering he penned Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce.  All were, of course, superior to Slightly Scarlet but it stands tall and delivers at its B level.

Fleming (l) and Dahl

B films usually star B actors or A actors who have seen better times.  Both ladies, but Dahl particularly, were nearing the end of their B careers.  The film would provide glamorous starring roles and it would be in color to show off their tresses (and hey, that's more than Double, Postman and Mildred could say).

Arlene Dahl was born in Minnesota in 1928 and those elegant good looks came from sturdy Norwegian stock.  It is not difficult to get that she would begin in modeling and that would lead to a brief contract at Warner Brothers.  Late in her career she may have been top-billed in some film, but she never was in the majority of her time.  If it was a drama, she might even be the second female lead.  When she was the female star, she was often paired with Red Skelton and that certainly never did much for a girl's career.

She made such B films as No Questions Asked, Caribbean, Desert Legion, Jamaica Run, Inside Straight, Bengal Brigade, Sangaree and The Diamond Queen.  The latter two co-starred the dashing Fernando Lamas, whom Dahl would marry.  It was a tempestuous pairing as was her first marriage to hunk Lex Barker.  I have always suspected that Dahl's personal life took up a great deal of her time and didn't leave a lot for making films.  She would acquire four more husbands.

While the above films are programmers, B-films, and mainly costume dramas as well, it would be silly to ignore the fact that a woman as beautiful as Dahl was born to play in such colorful spectacles.  Much the same could be said about Fleming.

Some of Dahl's best work came at the end of her film work, although she was showcased nicely in Three Little Words in 1950.  Here Come the Girls was a glamour turn alongside Bob Hope, Tony Martin and Rosemary Clooney.  She outshone Lauren Bacall and June Allyson in Woman's World and the title star of Wicked As They Come.  She was terrific in Slightly Scarlet.  When she was bad and she was in a few films, she simply was at her ravishing best.  To look that good and high-toned and be bad all at once made Dahl very intoxicating indeed. 

In 1959 she made what is likely her most famous film, Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Dahl and colleagues Pat Boone and James Mason (now there's a duo) travel down an Icelandic volcano but not without much mayhem.

I wish she had done more as an actress.  Her fiery manner always commanded my attention and I am sure I saw all her films. She got into writing... both beauty books (duh) and a beauty column.  She became an astrologer and had a syndicated column.  She marketed cosmetics and lingerie. 

She is the mother of actor Lorenzo Lamas.  How mahvelous.

I remember seeing her once on the game show What's My Line?  She was the mystery guest.  The panelists all asked some good questions.  They got actress, red hair, beautiful, etc., and when they took their first shot at a name, they guessed Rhonda Fleming.  Dahl's eyes fluttered, she shifted uneasily in her seat and in a throaty sound to rival Tallulah Bankhead, she said noooo.

Rhonda Fleming was a worthy rival... and then some.  Her hair was just as red and her face just as beautiful.  She could be fiery like Dahl and also like her somehow remain ladylike.  Fleming made more movies than Dahl and better ones although she made even more of those costume dramas than Dahl did.  And it might as well be brought out into the open now... Fleming also made a movie with Fernando Lamas but few saw Jivaro.  She gets top honors for being the actress to make more movies with a certain U.S. President than any other actress.  In case you want to look for them, they are The Last Outpost, Hong Kong, Tropic Zone and Tennessee's Partner, all from 1951-55.

She was Hollywood-born.  The year was 1923.  Fleming and Dahl also have being Leos in common... Fleming was born August 10 and Dahl August 11.  She was discovered by the gay Hollywood agent Henry Willson, the discoverer of men he named Rock, Tab, Guy, Rory, Troy.  "Rhonda" is from Willson.  She was Marilyn Louis when she met him.

Fleming started off in big, important films.  She had small roles as a nymphomaniac in Hitchcock's Spellbound and as one of the victims in the mystery-thriller The Spiral Staircase, both 1945, and as a mystery woman in the sensational film noir Out of the Past, 1947.

Fleming was a very good singer which she would demonstrate in the late 40s with Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  She would do comedy with Bob Hope in two films.  But starting in the 1950s with those Reagan films, John Payne adventures, westerns and those baubles, bangels and beads Arabian Knights foolishness, she quickly became one of the certifiable queens of the Bs.  The truth is she was a good actress but more than that she photographed as well as any woman ever would.  Her coloring and that red hair provided her with the label, Queen of Technicolor.  The camera just loved her.

I discovered her for the first time in 1953 on a double bill at the Beverly Theater.  I've mentioned before that double bills from those long-ago days would be two films with something in common... both westerns, both musicals, both sports stories or two Rhonda Fleming movies.  They were Pony Express, an absurdly fictional but colorful tale of the friendship between Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickock.  Fleming was a spy and so delicious and feisty.  The other film was the little known Those Redheads from Seattle, a musical western.  Popular 50s singer Teresa Brewer was a sister and Agnes Moorehead was their mother.  It was a lot of red hair.

In 1954 she appeared with my favorite B actor, Jeff Chandler, in the utterly silly Yankee Pasha, but I loved it.  It started as a western (well ok, an eastern) but spent most of its time in Morocco where our girl is sold into slavery.  I'm not aware of any Oscar nominations but I was nine and my eyes were captivated by the beauty of Jeff and Rhonda.  They made me love going to the movies.

In 1956 she made three pretty good films, the first of which was Slightly Scarlet, where Arlene Dahl had the showier role.  Then came two films where Fleming is the intended victim of a sexual predator, The Killer Is Loose and While the City Sleeps

In 1957 she had a fictional role in the otherwise based-on-truth The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with macho stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.  She sure did photograph well in westerns.

In 1958 she made the best film she ever made, Home Before Dark.  Two things were unusual for Fleming this time.  One is that she had the second female lead, something she hadn't done in a long time, and she became a blonde.  Also unusual for Fleming, the film was not in color.  She was the step-sister of Jean Simmons, who comes home from a mental institution to find her husband and Fleming may be in love.  Fleming never gave a better performance or had a role as rich as this one.  Home Before Dark is #32 on my list of 50 Favorite Films.

The Big Circus in 1959 was a crowd-pleaser... who's killing all those performers?  Fleming was in battle and in love with that great ham, Victor Mature.  It was the last role really worthy of her talent.  She still worked a little in movies but mainly turned to television.

Like Dahl, Fleming has been married six times.  She has a knack for getting involved in philanthropic causes.  I noticed she has her own website as well.

I am most grateful for actresses like Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl.  Not everyone can be Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis and I'll bet those two have spent a little time wishing they had the gorgeous faces of my two subjects.  I have forever loved good B movies... and a fair number of not-so-good ones.  I was always a sucker for Fleming and Dahl films.

Review of Mud

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