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Rhonda Fleming: The Redhead And The Cowboys

C&I salutes Rhonda Fleming, “the Queen of Technicolor”and the best galmany a movie cowboy ever met.

Photography: Paramont/Kobal Collection
In The Eagle and the Hawk (1950), Rhonda Fleming's stunning outfit only enhanced the green eyes, red hair, and fair skin that made her the Queen of Technicolor.

Near the beginning of Rhonda Fleming’s career, a studio cameraman deliberately set out to photograph the actress as unflatteringly as he could. His task was performed not out of spite, but as a personal challenge to see if it was possible. The cameraman had shot many of Hollywood’s top stars and was certain that everyone had a bad side or an awkward angle. But when he reviewed the film, he admitted defeat. In every frame, Fleming looked stunning.

Her potent combination of red hair, emerald green eyes, and porcelain skin inspired her early proclamation as the Queen of Technicolor, and by the 1950s she had joined Maureen O’Hara, another redheaded knockout, at the reins as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished and appealing female western stars. But it all started with a “discovery” story that should be as famous as the one about Lana Turner at Schwab’s drugstore, because unlike that oft-told tale, Fleming’s is actually true.

Rhonda, born Marilyn Louis, was walking to high school in Beverly Hills when a long, black car pulled up alongside her. The man inside asked, “Young lady, have you ever thought of being in motion pictures?” For once, that line was actually on the level. The man was agent Henry Wilson, who introduced the beautiful teenager to movie mogul David O. Selznick. Selznick signed her without a screen test, and Fleming was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Spellbound (1945). Her performance generated speculation over a possible Academy Award nomination, though that did not materialize, and Fleming’s name has not been linked with Oscar since. “I don’t know what happened after that!” she told Boxoffice magazine in 1975.

What happened was she began to get cast in westerns, which were personally fulfilling but not the kind of assignments that garner Oscar nods. Still, these were welcome opportunities for a tomboy who grew up riding horses. Actor Robert Stack taught her how to shoot, and Fleming even passed on using a stunt double for several rough-and-tumble action sequences that appealed to her cowgirl spirit.

Sometimes she paid a price for her bravado, and for working in the remote locations found to represent the Wild West era. On location for Abilene Town, her bed was infested with red ants. She was bitten so badly that her eyes were swollen shut. In Pony Express, Fleming had a mud pie tossed violently in her face during a catfight with costar Jan Sterling. A stunt with a horse turned into a near-tragedy on the set of The Redhead and the Cowboy, when Fleming pulled back her horse on a hillside and the horse lost his balance and flipped over on her. “I spent the rest of my life going to chiropractors,” she said.

Rhonda Fleming

Rhonda Fleming
Fleming proved to be just as convincing as she was beautiful, whether she was playing a glamorous maiden or a rough-and-tumble tough girl.
Photography: Courtesy Rhonda Fleming

Of course, she gave as good as she got. According to a 1950 Los Angeles Times interview, Glenn Ford instructed Fleming to “hit me hard” during one of their contentious scenes in The Redhead and the Cowboy. She did, but she missed the side of his head and hit him in the eye, sending him to the hospital.

In recent years, Fleming has devoted herself to philanthropic pursuits, including the establishment of the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Women’s Comprehensive Care at the UCLA Medical Center and the Rhonda Fleming Mann Research Fellowship at the City of Hope, both created in memory of her sister, Beverly, who died of cancer in 1990. She is now at work on her memoirs, which are certain to include many fond memories of her western legacy. “You get me out in the wide-open spaces where I’m making these westerns, and I’m back where I grew up,” she once said. “Being out in nature with rolling hills and cabins...I just loved it.”

Abilene Town (1946)
“Ablaze with Guns...Guts...and Glory!” promised the movie poster. The film lives up to its publicity—Fleming’s first western is a fast-paced action film featuring Randolph Scott in his familiar laconic lawman mode. Ann Dvorak played shady dance hall girl Rita and received more notice from the critics than Fleming, who played the virtuous Sherry Balder.

The good girls rarely get the attention they deserve, even in a Randolph Scott film. Wrote a contributor to Variety, “Switch of Scott’s affections from the nice gal to the supposedly wicked saloon belle certainly does not fit in with good, all western film tradition, but it’s a welcome change.”

The Eagle and the Hawk (1950)
John Payne stars as a Texas Ranger sent into Mexico to stop a planned invasion of Texas by the forces of Napoleon III. That story was told in greater detail in Juarez, but The Eagle and the Hawk has more action and is worth seeing for the remarkable Sedona, Arizona, scenery, captured by Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe.

Fleming plays Madeline Danzeeger, who is married to one of Napoleon’s men, though her loyalties are challenged by her husband’s cruelty. She looks stunning in the kind of sumptuous costumes made to be photographed in Technicolor. Some of her gowns weighed as much as 12 pounds, which was probably not very comfortable when filming in August in Arizona. “It was hot,” she recalled in a 2007 interview. “And the bright lights they used for Technicolor in those days were just tremendously strong, and they’d put those lights on your eyes at the same time the bright sun was coming up and you just couldn’t see a thing. I’d stand there with tears running down for about five minutes before I could open them. But you just have to smile and look glamorous no matter what you’re going through!”

The Last Outpost (1951)
Ronald Reagan, in his first western leading role, and Bruce Bennett costar as two brothers who choose opposite sides in the Civil War. Reagan sides with the Confederacy—maybe that’s why he later carried the South in his two presidential victories.

Fleming and Reagan appeared in four movies together, and The Last Outpost was arguably their best collaboration. There’s a lot going on in just 89 minutes, typical of the “B” unit at Paramount, where the credo was to keep things moving so the audience wouldn’t notice the corners being cut. Producers William Pine and William Thomas were known as “The Dollar Bills” for their frugal approach to moviemaking, but here they had a few more dollars to spend, a reflection of the studio’s confidence in the script and cast.

The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951)
The original title was Beyond the Sunset, but it was changed to reflect Fleming’s box office appeal. It was back to Sedona for this Civil War spy drama, but Fleming didn’t have to worry about cumbersome gowns this time, as she did in The Eagle and the Hawk. For most of the film her wardrobe consistedentirely of ragged trousers, one ragged shirt, and one ragged jacket.

As Candace Bronson, a spy and Confederate sympathizer, she agrees to help cowboy Gil Kyle (Glenn Ford) beat a murder charge in the hope it will help her stay one step ahead of a Union agent (Edmond O’Brien) hot on her trail. But if Fleming’s auburn locks were among the film’s strongest selling points, it’s baffling why The Redhead and the Cowboy was filmed in black-and-white.

Pony Express (1953)
The box office draw here was the macho chemistry between Charlton Heston as Buffalo Bill and Forrest Tucker as Wild Bill Hickok. Pony Express was the type of guy’s guy film for which the term “rip-roaring” was invented, but as Evelyn Hastings, Fleming also makes an impression, particularly in a provocative bathtub scene that surely raised a few temperatures in the movie theater.

Tennessee’s Partner (1955)
Fleming was in full tough girl mode as saloon/bordello operator Elizabeth Farnham, opposite Ronald Reagan and John Payne. Allan Dwan’s brisk direction and the chemistry between the leads makes this the best of the three cinematic versions of a Bret Harte story, though it bears little resemblance to the original. The film was apparently a happy memory for everyone involved, judging by its recollection decades later during Fleming’s first visit to the Reagan White House. After standing in the reception line, she greeted the President with “Hi, Tennessee’s Partner.”

Gun Glory (1957)
In 1957 Fleming was described as the busiest actress in Hollywood. She might have preferred some time off to costarring in this undistinguished programmer. Stewart Granger stars as a gunfighter ostracized by his hometown, until he defends the locals from a cattleman who insists on running herds through the farm valley. Granger rarely succeeds at masking his British accent, but Fleming emerges with dignity intact, even while fighting off the advances of a teenager, played by the director’s son. “I thought, What am I doing here?” she recalled.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
The second classic based on the Wyatt Earp legends (after My Darling Clementine), and the best of the Kirk Douglas-Burt Lancaster on-screen pairings, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral also features Fleming’s most memorable western performance. “Miss Fleming may be tired of hearing that she is rewardingly beautiful, but she is,” raved a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, “and she is also adept with such comedy as there is and the romance.”

As lady gambler Laura Denbow, Fleming proves nearly charming enough to keep Marshal Earp from his appointment with destiny at the O.K. Corral. It is suggested, perhaps not strongly enough, that they will meet again after the Tombstone showdown.

Bullwhip (1958)
Guy Madison is offered a pardon from a death sentence if he agrees to marry the tempestuous Cheyenne O’Malley, played by Fleming. Not a bad deal—except Cheyenne only wants a husband so she will be legally allowed to own property and expand her fur trading business. Gradually Madison wears her down, in a western that owes much to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Alias Jesse James (1959)
Fleming sets up the jokes for Bob Hope in this comic western, in which the legendary comedian plays Milford Farnsworth, an insurance agent who takes out a policy on Jesse James. While not on the level of Hope’s Paleface films, the finale offers a classic moment featuring Hugh O’Brian (as Wyatt Earp), Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, James Arness (as Matt Dillon), Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett), Gail Davis (as Annie Oakley), Jay Silverheels (as Tonto), and Bob’s “Road” picture partner Bing Crosby, all riding to Milford’s rescue.


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