18 October 2020

Rhonda Fleming (1923-2020)

American film and television actress Rhonda Fleming (1923-2020) passed away, last Wednesday, 14 October. The 'Queen of Technicolor' acted in more than forty films, mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, and worked with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound (1945), Robert Siodmak on The Spiral Staircase (1946), Jacques Tourneur on Out of the Past (1947), and Fritz Lang on While the City Sleeps (1956). She became renowned as one of the most beautiful and glamorous actresses of her day. Rhonda Fleming was 97.

Rhonda Fleming (1923-2020)
Italian postcard by Rotalcolor / Rotalfoto, Milano, no. N. 58.

Rhonda Fleming
German postcard by Krüger, no. 902/23.

A nymphomaniac being treated by Ingrid Bergman


Rhonda Fleming was born Marilyn Cheverton Louis in Hollywood, in 1923. She was the younger of two daughters of Effie Graham, a model and actress, and Harold Cheverton Louis, who worked in the insurance industry.

Marilyn attended Beverly Hills High and was discovered by the famous agent Henry Willson while on the way to school. She was then signed to a contract with David O. Selznick, and he (or Willson - the sources differ) changed her name to Rhonda Fleming.

Her first major part was as a nymphomaniac being treated by Ingrid Bergman’s character in the psychological thriller Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945). In interviews, she said she was so naive she had to look up the word in the dictionary when she was cast.

She was a turn-of-the-century New England secretary who is murdered by a serial killer (George Brent) in the thriller The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946). In Jacques Tourneur’s Film Noir Out of the Past (1947), she played a supporting role as a nervous secretary, alongside Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas.

Fleming's first leading role came in the South Seas adventure film Adventure Island (Sam Newfield, 1947), a low-budget film made for Pine-Thomas Productions at Paramount Pictures in the two-color Cinecolor process and co-starring fellow Selznick contractee Rory Calhoun.

In the musical fantasy A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Tay Garnett, 1948) she played a beautiful Arthurian princess opposite Bing Crosby. She then played another leading role opposite a comedian, in this case, Bob Hope, in The Great Lover (Alexander Hall, 1949). It was a big hit and Fleming was established. In 1950, she ended her association with Selznick after eight years, though her contract with him had another five years to run.

Rhonda Fleming (1923-2020)
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. A 1298. Photo: Paramount. Rhonda Fleming in Jivaro (Edward Ludwig, 1954).

Rhonda Fleming in La cortigiana di Babilonia (1954)
German collectors card in the "Filmstars von Hollywood bis Tokio" series III. Rhonda Fleming in La cortigiana di Babilonia/The Queen of Babylon (Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, 1954).

Flaming red hair, fair skin, and green eyes


During the 1950s, Rhonda Fleming starred in four films with Ronald Reagan, including Tropic Zone (Lewis R. Foster, 1953), in which his character saved her character’s banana plantation.

Although she tended to be cast as a fresh-faced but sexy American girl, she did play the occasional foreign type. In Little Egypt (Frederick De Cordova, 1951), she portrayed an exotic belly dancer at a world’s fair — although her character turned out to be just a New Jersey girl with a fake accent.

She was Cleopatra in Serpent of the Nile (William Castle, 1953), opposite Raymond Burr as Mark Antony. Along with Maria Montez, Maureen O'Hara, and Yvonne De Carlo, she was bestowed with the nickname of 'Queen of Technicolor' for how well her flaming red hair, fair skin, and green eyes photographed in vivid colour.

In the Film Noir Slightly Scarlet (Allan Dwan, 1956) she was the somewhat less bad sister of Arlene Dahl’s bad-girl character, and in the Western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Sturges, 1957) she played a gambler and the love interest of Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster).

Her favourite role was the overdressed, over-coiffed stepsister to Jean Simmons’s character in the thriller Home Before Dark (Mervyn LeRoy, 1958). Other notable roles included the Western Pony Express (Jerry Hopper, 1953), Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) with Dana Andrews, and The Big Circus (Joseph M. Newman, 1959).

She sang in several of her films and was part of a gospel quartet, the Four Girls, with Jane Russell, Connie Haines and Beryl Davis in the 1950s. In 1957 she embarked on a Las Vegas career, performing at the brand-new Tropicana hotel. In 1960, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Rhonda Fleming
Italian postcard by Rotalcolor.

Rhonda Fleming
German postcard by ISV, no. A 38. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Rhonda Fleming in Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953).

The dinosaur in Jurassic Park


In the early 1960s, Rhonda Fleming turned almost exclusively to acting on television, where she was active until the late 1970s. She routinely guest-starred on television in series including Wagon Train (1958-1963), The Virginian (1965), Police Woman (1974), Ellery Queen (1975), The Love Boat (1978), and a two-hour special of McMillan & Wife (1975).

She made her Broadway debut in Clare Boothe Luce’s 'The Women' (1973). She was part of an ensemble cast that included Myrna Loy, Alexis Smith, and Kim Hunter. Fleming also toured as Madame Dubonnet in 'The Boyfriend'. Later she appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in a one-woman concert with compositions from Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.

In the cinema, she spoofed herself as 'Rhoda Flaming' in the comedy Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (Michael Winner, 1976) along with a bevy of other vintage performers from Dorothy Lamour to Rudy Vallee.

One of her last film roles was in the Don Adams spy farce The Nude Bomb (Clive Donner, 1980), as Edith Von Secondberg, an international fashion designer.

She became a philanthropist and supporter of numerous organisations fighting cancer, homelessness, and child abuse. In 1991, Fleming and her late husband Ted Mann established Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Comprehensive Care for Women with Cancer at UCLA in memory of her sister Beverly, and in 1992, she founded the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center at UCLA. She opened the Reflections boutique to help cancer patients with items including wigs and prostheses. She also supported Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., where she established the Rhonda Fleming Carlson Inspiration Garden in 2014.

Rhonda Fleming died Wednesday 14 October 2020 in a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., at the age of 97. Fleming had six husbands. In 1940 she married Thomas Lane, with whom she had a son. They divorced in 1948. Her second husband was Lew Morrill (1952-1958), a physician, followed by actor Lang Jeffries (1960-1962), and filmmaker Hall Bartlett (1966-1972). All of those marriages ended in divorce. In 1978 she married Ted Mann, owner of the Mann Theaters chain. They were together until his death in 2001. Two years later she married Darol Carlson, who died in 2017.

Fleming is survived by her son, Kent Lane, as well as two granddaughters, five great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. In a 1993 interview with The Toronto Star, she said, “My husband recently asked me if I’d seen any movie I wanted to appear in. I said yes, the dinosaur in Jurassic Park.”

Rhonda Fleming
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. A 357. Photo: Paramount Pictures.


Trailer Pony Express (1953). Source: Trailer Chan (YouTube).

Sources: Natalie Oganesyan (Variety), Anita Gates (New York Times), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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