Hollywood will remember golden age star Rhonda Fleming as a ‘Queen of Technicolor’, because her stunning red hair and green eyes gleamed on colour film. But that was not the only reason for her stardom in the 1940s and 50s. Fleming could essay an upfront, often confrontational personality that made her perfectly suited to the tough genres of film noir and the western.
Born in Hollywood as Marilyn Louis, the daughter of actress Effie Graham and an insurance salesman, Fleming was discovered and renamed by agent Henry Willson when she was still in high school. As she recalled, he spotted her crossing the road and signed her up without a screen test. “Mine was a very rare and wonderful Cinderella story,” she said, “a complete Cinderella story that could have only happened during the studio system era.”
Fleming was signed by David O. Selznick and her first significant role was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), as Mary Carmichael, the precocious patient who gives Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist the runaround. “Hitch told me I was going to play a nymphomaniac,” she said. “I remember rushing home to look it up in the dictionary and being quite shocked.”
From there she took key roles in Robert Siodmak’s psychological horror The Spiral Staircase (1946), and as the woman who lures Robert Mitchum into a frame-up in Jacques Tourneur’s essential noir Out of the Past (1947). Her first lead came in Adventure Island (1947), a low-budget action movie shot in a two-colour process called Cinecolor.
Her breakthrough came after auditioning for a musical-comedy role Deanna Durbin had turned down at Paramount, though. Starring opposite Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), Fleming sang (very well) for the first time on film and, excitingly for the studio publicists, it was also her triumphant Technicolor debut. The movie was a hit and Fleming cemented her new status by starring opposite Bob Hope in another smash, 1949’s The Great Lover.
Fleming bemoaned the fact that her mane got more acclaim than her performance, but it also worked to her advantage. That glorious auburn hair, so muted in her black-and-white films, now became her trademark, most successfully in Allan Dwan’s Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet (1956), in which she and fellow redhead Arlene Dahl played sisters, one sober and one sinful. Fleming played the former.
Throughout the 1950s, Fleming took a succession of lead roles, including opposite Dick Powell as an unforgettable femme fatale in Cry Danger (1951), with Sterling Hayden in The Golden Hawk (1952) and Charlton Heston in Pony Express (1953). She made four films with Ronald Reagan and they shared politics too – Fleming was a Republican who campaigned in later life for mandatory school prayer. In 1957, she was on top form as Burt Lancaster’s sexy gambler girlfriend in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
While Fleming’s career was top-flight and her films were often very successful, she was dissatisfied. “I made the mistake of doing lesser films for good money, she said. “I was hot – they all wanted me – but I didn’t have the guidance or background to judge for myself.”
Television, and the nightclub act that she had launched in Las Vegas, dominated Fleming’s career from the 1960s on. Her final feature film appearance was in 1980’s The Nude Bomb, a continuation of the Get Smart franchise, but she made her very final appearance on screen in 1990’s Waiting for the Wind, a short film that reunited her with Mitchum.
Fleming had one son by her first marriage and was married five more times, including to Ted Mann (owner of the Mann’s Theatres cinema chain) from 1977 to his death in 2001. She campaigned vigorously for better cancer care in the US, founding the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Comprehensive Care at UCLA in 1991, following her sister’s experience with ovarian cancer. She is survived by her son and two granddaughters.
- Rhonda Fleming, born Marilyn Louis, 10 August 1923–14 October 2020.