Rhonda Fleming: ‘Queen of Technicolor’ during Hollywood’s Golden Age

Anthony Hayward
Fleming  in 1954’s ‘Jivaro’ (Rex)
Fleming in 1954’s ‘Jivaro’ (Rex)

Rhonda Fleming, who has died of aspiration pneumonia aged 97, was a Hollywood sex symbol known as the “Queen of Technicolor” during the 1940s and 1950s.

The technology, with its highly saturated tones, seemed made for her red hair, green eyes and fair skin during American cinema’s so-called Golden Age.

In later years, she lamented that movie studios “never wanted more from me than my looking good and waltzing through a parade of films”.

Nevertheless, several dozen appearances over two decades made her one of Tinseltown’s most recognisable female stars.

Fleming’s first leading role in Technicolor was as a princess in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1948), a musical version of Mark Twain’s novel, starring Cedric Hardwicke as the medieval legend.

Her role as the king’s niece and time-travelling “Yankee” Bing Crosby’s romantic interest – already betrothed to Lancelot (Henry Wilcoxon) – saw her achieve her childhood ambition of becoming a singer by sharing a duet, “Once and for Always”, with the crooner.

She then played a duchess pursued by comedian Bob Hope on an ocean liner in The Great Lover (1949). The comedy burst into a musical when they sang “Lucky Us!” together and Fleming had a solo, “A Thousand Violins”.

“After that, 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.”

She fulfilled the studios’ wishes by putting glamour into westerns such as The Eagle and the Hawk (1950), alongside John Payne’s Texas ranger, The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), as Glenn Ford’s love interest, and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), as the girlfriend of Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp.

Playing Cleopatra in Serpent of the Nile (1953) kept her in a starring role but failed to push out the boat with its budget or production values.

There were also four films with future US president Ronald Reagan in his acting days. She was dumped for “the cause” by his Texas ranger in The Last Outpost (1951), played a mission teacher opposite his ex-GI in Hong Kong (1952), had her banana plantation saved from a rival’s expansion plans by his soldier of fortune in Tropic Zone (1953), and acted a bordello madam this time jilting him, in the role of a gold prospector, in Tennessee’s Partner (1955).

More satisfying was a supporting role as Jean Simmons’s stepsister in Home Before Dark (1958).Then, she spent much of the next two decades acting on television and singing on stage.

Her potential was spotted on the street when she was 16 and running to school, Beverly Hills High, by talent agent Henry Willson, who later discovered Rock Hudson.

She put aside ideas of becoming a singer and appeared as an extra in several films before being signed by David O Selznick to a seven-year contract with his studio – and he came up with her professional name.

The legendary producer was with Alfred Hitchcock when she was called to meet him. As a result, the horror director cast her as a nymphomaniac in a mental institution in his 1945 classic Spellbound, shot in black and white.

At the time, she was so young and naive that she had to open a dictionary to find out what a nymphomaniac was.

As Cleopatra in ‘Serpent of the Nile’Rex
As Cleopatra in ‘Serpent of the Nile’Rex

Then came a supporting role as the secretary framing Robert Mitchum’s private eye in the 1947 film noir Out of the Past.

When stardom came, her other movies included Pony Express (1953) alongside Charlton Heston’s Buffalo Bill, Inferno (1953) as Robert Ryan’s adulterous wife, The Buster Keaton Story (1957) as the target of the silent film star’s unrequited love, and Gun Glory (1957) as the housekeeper of Stewart Granger’s former gunslinger.

Fleming’s yearning to sing was reignited after she launched a nightclub act at Las Vegas’s newly opened Tropicana hotel in 1957 and recorded an LP, Rhonda, a year later. She later performed Cole Porter and Irving Berlin compositions at the Hollywood Bowl and sang on a 1962 concert tour of George Gershwin music, as well as in TV shows.

She also acted on stage, making her Broadway debut in a 1973 revival of Clare Boothe Luce’s comedy The Women. Two years later, she toured in the role of Madame Dubonnet in the musical The Boy Friend.

Director Michael Winner revived memories of Fleming’s film career when he cast her in the cameo role of Rhoda Flaming in Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).

Her final movie was the spy comedy spoof The Nude Bomb (1980), playing an international fashion designer alongside Don Adams’s Maxwell Smart.

Following the death of her older sister, Beverly, in 1990, she opened cancer clinics and worked with charities for the homeless.

Fleming’s first four marriages – to Tom Lane (1940-48), Lew Morrill (1952-58), Lang Jeffries (1960-62) and Hall Bartlett (1966-72) all ended in divorce. In 1978, she married Ted Mann, who died in 2001. Two years later, she married her sixth husband, Darol Carlson, who died in 2017.

She is survived by Kent Lane, the son of her first marriage.

Rhonda Fleming, actor and singer, born 10 August 1923, died 14 October 2020

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