Rhonda Fleming: “Technicolor changed the direction of my career”

For some people, she is Mary Carmichael, the nymphomaniac patient at Green Manors Psychiatric Hospital, who is treated by Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman). For other people, she is Meta Carson, the secretary who works for the mob boss Whit Sterling’s attorney (Kirk Douglas). For those who prefer Color motion picture films she is the poker player Laura Denbow, girlfriend of Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster). Those who diving deep into the film ocean, recognize the actress as Joan Carlisle, the woman that complicates the mental health of her sister Charlotte Bronn (Jean Simmons) by seducing her husband. These are just a few prominent roles in the career of actress and singer Rhonda Fleming (1923), with more than 40 films under her belt, most of them filmed between the years 1945 – 1965, which today are officially known as “The Golden Age of Hollywood”. As usually happens with the career of any interpretation of that historical period, her work as an actress is associated with the most important figures of the seventh art. However, Rhonda Fleming was also able to make a name for herself, when the Technicolor finally revolutionized celluloid. Her stage presence added a magnetic appearance to the great quality she already had as an actress. It was at that moment that the spectators delighted with her heavenly eyes and her magnificent red hair, physical characteristics with she became known as the “Queen of Technicolor”.
Rhonda Fleming’s career can be understood in four stages that follow and overcome each other. In the first, as a supporting actress in the 1940s, playing small large roles in critically acclaimed films. It has increased to such an extent that of her films are usually cited in the academic field as the most outstanding examples for the study of film genres: the psychological thriller in Spellbound (1945) by Alfred Hitchcock, the horror in The Spiral Staircase (1946) by Robert Siodmak, and film noir in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). The Hitchcock classic is also notable for the adding of a surreal scene, Salvador Dalí’s famous “dream sequence”. Right there they hide a first sign of Fleming’s great star potential, since some scenes had to be cut in the final edition because they overshadowed the presence of the main actress Ingrid Bergman. But it is at the end of the ’40s that a star is born. Under the contract of famed producer David O. Selznick, Fleming lands the role that marks the start of her second stage as an artist, playing the maiden Alisande La Carteloise in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949). This musical comedy starring alongside Bing Crosby was a major box office success, as well as being the actress’ first film in Technicolor.
In the 1950s she alternated her work in films that highlighted her dazzling red hair (further highlighted with the use of 3-D), such as the musical Those Redheads from Seattle (1953), with some works more focused on her acting quality. She returns to film noir with Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956), earning great roles in the western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and the drama Home Before Dark (1958).
Then she reinvented herself as an artist, at the beginning of her later career as a singer, in the same vein that her contemporaries Doris Day, Lena Horne and Alice Faye had done before. Her work with Crosby had been a good precedent for her vocal skills and this is confirmed in 1957 with a series of successful concerts at the newly opened Tropicana hotel in Las Vegas. A year later she released her music album in Columbia, Rhonda. It was precisely the reissue in 2008 of this work in CD format under the name of Sings Just For You that was the reason for the following brief interview. But there is a fourth stage in her career that has not been mentioned yet, her work as a philanthropist. In the last 30 years, she has definitely moved away from cameras and stages to dedicate herself to charitable activities for the homeless, victims of child abuse and, above all, focusing her support on female diseases. This is a good summary of the career of an actress who never achieved a definitive role with which she can be identified, and who once expressed that she did not find strong female roles to play. Perhaps that is why she ended up focusing the last stage of her life in trying to ensure how women can obtain that strength through the most precious asset, health.

What can you tell me about the album you recorded with Frank Comstock and his orchestra, Rhonda (1958)?

It was a Columbia album and was a compilation of songs from my Las Vegas opening of the Tropicana Hotel and a ‘Gershwin’ tour I did; this past year London based company ‘Sepia Records’ re-mastered many of my songs and re-released a new CD that is selling very well and I’m receiving emails from many fans who love it and it’s a lovely honor.

What is your best memory about working in Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound?

Meeting a true star, Ingrid Bergman, and Hedda Hopper’s article commenting that she felt my role should have been enlarged and that it was worthy of an Academy Award nomination so Hitchcock took an additional two days to try to enlarge the role; however the dream sequence was cut and made into only a faded glimpse and made to look like Ingrid Bergman which was very disappointing; when I was cast in the role as a nymphomaniac from a mental institution my mother and I had to look the word up in the dictionary as we had no idea what it meant – my mother commented afterward that at least she knew it ‘wasn’t typecasting.’  I loved playing ‘character’ roles and I had not been discovered for Technicolor yet which changed the direction of my career.

How can you describe your work with Fritz Lang in the film “While the City Sleeps”?

I was a ‘naughty wife’ which was a fun role to play as long as they get their ‘just rewards.’  Fritz Lang was a very good Director and a delight to work with him.

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