Film Noir in Technocolor? Yes, the classic film genre did make appearances in color during its heyday – believe it or not.
During this extended time of Coronavirus confinement, this reporter had the unexpected pleasure of discovering one of Hollywood’s most prolific stars who was considered “the queen of Technocolor,” (a title she did not like); her name is Rhonda Fleming.
Thanks much in part to current high tech streaming features now offered on most HD TV and electronic devices, one of Fleming’s movies popped up on the list for recommended viewing as this reporter opened up the YouTube app. The movie that popped up last week on the list is called, “Slightly Scarlet” from 1956.
While not the most stellar of Ms. Flemings more than 40 films, “Slightly Scarlet” finds a memorable spot in the genre of film noir classics. According to Wikipedia, and critic review websites like ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ and ‘Letterboxd’ (which reviewers there give the film three to four stars), “Slightly Scarlet” is among the few of the Film Noir that is in color.
Much of that craftsmanship is due to its director Allan Dwan. A veteran of the Silent Film era, Dwan directed more than 386 films. Film critic and historian Jean-Luc Godard considers it one of the best films of 1956 on his list. Dwan’s use of shadow and dim spaces amid the brightness of vivid color is a testimony to his artistry.
It is obvious that Fleming captures the audiences’ attention making “Slightly Scarlett” a noir favorite among fans. Supporting cast members, such as Arlene Dahl who portray Dorothy Lyons, as the kleptomaniac younger sister to Fleming’s portrayal of June Lyons, compliments Flemings’ character on screen. Fleming portrays an office admin in the newly elected Mayor’s office. Her stability is in sharp contrast to younger sister Dorothy’s irresponsibility. Certainly a gem on screen for character study, the two are very striking and convincing as sisters. The sibling bond between two sisters has a subtle friction that keeps the story line moving.
Like almost all Film Noir movies, the plot has an underlying tension that no matter how decent and good a situation might be the impulse of it explodes and or disintegrates at the end.
As Film Noir enthusiasts like Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller noted to Turner Classic Movies channel. “There’s been a debate about whether film noir is defined by its content or its style. It’s a particular type of story or it is the way the story is told….”
“The pythiest description I’ve come up with to explain film noir said Muller is that the men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by a greed, lust, jealousy and revenge…”
Film Noir also places vice or human weakness at a certain angle for the audience to see and examine. This is what I as a fan of the genre understand as the use of what is called, “the backlight.”
Dwan did his best to use shadow to illustrate that ‘Backlight.’ But I think it is better expressed in black and white than in color. The nuances are not as eloquent in “Slightly Scarlet” because of the blazing Technocolor. True to form though, “Slightly Scarlet” delivers more than one surprising and sudden impulsive moment. And, Ms. Fleming is stunning in those moments.
While she did not appreciate being referred to as “the queen of Technocolor” in time she came to appreciate the beauty of filming in color. During the 1950’s advances in filmmaking made Technocolor and other filming processes the new standard.
Interestingly, Fleming became a star in a film noir classic, called “Spellbound” one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best. In fact, as detailed at Wikipedia, she was discovered while still in high school by well- known talent agent of the time, Henry Wilson.
Wilson changed her name from Marilyn Louis to Rhonda Fleming and then presented her to David O. Selznick, who produced the thriller-noir “Spellbound” for Hitchcock. Certainly this was a whirlwind start for the native California born Marilyn Louis who had at least six films to her credit just as she graduated from Beverly Hills High School in the early 1940s as WWII broke out.
Yet, Fleming’s initial intention was to be a singer. She admired singer/actress Deanna Durbin. Movie fans of the era, recall the young soprano teaming up with fellow newcomer to the screen Judy Garland in duet. Durbin sang opera, while Garland sang “Swing – the Big Band sound” belting out the melodies as only Garland could do. Needless to say the duet was a sensation.
And, this made such an impression that with voice lessons from her aunt, Fleming entered singing contests. This helped her because when Fleming got the opportunity to audition for a movie at Paramount, it was for a musical with Bing Crosby that ironically Durbin had turned down.
After the movie with Crosby, it was on to a movie with Crosby’s sidekick, Bob Hope. Fleming was in demand as she made one movie after another. She starred alongside some of Hollywood’s most exciting leading men and in 1957 was among the performers who appeared at the opening night of the Tropicana nightclub in Las Vegas.
Receiving rave reviews and a standing ovation, (noted the Las Vegas Review-Journal), Fleming’s career was at a high point. And, Las Vegas as well as the then new medium of television would provide another venue for Fleming as her work in film slowed.
Even if some of the movies she did were in the “B-movie” grade category, Fleming still got to work with some of the most illustrious in the business.
Regardless of the highs and lows of her life and career, Fleming has always made considerable effort to give something back. Among the many charities and philanthropic outreach works she has contributed to, in 1991 with her late husband Ted Mann, she established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Women’s Comprehensive Care at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.
Fleming continues to participate in charity work and hopes to celebrate her 97th Birthday this coming August. For more information about the life and career of Rhonda Fleming visit her web site. And to watch her in one of the rare film noir movies in color go to YouTube.