The Queen of Technicolor.

Green eyed and red haired, she was dubbed “The Queen of Technicolor”, but actress Rhonda Fleming (8.10.23 – 10.14.20), who passed away earlier this week at age 97, never cared for that label, preferring people to recognize her professional accomplishments, which were many. Appearing in nearly fifty films between 1943 and the mid 60’s, plus numerous television appearances, she played everything from the best of the good girls to the worst of the femmes fatales in romances, crime films, westerns and costume dramas, but ultimately was perhaps better known for her philanthropic work after she semi-retired from acting. Fleming needs no intro to film noir and crime melodrama enthusiasts, having appeared in classics like Out Of The Past (the memorably malicious San Francisco secretary trying to frame Robert Mitchum), Spellbound, Cry Danger, The Killer Is Loose, While The City Sleeps and others. 

For a glimpse of Rhonda Flemings work (alongside costar Arlene Dahl) hit the link below for more about 1956’s “noir-in-color” Slightly Scarlet from 1956.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/11/06/a-ruthless-story-of-rackets-and-redheads/

Bettejane Was No Sissy.

Born Bettejane Greer in 1924, Jane Greer legally changed her name in 1945, deciding that Bettejane was “a sissy name. It’s too Bo-Peepish for the type of role I’ve been playing”. RKO promoted her as “the woman with the Mona Lisa smile”, but in fact, teenage Greer suffered from a condition that paralyzed the left side of her face. Even after recovering, she relied on facial exercises to overcome the paralysis, which contributed to her enigmatic expression. 

Teen beauty pageants led to modeling jobs and a big band singing gig in the Washington D.C. area till Hollywood discovered her from a Life magazine modeling spread. Greer appeared in a long list of MGM and RKO films playing everything from crooks to cowgirls and continuing to work in both movies and television into her seventies. This even included a parody of her iconic role as Kathie Moffat, one of film noir’s most iconic femmes fatales, in a 1987 Saturday Night Live skit alongside her Out Of The Past costar Robert Mitchum. Now that I’d like to see!

Jane Greer left us in 2001 at the age of 76.

Girls With Guns: Marie Windsor

marie windsor the narrow margin

One of the 1940’s – 50’s many “Queen Of The B’s”, Marie Windsor (Emily Marie Bertelsen, 1919 – 1980) would’ve turned 100 today, December 11th.  Her film and television resume is a mile long, including her share of crime melodramas and a couple key noir films: Force Of Evil with John Garfield in 1948, and one of her best (and a personal favorite or mine), The Narrow Margin from 1952 (a publicity still from that film shown above) most of which takes place on a train, with Windsor playing a murdered mobster’s widow…or is she? (She’s much, much more.) Naturally athletic and considered tall for her time at 5’9″, she often had to stoop or do scenes sitting down when paired with height-challenged male co-stars.

Remembering Natalia (11.29.1981)

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Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in 1938 in San Francisco, the Russian emigre family name later changed to Gurdin, but we knew her as Natalie Wood, first appearing on film at age 4, lighting up the screen in the original Miracle On 34th Street at only 8, later to create memorable screen roles in Rebel Without A Cause, Splendor In The Grass, West Side Story, This Property Condemned, and my personal favorite, Love With The Proper Stranger from 1963/1964…earning three Oscar nominations along the way.

Sadly, it was on this date, November 29th in 1981, that Natalie Wood drowned off the Catalina coast in a boating accident that’s still shrouded in mystery.

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To say I’m a fan isn’t quite enough. Of course, Wood never played a true ‘femme fatale’, much less a gun moll, film noir heroine or even a real crook, unless you want to count the silly mid-sixties farce Penelope. But for some reason, it was always Natalie Wood that I pictured when envisioning my own creation, ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ – Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz, changed for obvious reasons), a 22-year old trying to make her way in the gritty brown-bricked bungalow rows of Chicago’s ethnic southwest side in 1959. Specifically, it’s the look of Natalie Wood from the early 1960’s, and her Angie Rossini character from Love With The Proper Stranger, like the NYC publicity shots shown above from that film. As Sharon Gardner herself relates, surveying the crowd from her all-too-familiar perch on a barstool in Silky’s cocktail lounge:

“…A decent looking type out for a few snorts after work on a Thursday evening was more likely to go for the loudmouthed lushes squeezed into their sparkly cocktail dresses. But enough liquor can turn me into Natalie Wood, when a fellow wants to believe it. Minus a few curves. And if it’s dark. Which Silky’s usually is.”

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Maybe she got screwed by producers when it came to showcasing obvious singing and dancing talents. Maybe it took a while for her to acquire well-deserved cred for her acting ability and to overcome the child-star label. No question that her prime years included some silly roles, the kind every star was arm-twisted into during the waning days of the studio system. But I just refer anyone unfamiliar with Wood’s work to some of those key films listed above. ‘Nuff said.

Natalie Wood: July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981. Gone at only 43. We can only imagine the work she left undone at such a young age, but will always have the work she left us with. Yeah, I’m a fan, and always will be.

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No Pumpkin Pie? We’ll Make Do With Cheesecake.

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There’s little to be found in the way of “Thanksgiving Noir” so you’ll forgive me if I serve up some cheesecake instead of pumpkin pie.

1950’s – 60’s sad siren Marilyn Monroe packing a gun would make for an iconic film noir photo. But when the rod’s a blunderbuss, and the cheesecake photoshoot’s scanty attire is a barely-there pilgrim costume instead of a fetching femme fatale’s frock, the results will be what they’ll be. I believe these were shot by Bert Stern in 1950, back when Ms. Monroe still had to put up with this nonsense.

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But it’s intriguing to note that Marilyn Monroe had some legit pilgrim credentials, supposedly a distant descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, certainly some of the most famous among the Mayflower’s passengers. If I’ve read things correctly, Monroe was a seven-times-great-granddaughter of the Aldens through their eldest child, Elizabeth. Of course, neither Priscilla nor Elizabeth were known for showing off their shapely gams in back-seamed fishnets.

And with that, a Happy Turkey Day to you too.

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Blues In The Dark

Blues in The Dark

L.A. indie film producer Karissa Glover is in the final stages of a messy divorce from a B-grade action film star and needs a new place to live. Like now. Coincidence (or is it?) leads her to an old mansion in West Adams Heights, available at a ridiculously low rent. The house has remained vacant since its prior owner, Ultimate Studio’s overnight star and film noir femme fatale Blair Kendrick, was murdered in the late 1940’s.  The now forgotten star’s furniture and mementoes all remain, and Karissa soon uncovers one mystery after another, all related to Kendrick’s then-taboo relationship with an African-American jazz musician. Obsessed, Karissa begins developing a film based on the actress’ life story, attempting to solve the mysteries surrounding her death. And some mighty dangerous people definitely do not want anyone digging into Blair Kendrick’s death or the mysterious disappearance of her lover.

You’d have to turn in your ‘I-Read-Mysteries’ I.D. card if you don’t see where this one’s going. But that’s not intended as a criticism. Like a fun road trip, sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the destination. And I don’t mean that I anticipated all the twists, turns and details in Raymond Benson’s tale, only that I guessed at its ultimate resolution early on. But that just made me all the more eager to learn how we’d get there. No surprise; Benson’s a good storyteller, done here in chapters that alternate between modern day Karissa Glover’s efforts to learn more about the mysterious 1940’s star, and Blair Kendrick’s postwar Hollywood milieu, in which she tries to avoid the casting couch, falls hard for a handsome jazz pianist, and their desperate attempts to elude period prejudices, lethal studio enforcers and even the mob. Benson knows how to handle this alternating chapter structure well. His multi-book Black Stiletto series (each of which I literally gobbled up) about a 1950’s costumed vigilante employed the technique skillfully.

It bears mentioning that Blues In The Dark’s Karissa Glover is an adoptee, her birth parents unknown, only that she is of mixed racial heritage. Like maybe a beautiful blue-eyed blonde film noir actress and an African American jazz musician. Hmmm…

If you like retro Hollywood settings, a good mystery and a well-told tale, it’d be hard not to like Raymond Benson’s Blues In The Dark.

Debutante To Derelict: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Reading Steve Kronenberg’s excellent “Handle With Care – The Ordeals Of Gene Tierney” in the new Noir City issue number 27 was bound to send me flipping through DVD’s for a Tierney film. You’d just assume I’d go for Laura. And while not a noir, as it happens, I’m quite partial to The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. (Call me a softie.) But Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture offered a Tierney performance which, while not necessarily echoing the specifics of the actress’ troubled life, certainly portrays a woman destined for (or determined to find) her share of troubles.

This 1941 proto-noir is one truly weird movie. Based on John Colton’s risqué 1920’s Broadway play of the same name, the story’s controversial themes had to be severely diluted to make it onscreen. In fact, Hollywood studios and producers already tried to make a film version of the play many times, and the Breen Office censors demanded more than 30 revisions before the script was acceptable.

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Phyllis Brooks & Victor Mature Lobby Card

Despite hefty bribes to the authorities, “Dragon Lady” Gin Sling’s (Ona Munson) casino is being forced to shut down and relocate to Shanghai’s seedy Chinese sector by a wealthy English developer (Walter Huston) with grand designs on her location. While Victor Mature’s (looking ridiculous in a fez) ‘Doctor’ Omar and down-on-her-luck American showgirl Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks) try to cook up something to thwart the developer’s plans before the impending Chinese New Year deadline, Gin Sling’s joint is visited by stunning and refined Victoria Charteris (Gene Tierney), fresh from a European boarding school but currently going by ‘Poppy Smith’, eager for thrills and swiftly seduced by liquor and gambling. It doesn’t take long for her to turn into a lush, wind up in debt to Gin Sling, and then fall in love with charlatan ‘Doctor’ Omar (despite the fez). Things get a little soap-opera-ish then, revealing that Gin Sling once had a fling with the wealthy Brit who’s destroying her casino. Abandoned and destitute, she was forced to leave their baby behind…who grew up to be none other than Victoria Charteris/Poppy Smith/Gene Tierney. If all of these revelations aren’t bad enough, particularly since the lovely Victoria has turned into the deep-in-debt drunk Poppy now, things can always get worse, climaxing when Gin Sling ends up shooting Tierney, her own daughter.

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All of this might make a bit more sense (or not) if censors allowed the play’s real premise to be depicted: Gin Sling didn’t run a casino but a brothel/opium den. ‘Poppy’ didn’t get a taste for the booze and the dice, but became a drug addict, helped along by the fellow she fell for. ‘Poppy’. Get it?

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The Shanghai Gesture is far from a classic, not quite a ‘noir’ or even a crime melodrama, and wasn’t particularly successful with audiences or critics. Further, it’s packed full of utterly squirm-worthy ethnic stereotyping, like so many films of its era were.  Still, it’s worth it just to watch Gene Tierney go from refined to bar-room bad girl to drunken lush, her transition taking place in some decidedly uncensored and surreally decadent surroundings. The shift in delivery, body language and appearance is striking. Flanked by Phyllis Brooks and Ona Munson, the three women deliver the goods in a sometimes bizarre and sometimes pedestrian film. Sure, I’ll probably watch Tierney as Laura Hunt and Lucy Muir. I mean, how can you not if you’ve got Gene Tierney on your mind? But I’m glad I started here.

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The Kind They Talk About.

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They’re “the kind they talk about” according to Warner Brothers’ advance promotional pieces for Girls On Probation, a 1938 crime melodrama directed by William C. McGann, scripted by Crane Wilbur, and featuring an early feature part for a young Susan Hayward and pre-president, pre-governor, pre-Bedtime For Bonzo Ronald Reagan.

Girls On Probation stars Jane Bryan (1918 – 2009) who’d been groomed by the studio to become a leading lady and already had some important parts alongside Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G Robinson. Little did the studio bigwigs know that she’d soon wed a wealthy drug store magnate and happily leave Hollywood behind (hubby and wife among the key players in convincing Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980). Bryan co-stars with Sheila Bromley (1911 – 2003), a Hollywood workhorse who’d appeared in over 70 films (mostly westerns) as well as numerous 1950’s – 60’s TV shows.

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The girls they talk about: Good girls, fats girls and mean girls…‘Good Girl’ Jane Bryan gets mixed up with ‘Fast Girl’ Sheila Bromley, resulting in a trumped up larceny charge over an expensive dress taken from a dry cleaner, the accusation made by ‘Mean Girl’ Susan Hayward. Bryan’s friendship with Bromley gets even more dangerous when they get involved with some bank robbers, though prosecutor Ronald Regan, who is in love with Bryan, saves the day. Probation, no prison.

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I’ve only seen some grainy snips of this film online, and don’t see it anywhere on disk or as a full download, but would really like to view the whole thing intact. Silly vintage Hollywood stuff? Sure, it might be. But some of these long-forgotten big city crime melodramas can surprise you and turn out to be real gems.

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