Pop Culture

Rhonda Fleming, Technicolor Star, Dies at Age 97

Rhonda Fleming, who starred in classic films of the 1940s and 50s opposite leading men like Burt Lancaster, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Mitchum has died, according to reports. She was 97 years old.

Though her first appearances were in psychological black-and-white thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase, and Jacques Tourneur’s quintessential film noir Out of the Past, it was the 1949 comedy A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, shot with the Technicolor process, that brought her wider fame. With her red hair, light complexion, and green eyes, she was a living, breathing representative of what the latest industry advancements could achieve, and it soon earned her the nickname “Queen of Technicolor.”

While this brought her steady work, she expressed some regret in a 1990 interview when reflecting on some less-than-stellar titles like The Redhead and the Cowboy, commenting “I’d been painted into a corner by the studios, who never wanted more from me than my looking good.”

But there are certainly delights to be found from her run. Serpent of the Nile, in which she plays Cleopatra opposite Raymond Burr as Mark Anthony, is almost a laboratory-made example of B-picture perfection. She appeared as a pirate named Captain Rouge (naturally) opposite Sterling Hayden in The Golden Hawk. And there was also the 3D ginger exploitation flick Those Redheads From Seattle which teamed Fleming up with Teresa Brewer, Agnes Moorehead, and The Bell Sisters.

Her most famous role, no doubt, was in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in which she played Wyatt Earp’s love interest Laura Denbow.

By 1960 Fleming considered herself semi-retired, busying herself with real estate holdings. Having worked with Ronald Reagan on five films, they became quite close, and Fleming became something of a face of Hollywood’s conservative side. This included organizing a rally promoting school prayer. She appeared here and there on television into the 1970s (yes, that means a sailing on The Love Boat) and also turned up in the ludicrous Get Smart TV movie The Nude Bomb.

The legend goes that she was discovered in a manner that, today, would inspire a 911 call. While walking to high school in Los Angeles, Fleming (then known as Marilyn Louis) noticed a black car following her. The man inside told her “you ought to be in pictures.” She ignored him, but he appeared at her home to offer representation. He ended up being Henry Wilson, who also spotted Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, John Saxon, and was instrumental in grooming Lana Turner. Through Wilson’s connections she was signed by David O. Selznick and, at age 19, played the part of the nymphomaniac in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Hollywood!

Fleming had six husbands during her 97 years, and is survived by a son, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.

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