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Rhonda Fleming Movies on TCM: Sultry Redhead’s Centenary

Rhonda FlemingRhonda Fleming: The redheaded 1950s actress is one of Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” performers.
  • TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” schedule – Aug. 10: Turner Classic Movies will be airing 13 titles featuring sultry redheaded actress Rhonda Fleming, best remembered for her color Westerns and adventure/historical dramas of the 1950s.
  • This Rhonda Fleming article includes a brief overview of five of her TCM films: The Big Circus, The Crowded Sky, Revolt of the Slaves, Out of the Past, and While the City Sleeps.

TCM’s ‘Summer Under the Stars’ schedule on Aug. 10: Turner Classic Movies celebrates the centenary of seductive redhead Rhonda Fleming

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” schedule – Aug. 10: Commemorating the centenary of actress Rhonda Fleming (born on Aug. 10, 1923, in Hollywood, California), who died at age 97 in October 2020, TCM will be presenting 13 titles featuring the ravishing redhead best remembered for her color A-/B+ (not quite A, not quite B) Westerns and adventure/historical dramas of the 1950s.

This marks the first time Fleming has been included in TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” series. Unfortunately, based on information TCM Director of Programming Stephanie Thames provided to the website Once Upon a Screen…, none of the movies are premieres. On the plus side, Serpent of the Nile, directed by future schlockmeister William Castle and starring a raven-haired Fleming as Cleopatra, apparently has been shown only once, back in 2009.

So, if you’ve missed Fleming as the Egyptian queen, 20th Century Fox leading man William Lundigan as (the ahistorical) Lucilius, Raymond Burr as Mark Antony, and future Catwoman Julie Newmar* looking like Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger while performing a “specialty” dance number, this may be your only chance (at least on TCM) until 2037.

Suggestion: If interested in checking out Fleming, Lundigan, et al., make sure to do so this time around. After all, there may not be a 2037 – not for TCM and, the way things are going, not for the planet itself.

Below is a brief overview of five Rhonda Fleming movies: The Big Circus, The Crowded Sky, Revolt of the Slaves, Out of the Past, and While the City Sleeps. (See TCM’s Rhonda Fleming “Summer Under the Stars” schedule further below. At least some of the films will remain available for a while on the Watch TCM app.)

* Julie Newmar is turning 90 on Aug. 16.

The Big Circus (1959)

Joseph M. Newman’s The Big Circus is a less stellar, less prestigious, and less satisfying attempt to replicate the success of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth – which, though a phenomenal box office hit and the Best Picture Academy Award winner of 1952, is no great shakes to begin with.

Rhonda Fleming plays the publicist hired to promote Victor Mature’s down-and-out circus show. At first the two don’t get along, but this is a Hollywood movie, so…

Apart from various melodramatic situations (who is the demented saboteur?) and David Nelson parading around in tights, The Big Circus’ big thrills come courtesy of 35-year movie veteran Gilbert Roland (Norma Talmadge’s leading man in the silents Camille and The Dove), who is coerced into walking on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. (Mature does the coercing, but the idea was Fleming’s.)

The Crowded Sky (1960)

Joseph Pevney’s The Crowded Sky has the distinction of having inspired both Airport 1975 and – along with Hall Bartlett’s* Zero Hour! – the 1980 spoof Airplane!.

Besides planes and calamities, all three titles have something else in common: Dana Andrews, the airline pilot in The Crowded Sky, the replacement pilot in Zero Hour!, and the twin-engine pilot in Airport 1975.

In The Crowded Sky, Rhonda Fleming is Navy jet pilot Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s neglected wife**, being required to spend her screen time exuding a mix of seductiveness and exasperation. And that she does to perfection – “I just love banana splits. Is it all the wonderful mixed-up flavors, or is it something Freudian?” – in what is supposed to be an unsympathetic role.

Now, keep in mind that no one has the right to cast stones at a woman who looks the way she does and whose husband is much too busy (flying hunky Troy Donahue cross-country) to provide her with the physical and emotional attention she craves.

As for The Crowded Sky itself, viewers will likely feel far more exasperated than seductive while watching it. Having said that, the climactic sequence is memorably disturbing – and that’s more than William A. Wellman’s hugely successful and multiple Oscar-nominated The High and the Mighty had to offer audiences back in 1954.

* Coincidentally, Hall Bartlett was Rhonda Fleming’s fourth husband (out of six).

** Efrem Zimbalist Jr. also shares a house – and a few scenes – with Rhonda Fleming in another movie in TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” lineup: Mervyn LeRoy’s solid psychological drama Home Before Dark. In this 1958 release, Zimbalist Jr. is a boarder while Fleming, getting star billing in a supporting role, is the glamorous stepsister of disturbed house owner (and Zimbalist Jr.’s romantic interest) Jean Simmons, who delivers a fantastic performance.

Revolt of the Slaves (1960)

A near-remake of Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, Nunzio Malasomma’s* Revolt of the Slaves / La rivolta degli schiavi** should also bring to mind Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, Henry Koster’s The Robe, and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.†

Even if you’ve never heard of it, this Italian-Spanish-German co-production is worth a look at least as a (cinematic) historical curiosity: For starters, it features Hollywood import§ Rhonda Fleming as a late-third-century patrician beauty abusing and then falling in love with virile Christian slave (and real-life husband) Lang Jeffries. Inevitably, religious conversion ensues.

In addition, the eclectic Revolt of the Slaves cast includes the capable Gino Cervi (Four Steps in the Clouds), soon-to-be Luis Buñuel star Fernando Rey (the “sacrilegiousViridiana came out in 1961), future French pop icon and provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, former Atlético Madrid footballer Antonio Casas, and peplum icon Ettore Manni (Ceopatra’s Daughter, Legions of the Nile) as the dishiest of all Christian saints.

As a (sort of) plus, Revolt of the Slaves can’t be any worse than Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. (Update: It’s actually far, far better than the far, far costlier Best Picture Oscar winner.)

Note: Although online sources state that Revolt of the Slaves is based on English Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman’s 1854 novel Fabiola or, the Church of the Catacombs, the actual credits read “original story and screenplay” by Duccio Tessari and Stefano Strucchi. According to the posters (but not on screen), Daniel Mainwaring (see Out of the Past below) was responsible for the (English-language) dialogue.

* Nunzio Malasomma’s film career, in both Italy and Germany, dates back to the 1920s (e.g., The King and the Girl, Fight for the Matterhorn).

** Revolt of the Slaves is the title seen on screen in the English-language version. Online sources generally refer to the film as The Revolt of the Slaves, likely because that’s the title found in some of the posters.

† The title of Malasomma’s movie is obviously supposed to bring to mind Spartacus, a big-budget Hollywood production released in late 1960. Kirk Douglas stars as the Thracian leader of a slave rebellion in the Roman Republic in the first century BCE.

§ Previously seen in Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia’s The Queen of Babylon (1954), Rhonda Fleming was one of a number of Hollywood performers – e.g., Jeanne Crain, Hedy Lamarr, Gloria Swanson, Stewart Granger, Ricardo Montalban – seen in Italian-produced or -co-produced historical and adventure dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

Rhonda Fleming Out of the Past Robert MitchumRhonda Fleming in Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum: Fleming looks undeniably seductive, but the actual female fatale in Jacques Tourneur’s labyrinthine 1947 film noir is Jane Greer.

Out of the Past (1947)

One of the most admired and most cryptic film noirs*, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past stars Jane Greer as one of cinema’s iconic femmes fatales – right alongside Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon), Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Joan Bennett (Scarlet Street), Rita Hayworth (The Lady from Shanghai), and Lizabeth Scott (Too Late for Tears).

About two years after her breakthrough role as an out-of-control nymphomaniac in Alfred Hitchcock’s blockbuster Spellbound, Rhonda Fleming has a more sedate supporting role in Out of the Past, playing the alluring secretary of crooked attorney Ken Niles.

Gone from the screen in 1948, Fleming would return in 1949 with her name above the title in Tay Garnett’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (one of TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” offerings), opposite Bing Crosby, and Alexander Hall’s The Great Lover, opposite Bob Hope.

Nearly four decades after Out of the Past came out, Jane Greer would be featured in Taylor Hackford’s less engrossing 1984 remake, Against All Odds, cast as the mother of seductress Rachel Ward (in Greer’s original role). Fleming should also have been cast as the mother of secretary Swoosie Kurtz, but no such luck.

On the upside, back in the mid-1980s visitors to Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, then under the ownership of Fleming’s fifth husband, Ted Mann, could stare agape at a giant-sized statue of the Serpent of the Nile and Queen of Babylon star in the theater lobby.

* The Out of the Past screenplay is credited to Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes), adapting his own 1946 novel Build My Gallows High – also written under his pen name and the movie’s eventual British title.

While the City Sleeps (1956)

The Crowded Sky star Dana Andrews headlines the big-name cast of Fritz Lang’s polished (if more than a tad sensational) journalism/crime drama While the City Sleeps, which mixes the hunt for a serial killer with various personal and professional intrigues at a news media company.

Andrews is at his most commanding as an old-time news anchorman on the trail of the murderer, while Rhonda Fleming is the unfaithful wife of feckless media heir Vincent Price (who also plays the ringmaster in The Big Circus).

The youthful, good-looking psycho is played by John Drew Barrymore, grandson of Maurice Barrymore, son of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello, and father of Drew Barrymore.

An aside: Also in 1956, Dana Andrews starred opposite Joan Fontaine in another Fritz Lang crime drama, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the veteran German filmmaker’s final American effort.

Another aside: While the City Sleeps has no connection to Jack Conway’s 1928 crime drama of the same name starring Lon Chaney.

Immediately below is TCM’s Rhonda Fleming movie schedule.

TCM’s ‘Summer Under the Stars’ schedule: Rhonda Fleming

Aug. 10, EDT

6:00 AM The Big Circus (1959)
1h 49m | Drama
Director: Joseph M. Newman.
Cast: Victor Mature, Red Buttons, Rhonda Fleming, Kathryn Grant, Vincent Price, Gilbert Roland, Peter Lorre, David Nelson, Adele Mara, Steve Allen.

8:00 AM The Crowded Sky (1960)
1h 45m | Drama
Director: Joseph Pevney.
Cast: Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, John Kerr, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Anne Francis, Keenan Wynn, Troy Donahue, Joe Mantell, Patsy Kelly, Donald May, Ed Kemmer, Tom Gilson, Jean Willes, Frieda Inescort, Nan Leslie, Ken Currie.

10:00 AM Revolt of the Slaves / La rivolta degli schiavi (1960)
1h 42m | Historical Drama
Director: Nunzio Malasomma.
Cast: Rhonda Fleming, Lang Jeffries, Darío Moreno, Ettore Manni, Wandisa Guida, Gino Cervi, Fernando Rey, Serge Gainsbourg, José Nieto, Benno Hoffmann, Rainer Penkert, Antonio Casas.

12:00 PM Alias Jesse James (1959)
1h 32m | Western
Director: Norman Z. McLeod.
Cast: Bob Hope, Rhonda Fleming, Wendell Corey, Gloria Talbott, Jim Davis, Will Wright.

1:45 PM Gun Glory (1957)
1h 28m | Western
Director: Roy Rowland.
Cast: Stewart Granger, Rhonda Fleming, Steve Rowland, Chill Wills, James Gregory, Jacques Aubuchon, Arch Johnson.

3:30 PM Home Before Dark (1958)
2h 17m | Drama
Director: Mervyn LeRoy.
Cast: Jean Simmons, Dan O’Herlihy, Rhonda Fleming, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Mabel Albertson, Stephen Dunne, Joan Weldon, Joanna Barnes, Kathryn Card, Marjorie Bennett.

6:00 PM Out of the Past (1947)
1h 37m | Suspense/Mystery
Director: Jacques Tourneur.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Dickie Moore.

8:00 PM While the City Sleeps (1956)
1h 39m | Crime
Director: Fritz Lang.
Cast: Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Sally Forrest, John Drew Barrymore, James Craig, Robert Warwick, Mae Marsh, Celia Lovsky.

10:00 PM The Killer Is Loose (1956)
1h 13m | Crime
Director: Budd Boetticher.
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Rhonda Fleming, Wendell Corey, Alan Hale Jr., Michael Pate.

11:30 PM A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)
1h 47m | Period Fantasy
Director: Tay Garnett.
Cast: Bing Crosby, Rhonda Fleming, Cedric Hardwicke, William Bendix, Murvyn Vye, Virginia Field, Henry Wilcoxon.

1:30 AM Serpent of the Nile (1953)
1h 21m | Historical Drama
Director: William Castle.
Cast: Rhonda Fleming, William Lundigan, Raymond Burr, Jean Byron, Michael Ansara, John Crawford, Julie Newmar.

3:00 AM The Golden Hawk (1952)
1h 23m | Adventure
Director: Sidney Salkow.
Cast: Rhonda Fleming, Sterling Hayden, Helena Carter, John Sutton.

4:30 AM Odongo (1956)
1h 25m | Adventure
Director: John Gilling.
Cast: Rhonda Fleming, Macdonald Carey, Juma.

“Rhonda Fleming Movies on TCM: Sultry Redhead’s Centenary” notes

Rhonda Fleming “Summer Under the Stars” schedule via Turner Classic Movies.

Robert Mitchum and Rhonda Fleming Out of the Past movie image: RKO Pictures.

“Rhonda Fleming Movies on TCM: Sultry Redhead’s Centenary” last updated in September 2023.

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